2011 MINI Countryman S ALL4 Review [Video]

Yes you want to own it, but can you afford to?

2011 MINI Countryman S ALL4 Review [Video]
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It’s the first MINI Crossover. The first MINI with all-wheel drive and, arguably, it’s the first MINI with room for four people and a few grocery bags. What about the Clubman you say? OK, the Countryman is the first MINI with room for four people, grocery bags and is something you might actually want to own.

FAST FACTS

1. Over a foot longer and with an extra 5-inches between the wheels, the Countryman has room for four plus some actual cargo space.

2. Base models get a 121-hp 4-cylinder, while the Cooper S gets a turbo and 181-hp.

3. The Countryman is the first MINI to feature all-wheel drive, which is only available on the top-level Cooper S model.

4. Pricing starts at $21,650 with Cooper S models at $25,250 and the Cooper S All4 at $26,950.

Scratch that, the Countryman is something you’ll definitely want to own, once you drive it – and only if you opt for the top Cooper S model with its turbocharged 4-banger. Being naturally larger than the traditional hardtop MINIs, the Countryman is heavier too and adds about 400-lbs. Using the same engine found in the hatchback Cooper S, that translates to straight-line acceleration that’s definitely fun, but will never wow you with power.

TURBOCHARGED COOPER S MODEL A MUST

Making 181-hp and 177 lb-ft of torque it’s good for a 0-60 mph time of 7.7 seconds with all-wheel drive and the auto-box, which (sadly) our test car came with. Not that there’s anything wrong with this unit, it’s just that an AWD crossover with a stick shift ranks near the top of the auto journalist cool meter alongside high-powered wagons and stripped-down beaters. Opt for the Sport Package, keep the little sport button pressed and the more immediate throttle response and access to boost makes for a peppy machine.

Front drive models are a little quicker due to a curb weight that’s around 200 lbs lower, but the added weight is a small price to pay for extra traction, whether for poor weather driving, or finding some dirt roads to have some fun on. Called All4 the system defaults to front-wheel drive and only adds power to the rear when necessary. When slip is detected up to 50 percent of the engine’s torque is set to the rear wheels and in extreme circumstances all of the engine’s power will hit the back tires so you can drift the tail end – something that’s extremely fun on such a rigid package with the sort of tight steering that gives you confidence behind the wheel.

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From a fun-to-drive perspective, apart from being a little down in the acceleration category, the Countryman is an absolute hoot. Fuel economy doesn’t suffer much either, and for a crossover, especially one that’s this much fun, it’s impressive. Our All4-equipped model with the turbo is rated at 24/31-mpg, which is almost the lowest you’ll get. The down-on-power non-turbo Cooper model gets just 24/30-mpg with the auto-trans, a huge difference from the stick shift base model at 27/35-mpg.

FUN AND FUNCTIONAL

With the MINI-ness maintained, the Countryman also fulfills on its promise of being a vehicle that’s functional. While there are only four seats, this ensures all occupants have sufficient room with more than just adequate rear seat space. Next to the standard hardtop MINI it's over a foot longer and adds 5-inches between the wheels – something you really notice in the back seat.

At a minimum there’s 12.2 cu-ft of cargo room, which is enough for groceries for a family of four. If you’re looking for more room in the back, the seats can push forward 5.1-inches for a total of 16.5 cu-ft, but then rear-seat room is compromised. Total cargo room is rated at 41.2 cu-ft with the rear seats folded flat.

Even without the seats folded there’s space between them to slide longer items through. Unfortunately this can also mean you really get to hear loose items sliding around back there.

Access to the rear is through a large liftgate that opens at the top. For such a small car it opens quite high and even gives enough clearance for those in the six-foot range to walk underneath. It opens by pulling on the MINI logo on the rear but in keeping with the rest of MINI’s backwards ergonomics the handles to close it are awkward to reach.

TYPICALLY FRUSTRATING MINI ERGONOMICS

Inside the ergonomics nightmare continues with MINI’s trademark toggle switches. The latest annoyance we’ve noted is that when you’ve got a travel mug in the cup holder it blocks access to most of the lower controls, including the window controls. But proof that all hope it not lost, the rear seat window controls are actually in a normal location and operate as they should.

Included in our test car is the new $1,000 MINI Connected system, and we’ve gotten comfortable enough with it to discover yet another poor example of ergonomics; the little chrome joystick is slippery to touch and should probably be coated in some sort of high-grip rubbery material.

The system itself consists of a 6.5-inch screen in the middle of the center speedo and allows for relatively easy access to everything from vehicle info, the radio and your iPod or iPhone. You can sync up any phone through the Bluetooth but it’s designed to work with Mac products, and when you download a free app the system will allow access to thousands of radio stations through Web radio, and will even read Tweets to you!

Our test car also came with the $1,750 Premium Package that includes the nice panoramic sunroof, climate control and the upgraded Harmon Kardon audio system. We’re not sure how bad the regular sound system is, but it must be terrible, because this unit cuts power at even modest level when the bass hits too hard.

There are a few things we do like about the interior, like the push-button shifters on the steering wheel and the automatic transmission gear selector that looks like a little racer’s helmet. Everything else is familiar to anyone who’s seen a MINI before, with the exception of the new center rail that runs the length of the cabin. Designed to hold accessory items like additional cup holders, an iPod dock or a sunglasses case, it’s not a bad concept, but as we discovered, there’s not a lot of space up front and items like a glasses case can get in the way of the emergency brake. And speaking of the e-brake, it’s yet another example of funky design over functionality. It may have a cool toy truck look and feel to it, but it’s not easy to grab a hold of – although perhaps not everyone needs to pull WRC-style dirt-road drifts.

A refreshing change for MINI is the Countryman’s exterior. There’s no mistaking this new crossover shares its genes with the modern Cooper, and yet it’s significantly more modern looking and sheds the chick-car stigma.

THE VERDICT

Drive it and you will want to own it. But wanting to buy and buying isn’t always the same thing, particularly when you look at the price tag. Models start at a reasonable-sounding $21,650 although that’s for the base 121-hp engine, which is certain to leave you disappointed. Worse still, add on an automatic transmission for $1,250 and you’ve got a lethargic package with a Prius-like 10.9 second 0-60 time.

That being said, the Cooper S is a must, but starting from $25,250 plus almost $2,000 for AWD and you’ll understand why MINI calls itself a ‘premium’ brand. Comparatively speaking, the Nissan Juke costs thousands less. True, the interior isn’t as nice and it doesn’t have quite the urban hipster appeal, but when it comes to driving fun it’s an equal.

A functional little package, while it might not be the performance equal of the hardtop hatchback, the Countryman retains much of that car’s fun-to-drive character. This new segment is unique in that there’s a much greater focus on style and driving enjoyment than we’re used to in crossovers and the Countryman is a stand-out example of this. You don’t buy a Countryman because you need a crossover, you buy it because you want a MINI, but those other little models are just a bit too cramped for your lifestyle.

LOVE IT
  • True fun-to-drive MINI feel
  • Delivers on promise of passenger and cargo room
  • MINI style, minus the chick-car look
LEAVE IT
  • Expensive
  • Frustrating ergonomics

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