FIRST DRIVE: Mini Countryman

FIRST DRIVE: Mini Countryman

What is it?

That oddest of all things: a Mini SUV.

When the first of BMW’s new Minis appeared it outraged a certain subset of Mini fans who raged over it actually being a sensible size instead of a tiny, cramped deathtrap.

“That’s not a Mini!” they cried in a spittle-soaked frenzy, “It’s far too big! Alec Issigonis would be spinning in his grave!”

Of course, that is forgetting two important things, firstly, these days a car has to be safe. Which means it can’t have doors as thin as tinfoil and a steering wheel that would happily cave your chest in if you hit the curb when parking.

And secondly, Alec Issigonis – the father of the Mini – was a fiercely pragmatic man and a supremely smart engineer who would have instantly understood why the new Mini could never have been as small as the original. And not cared in the slightest either, for he was a man that had no truck with frivolous things like sentiment and fun.

So imagine the outrage when BMW squeezed out a crossover/SUV Mini in the form of the Countryman…

Well, now there is a new one. And it is EVEN BIGGER than the old one! Let the spittle-flecked outrage flow…

How much does it cost?

New Zealand prices have yet to be determined, but a small increase is expected. This is not just because the new Countryman is larger, with more powerful engines and more standard equipment, but also because the Countryman will be the first Mini offered in New Zealand with an automatic transmission as standard.

It is expected the Cooper will be priced in the low-to-mid $40,000 mark, while the Cooper S will land somewhere in the low-to-mid $50s.

What is its opposition?

In-house, the Countryman’s biggest competition comes in the form of its platform-mate, the BMW X1, so that means the forthcoming Audi Q2 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA are in the same segment, albeit at a higher entry price.

Head down a bit lower and things like the Jeep Renegade, Skoda Yeti, Mazda CX-3 and Holden Trax come into play, but the Countryman’s new, bigger size also means it may well appeal to mid-size SUV owners (VW Tiguan, Mazda CX-5, etc) looking for something different, or Mini hatch and Clubman owners looking for something a bit bigger.

 

What powers it?

The Cooper gets the excellent little 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine that produces 100kW of power and 220Nm of torque, while the Cooper S is powered by a 2.0-litre 141kW/280Nm four-cylinder petrol turbo engine.

Later in the year we will also get the John Cooper Works version that is powered by a 170kW/350Nm version of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and the Cooper S E plug-in hybrid that shares its drivetrain with the BMW 225xe Active Tourer, meaning that it gets the 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine powering the front wheels, while an electric motor drives the rears.

Diesel variants are being considered for New Zealand, with nothing decided on at this stage.

What’s it got?

BMW NZ expect the Countryman to be a volume car for the brand in New Zealand, with the current car selling in broadly similar numbers as the three-door hatch, making them the two most popular Minis in New Zealand.

To this end, the Countryman will be relatively highly specified for the local market, with things like active safety systems and the power tailgate standard across the range.

Leather upholstery will be standard on the Cooper S, as will Comfort Access (that includes foot activation for the tailgate) and navigation.

What’s good about it?

BMW has added an extra 20cm in length to the new Countryman, with 7.5cm of that in the wheelbase, meaning that the rear legroom problem of the last Countryman is no longer a problem at all. In fact, several 6-foot plus individuals (including myself) sat in the back of the Cooper S All4 we drove on the launch with no complaints whatsoever.

As well as improving the interior space, the size increase has helped with the Countryman’s external appearance as well, with the extra length bring far better proportions to the small crossover, making it more like a tall Mini 5-door, albeit with a tougher, squarer edge to it.

Inside is a massive improvement, with much higher quality materials being used and a thoroughly fantastic driving position for taller drivers.

The engine is smooth and refined when treated gently and quickly becomes an angry, rorty little snarler – complete with waste gate chuffs and staccato machine gun rattles from the exhaust – when pushed harder. It is impressively frugal with it too.

While it is bigger and taller than the hatch, the new Countryman still manages to convincingly channel that chuckable amiability of its smaller sibling on a winding road. Nimble and responsive, the Countryman is far more reminiscent of the likes of a VW Golf than an actual SUV on the road.

What’s not so good?

While the Countryman is sharp and responsive on the road, this does come at a small cost, namely the ride. While not bad for a Mini, the firmer ride of they Countryman may put off some buyers coming from other brands small SUV/crossover. But that’s the “Mini spirit” for you.

While the new Countryman is far better proportioned than the old car and generally a good-looker, we could do without the grumpy grille and the unnecessary chrome rings around the headlights.

And don’t think for a minute that improved interior means that Mini has toned down the retro-gimmicky cheesiness, as it hasn’t. The large central circular screen that overstayed its welcome several generations of Mini ago still has pride of place, dominating the dash, while the stupid ignition switch is still there.

First impressions?

The new Countryman feels like a car that knows its purpose in life far better than the old one ever did.

The embiggening of the Countryman has freed up its ability to be more of a practical SUV/crossover than worrying about being a Mini for those who will never accept it as one anyway.

Usefully sized, with real, actual rear legroom, the new Countryman is everything the last one should have been, but was just a bit too scared to be.

Practical and surprisingly spacious inside, the Countryman is still fun to chuck around a winding road and actually somewhat capable off it – while the Countryman lacks anything in the way of a low ratio transmission or even electronic off-road modes, it is still more than capable of tackling the seriously muddy off-road track set up for us in the grounds of the historic Hedsor House, on the outskirts of London where the launch was held.

The track was nothing particularly challenging in a true off-roading sense, but a 2WD car certainly would not have got through it.

The huge amount of rain that had pummelled the Oxford area in the few days prior to our drive there had ensured the purpose built track (yep, that’s right, through the beautiful, immaculately maintained and deeply historic grounds of a stately house…) was deep and slushy enough to give the Mini’s AWD system a decent workout in places. You wouldn’t have wanted to go too much further off the beaten track than that, although for what the average Countryman buyer will use it for, it is more than capable enough.

While the Countryman will be the first Mini offered in New Zealand with only an automatic transmission (an excellent six-speeder) a small price increase is expected, although this will also be offset by more equipment as standard.

While we can never truly admit to being much of a fan of the old car, the new one has certainly won us over, at least in Cooper S All4 guise (the only variant available on the launch drive). We look forward to trying one on local roads and, particularly, with one of our current favourite engines – the brilliant little 1.5-litre three-cylinder in the Cooper!

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