MINI is the most unlikely successful new brand in America. Why? Because the brand’s “tiny transportation” ethos is at odds with America’s “bigger is better” mantra. Of course, these contradictory philosophies explain why the modern MINI is nowhere near as mini as Minis used to be. Still with me? Hang on to your hats because the German owners of the iconic British brand have decided American domination hinges on making the biggest MINI yet. Enter the MINI Countryman. Or as I like to call it, the MINI Maxi.
The outside of the Countryman is full of firsts. It is the first MINI with 5 doors, the first MINI with available AWD, the first MINI longer than 13-feet. And the most dubious honor of all, the first MINI to weigh over 3,000lbs. To be exact, our Countryman S All4 weighed in at 3,220lbs. MINI fans will note this is 655lbs heavier than a two-door Cooper S. The MINI maximization makes the Countryman look like somebody was inflating a MINI balloon and forgot to say “when.” Your opinions will vary, but this overinflated MINI is quite attractive to my eye. From the perky round headlights to the signature hood scoop and the optional sport stripes, nobody will confuse the Countryman for anything-but a MINI.
A logical shopper would look at the Countryman and assume four doors equals five seats. Not so fast. Keeping with MINI tradition, the Countryman is a four passenger vehicle at heart, and on the lot. A quick search revealed that between the four local MINI dealers, only six of the 134 Countryman CUVs were equipped with the $250 fifth seat option. Availability aside, the middle seat should be thought of as an “emergency” seat due to the narrow proportions of the Countryman. Adding that fifth seat causes another unexpected problem: no rear cup holders. You see, the Countryman uses an interesting center “rail” system that normally stretches from the instrument panel to the rear seat backs. The rails allow you to snap-on various accessories like storage boxes, phone holders, sunglasses storage and most crucially; cup holders. Family minded shoppers should keep in mind that the rear door pockets won’t hold fast-food style sodas. In compensation for the rear amenities, the Countryman offers three times the cargo space of the Cooper with the seats up (16.5 cubic feet) and twice with the seats folded (41.3 cubic feet.)
As with all MINI models, a low rent headliner coexists with snazzy switches, rich leather upholstery, a thick rimmed steering wheel and an occasional smattering of hard plastics. Style rather than luxury is what MINI is all about, as is made most obvious by the ginormous “Disneyesque” speedometer/infotainment/HVAC vent cluster. Practical folks will find the switchgear positioned too low in the dashboard for comfort (it’s an eyes-on-the-road nightmare), but the look is undeniably swish and unlikely to bother the MINI faithful.
Frugal shoppers should skip this section as MINI infotainment price tags are far from mini. All Countryman models start with MINI’s AM/FM/XM/HD Radio/CD unit. Should you want some iDevice love and a Bluetooth speakerphone, add $500 to your tab. An additional $500 (or $250 if you planned to get the armrest anyway) gets you the MINI Connected system sans nav. MINI Connected is BMW’s iDrive (circa 2011) adapted to the smaller screen and MINImalist controls. As with BMW’s iPhone app, you can Tweet, Facebook, stream internet radio, Google, and view some extra “sport” themed instrumentation on the LCD.
MINI takes “the app thing” to a new level with “Dynamic Music” and “Mission Control.” Dynamic Music plays digitized, beat-heavy, music that changes as you drive. Speed up and the tempo increases while the system adds more instruments. Flip your turn signal on and cymbals start ringing out of the speaker on the side that you’re indicating. Mission Control plays canned phrases in stereotypical British accents in response to driver inputs. Floor the MINI and the system says “fulllll throttle!” Press the Sport button and several canned voices have a conversation about sporty driving. While it is entertaining for a day or two, I can’t imagine owners using this app daily.
Like a gateway drug, once you have MINI Connected, it’s hard to say no to the $750 nav up-sell. Once you have the nav, the $750 Harman/Kardon speakers aren’t a huge leap. After all that’s been added, your MINI sales rep will tell you “if you select the Technology Package you can add the parking sensors for half price” ($250.) Total up-sell: $2,750. “Ain’t technology grand?”
Under the hood you will fine the same engines as the rest of the MINI lineup. The base 1.6L engine is good for 121HP and 114lb-ft. As you would expect, pitting 121HP against 3,000lbs results in leisurely acceleration. Our tester was the “Cooper S” which means direct-injection and a turbocharger have been added to bring power up to 181HP and twist to 177lb-ft from 1,600-5,000RPM. MINI’s turbo engine employs an “overboost” feature to bump torque to 192lb-ft from 1,700-4,500RPM under certain conditions for a limited time. Either engine is mated to a standard 6-speed Getrag manual or an optional 6-speed Aisin automatic.
Once you’ve selected the option box for the turbo engine, you have access to the $1,700 Haldex AWD system dubbed “ALL4.” The system is essentially the same as other Haldex implementations and uses a wet clutch pack in place of a center differential. The clutch unlocks during low-speed maneuvers for better handling feel, locks completely during hard acceleration, and varies the connection depending on traction requirements. MINI tells us the system is programmed to keep the clutch pack connected more often than competing systems to improve feel.
MINI has confirmed that 2013 will bring some JCW love to the Countryman. The engine will be the same 1.6L direct-injection turbo as the S model, with the boost cranked to the maximum. MINI has yet to release power figures, but expect it to slot in around 220HP.
Expectations are important in drive reviews. If you expect the Countryman to drive like a regular MINI despite having AWD, seating for five and a large cargo area, you’ll be disappointed. When the road gets twisty, the Countryman responds exactly like an AWD MINI that’s been jacked up a couple of inches and gained 26% in weight. That being said, expecting the Countryman to handle like a Cooper means you’re missing the point. Compared to the premium CUVs on the market however, the MINI is small, nimble and tight in the corners bringing the classic MINI feel to a CUV. The ride height increase and greater suspension articulation make the Countryman lean in corners but the tradeoff is the ability to tackle some soft-roads when required.
The addition of the Haldex AWD system takes away the perverse pleasure I find in torque steer, but enthusiast drivers will appreciate the change. Enthusiast drivers will also appreciate the fact the ALL4 system makes the Countryman far more neutral than the other MINIs when applying throttle in the bends. Don’t get me wrong, this MINI is still nose-heavy and will head for the grass like a wild horse if you push it too hard, but I wonder what a JCW Cooper hatch with AWD would be like.
MINI has never been known to make fast cars, they make quick cars. As you would expect, 655lbs more car, an additional passenger and twice the cargo causes forward progress to fall from swift to average. A run to 60 took 6.89 seconds with overboost and 7.3 without, which is about the same range as a Camry… Hybrid. Ouch. If you have a need for more speed, MINI has announced that 2013 will bring a JCW Countryman that will hit 60 in a claimed 6.6 seconds, or 0.6 seconds slower than a V6 Camry.
When the Countryman arrived, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. As MINIs go, this thing is huge, but as crossovers go, it’s quite MINI. If you want a German vehicle with British styling, mild off-road prowess, four doors and four seats, this is the vehicle for you. It’s also the American-sized MINI destined to introduce the brand to a wider variety of shoppers. There are only two problems. The first is price. While the Countryman may start at $22,450, the S should be the real base model at $26,050. Why get the CUV if you don’t get AWD? We’re up to $27,750. Add the minimum in gadgetry and you’re over $30,000. With pricing like this, styling becomes the only reason to buy a MINI Countryman over BMW’s own internal competition: the BMW X1.
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MINI provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested:
0-30: 2.46 Seconds
0-60: 6.89 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.38 Seconds @ 88.8 MPH
Average fuel economy: 24.9 over 248 miles