MINI (all caps required): the name itself inherently limits the brand. A large MINI would be oxymoronic. It would not be seen as a MINI. But most car buyers need something larger and more functional than the Cooper. And, while MINI might be less intent on world domination than VW, it would still like to grow. What to do, what to do? When word leaked that MINI was working on a crossover, the brand’s fans feared for the worst.
Apparently also fearful, MINI has moved very cautiously. First it dipped a toe in the water with the three-door half-measure known as the Cooper Clubman. Essentially a Cooper with three inches added to the wheelbase and five added to the rear overhang, the Clubman didn’t threaten to undermine the authenticity of the brand. But it also wasn’t much more functional than the regular Cooper. Even with a couple more inches of legroom the rear seat still only warranted a single half-sized rear-hinged door. Cargo volume expanded by about a third, but a third more than very little still isn’t much.
To significantly expand its reach, MINI needed a vehicle in which four adults could travel comfortably. One implication: four real doors. How large could this vehicle be, and still remain authentically a MINI? The trick, lifted straight from the mind of Navin Johnson: don’t just make it 16 inches longer (for a total of 161.7) and four inches wider (for a total of 70.4); also make it a half-foot taller while keeping the styling as close as possible to the original. This both fools the eye by maintaining the Cooper’s iconic proportions and enlarges the interior. A 61.5-inch height puts the resulting Cooper Countryman into crossover territory, in which case you might as well also offer all-wheel-drive. All three dimensions are within an inch of the Nissan JUKE’s. So while the Countryman might be considerably larger than a Cooper, and it might be a crossover, it’s still dwarfed by even the average “compact” ute. A BMW X3, not exactly known for its size, is 21 inches longer, four inches wider, and four inches taller.
A digression on nameplates: it’s time to drop the “Cooper” from all models save the two-door. It was confusing when Chrysler tagged everything a “LeBaron.” It was confusing when Oldsmobile tagged everything a “Cutlass.” And it’s confusing when MINI does the same with “Cooper.” (It’s also confusing when the same basic car is given many different names, as VW is wont to do, but that’s for another review.) The Clubman was little more than an additional body style, so “Cooper Clubman” was okay, but the Countryman is an entirely different car. People are going to call it a “Countryman” anyway, so why not make it official? When I say “Cooper” in this review, I mean the two-door.
Back to the car. The Countryman loses some cuteness and gains some ruggedness, but the differences are a matter of degree and the car won’t be mistaken for anything but a MINI. Same goes for the interior, which strongly resembles that in the Cooper, just larger.
In keeping with the brand, the center console includes a speedometer so ridiculously oversized that it can’t be read at a glance (best rely on the digital speedometer tucked into the conventionally located tach) and a low-mounted row of toggle switches that similarly prioritizes form over function. Also the same prevalence of hard plastic trim that looks a bit cheap given the prices MINI charges. Would premium materials be un-MINI?
The driving position is different. The Countryman being a crossover, you perch considerably higher than in the other Coopers. Though the windshield is, in the MINI fashion, distant and upright and the beltline is fairly high, visibility is good in all directions. The sport seats standard on the S are firm but comfortable. Their sizable bolsters aren’t just there to look sporty; they fit snugly and don’t give ground in turns. With no power seat adjustments and just a single manual height adjustment, the tilt of the cushion is not adjustable. A dual adjustment used to be standard in cars as lowly as the Hyundai Accent, but it can’t be found in a crossover costing three times as much today.
The Countryman’s back seat is split in two by a pair of rails, to which an optional armrest can be affixed (and which otherwise serves no obvious purpose). This means there’s no spot for a third person, but the cabin is too narrow for three across anyway. The specs suggest that there’s hardly more legroom than in a Clubman (up 1.5 inches in back, but down an inch in front), and so still 3-4 inches short of the typical compact crossover. Subjectively, though, the rear seat in the Countryman is much more comfortable than that in the Clubman and roomier than that in the JUKE. The higher seating position, which provides much better thigh support, helps a lot. Additional perks: the Countryman’s second row slides and reclines.
Cargo volume behind the second row, 12.2 cubic feet, is more than double that in the Cooper. Folding the second row increases the volume to 41.3 cubic feet, vs. 24.0 in the Cooper and 32.8 in the Clubman. Though still well short of the typical compact crossover (X3: 19.4, 56.5), the Countryman easily outdoes the JUKE (8.9, 29.3). Runs to CostCo shouldn’t pose a problem unless one finally falls for that 65-inch LCD.
The Countryman is about 200 pounds heavier than the Clubman and about 400 heavier than the Cooper. In base form it nudges under the 3,000 mark. Add a turbocharger, an automatic, and all-wheel-drive, as in the tested Cooper S Countryman ALL4, and curb weight increases to a not-so-MINI 3,252 pounds—about 200 more than the similarly dimensioned JUKE. To motivate these extra pounds the Countryman employs…the exact same engines as the other MINIs. So the 121-horsepower naturally-aspirated 1.6-liter four has its work cut out for it, especially if teamed with the six-speed manually-shiftable automatic. The sixty horsepower added by the S’s turbo are most certainly welcome. Even with them the Countryman isn’t a rocket, but acceleration is easily adequate. For best results, get the manual transmission. Turbo lag is minimal and, perhaps thanks to the all-wheel-drive, torque steer is absent.
Fuel economy, according to the EPA: 23 city, 30 highway. Though not exactly stellar, the lighter JUKE does only a bit better (25/30) and the slower Suzuki SX4 doesn’t do quite as well (23/29). If you want much better numbers you’re going to have to give up all-wheel-drive.
All-wheel-drive can deaden a car’s handling, but not this time. Instead, the system adds one entertaining feature that’s new to the brand: throttle-induced oversteer. Not much of it, but enough to have some fun, especially on slick surfaces, and it’s easily controllable. The interior bits might not all be the hardiest, but the body itself feels rock solid when chucking the car through tight turns. Especially with the standard suspension there’s more body lean than in the lower Cooper, but not too much, and certainly no slop. The steering is quick (if still far from go kart quick—banish that analogy) and, if not chatty, much more direct than the system in the JUKE. Hitting a “sport” button bumps up the steering effort, but the resulting feel is more artificial.
Put it all together, and this small crossover has the taut but lively character of a MINI, just with a higher seating position and a little less agility. The Countryman is one of those cars that can be precisely positioned with a minimum of thought. You point, it goes. The brand’s character hasn’t been sacrificed in pursuit of a livable back seat.
Also surprisingly livable, given the brand’s past: the Countryman’s ride quality (at least with the standard suspension). The taller body likely permits more suspension travel. Though still no Lexus, the Countryman generally opts to absorb bumps rather than pound them (and you) into submission.
So, what’s not to like? This being a European car, it would be the price. To its credit, MINI has priced the Countryman only $550 higher than the Clubman, all of which can be accounted for in extra features such as power rear windows and reclining rear seats. The starting price of $22,350 seems reasonable, but the options are plentiful and quickly add up. The tested vehicle checked in at $33,500 despite being modestly optioned (heated leatherette seats, panoramic sunroof, xenons, H/K audio, Bluetooth). Checking all of the boxes would add another $5,000, and you still wouldn’t have a power driver’s seat or an upscale interior. You can save $1,250 by opting for a clutch, but there’s not a lot of fat otherwise in the tested vehicle’s $33,500 sticker.
Check the same boxes on a Nissan JUKE, and the total comes to only $25,300. And this number includes leather, nav, and keyless ignition. Add these features to the MINI, and the sticker swells to $35,650. In its defense, the MINI does include many features not even available on the Nissan, most notably a two-panel panoramic sunroof. Adjust for these using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the difference shrinks to a mere $7,700.
Compared to European alternatives, the Countryman’s price seems much more reasonable. Similarly configure a larger but much less stylish Volkwagen Tiguan, then adjust for remaining feature differences, and it can run up to a grand higher than the MINI. Any other Euro ute costs far more.
Also quite possibly not to like: reliability, or a lack thereof. MINIs don’t have a good reputation here…but they might be getting better. Based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, the current Cooper is worse than average with its first model year (2008) but not too far from the average with newer cars. How will the Countryman, an all-new model, fare? Time will tell.
The Countryman is no MINI Cayenne. With it, the look and feel of a MINI has been successfully transferred to a four-door, four-passenger, optionally all-wheel-drive vehicle. If you want a MINI, but need to fit four reasonably-sized adults and a couple of bags into it, this is your car. Just be aware that it is a European car, with a sticker to match.
Brad Paris of Motor City MINI provided the car. He can be reached at 248-997-7700. TTAC HQ declined the expenses for a car wash. Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data.