Review: MINI Countryman

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
review mini countryman

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.

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3 of 104 comments
  • Jrny Jrny on Apr 30, 2011

    I've had a Cooper since 2005 and love it, feel like I got a high performance sports car for not much money, get excited each time I get behind the wheel and have a hard time thinking about my next car purchase that would be as fun and provide as much satisfaction for my money. As someone stated above, I get questions to this day about my car. People are interested in it. I'm still interested in it. One problem has been not so great in snow, esp. with recent winters. Cue the AWD and bigger interior of the Countryman. I thought great, just what I needed and at the right time too, I don't like keeping cars longer than five or six years. I don't want to buy a first year model, however, and any review I've read fails to mention handling in snow. Would appreciate hearing user experience in that regard. A bit surprised about all the negatives about Mini, may not be the most expensive interiors, who really cares about naming conventions, and it sounds like people's entire buying decision is based upon speedometers and power seats. You buy a Mini for agility, pep and motoring fun. It's also great how far one can drive between visits to gas stations.

    • Michael Karesh Michael Karesh on Apr 30, 2011

      I thought it handled very well in the snow. With winter tires it'd do even better.

  • JRJenks JRJenks on May 15, 2011

    Test drove one. Opinions/views as follows: I'm big. It's a MINI. A bigger MINI, but a MINI. Plenty of room, front and back, but just for four, not five. Need to haul five? Fine, look elsewhere. Interior was sorta gimmicky and the materials used and overall presentation were anywhere from adequate to outright cheap. Plastic ring around central speedo is tacky to the extreme. My 1988 Daihatsu Charade was just as good. Speed and handling were quite nice, and if one considers the elevated ride height and AWD, enjoyable. Tossable, responsive, fun. One problem was the clutch (I drove the 6-speed, one of the few on the lot). As noted by others elsewhere, odd take-up (too quick? too slow? too much travel before? dunno, but odd and difficult - or maladjusted). I have driven over 1.3 million miles so far, virtually all using manuals, and this MINI's clutch was just plain strange. Salesperson was clever enough to say "Sir, didn't you say you've driven a stick before?" Why, yes I did, and yes I have, and yes, the clutch on this car bites, (and you just lost a sale). Also might add: This unit had no Nav, and when I inquired, the salesperson said "With nav, I figure you can get a MINI like this for $36-37,000." OK. Cue mental wheels turning ... $37K? For a MINI Countryman AWD? Even with negotiating a lower price (on a car that is a new model for MINI and pretty hot in the market), it just doesn't make sense for me. Moving on to other options.

  • 3SpeedAutomatic I drove a rental Renegade a few years back. Felt the engine (TIgerShark) was ready was ready to pop out from under the hood. Very crude!! Sole purpose was CAFE offsets. Also drove a V6 Cherokee which was very nice and currently out of production. Should be able to scoop up one at a fair deal.🚗🚗🚗
  • Inside Looking Out This is actually the answer to the question I asked not that long ago.
  • Inside Looking Out Regarding "narrow windows" - the trend is that windows will eventually be replaced by big OLED screens displaying some exotic place or may even other planet.
  • Robert I have had 4th gen 1996 model for many years and enjoy driving as much now as when I first purchased it - has 190 hp variant with just the right amount of power for most all driving situations!
  • ToolGuy Meanwhile in Germany...