What is it?
BMW’s ‘big Mini’, the Countryman, was the car introduced seven years ago to lead the transformation of the firm from early-noughties-era-must-have-supermini to fully-fledged-brand-in-its-own-right. And that it hasn’t so far done that very well may be because it’s not immediately obvious exactly what it has added to the Mini range. By mixing too many vehicle types and relying too much on established notions of what a Mini is, rather than what it might be, the last Countryman ultimately failed to carve out a recognisable identity of its own. And, while it’s a bigger and better car in some ways, the new one fails in much the same way.
The Mini Countryman’s intended as a crossover, of course: that much you can tell from the angry stare of its angular headlamps and the various bits of SUV-apeing bodykit sprinkled about it. And yet it may be the least ‘crossed’ crossover you’re ever likely to come across. With dimensions a match for a normal family hatchback every which way but for a slightly raised ride height and roofline, the Countryman’s only slightly raised belt- and shoulderlines leave plenty of room to doubt whether it’s intended as Mini’s answer to an Audi Q2 or just a normal A3. And then you drive it – and the messages become even more confusing.
The Countryman’s engine range mirrors that of the Mini Clubman, starting with the 134bhp, three-cylinder turbo petrol Cooper; including the 148bhp diesel Cooper D at mid-level; and, for now, topping out with Cooper S and Cooper SD models with 187- and 189bhp respectively. A four-wheel drive plug-in hybrid model dubbed Cooper S E, with 221bhp of combined petrol and electric oomph, comes later this year. Behind that, a top-of-the-range 228bhp Countryman JCW will follow, also four-wheel drive – with Mini’s ‘ALL4’ clutch-based four-wheel drive system optional elsewhere in the range.
What’s it like?
One of Mini’s main aims was to create a more spacious, practical, comfortable, materially rich and mature-feeling interior than you get elsewhere in the model range. It has delivered in some, but not all, of those respects. The new Countryman is 200mm longer than the last one, with 75mm having gone into the wheelbase to the benefit of cabin length, and much of the rest into a bigger boot. The latter is now big enough, at 450 litres, so put a Nissan Qashqai to shame, and expandable via the standard sliding and folding 40:20:40 back-row seats.
There’s enough room in both rows of seats for proper adults, and plenty of headroom for taller occupants – although the car’s hallmark recumbent seating position and its thin seat cushions still make the cabin less comfy and convenient than is the crossover class norm.
Mini’s attempts to lift the Countryman’s cabin ambience to a more sophisticated level are also mixed. Cabin quality is impressive in places but the car’s plastics become quite hard and brittle at lower levels, while those illuminated dashboard and door trims don’t really add much.
To drive, the Countryman confounds your expectations of a modern crossover hatchback by its conformity to Mini’s own modern dynamic template. This is a firm-riding, direct handling, relatively highly strung prospect that feels less like any sort of jacked-up utility car and more like a typical hot hatchback. Mini’s chassis engineers may well consider this a roaring success, having translated the infamous ‘go-kart feel’ of its smaller models onto a taller car with a longish wheelbase. But if the intention was to broaden the dynamic reach of the firm’s model range here, the achievement’s quite plainly a lot less.
Even on optional-fit adaptive dampers, the Countryman handles anything other than millpond-smooth tarmac with a tiresome restlessness, suffering with plenty of headtoss, tramlining and bump-steer on quicker B-roads, and feeling wooden and unyielding on broken town roads. It steers very quickly and heavily; handles more coherently than the last Countryman on account of tighter body control and slightly improved steering feedback, but like so many of its siblings remains more compelling to drive when you’re just punting around than it is when you examine it at greater speed.
The Cooper S’ turbocharged engine feels quite strong and has useful accessible torque, but works better with the optional eight-speed automatic gearbox when driven at a relaxed pace than in manual mode when pressing on. Mini’s ALL4 driveline, meanwhile, comes up with all the traction that the car needs even in slippery conditions, but isn’t clever enough to augment the car’s fundamental handling poise on the road, which could certainly be better balanced.
Should I buy one?
Overall, things seem to have improved a little without changing a great deal for Countryman owners. This car’s main mission, curious as it may continue to appear outside of a Mini showroom, is to represent Cowley’s much-loved supermini at 150% scale; not to bring people into the Mini ownership orbit as much as to prevent them from leaving it.
But, while it may be exactly what a Mini owner wants from his next ‘family’ car, the Countryman’s not our idea of a great modern crossover hatchback; not, at least, on first acquaintance with a Cooper S model. Cheaper, simpler versions may better balance the ride comfort and ease-of-use desired of a crossover against the handling dynamism we all expect of a Mini – but even now it’s clear that the wait for a really good Mini crossover, designed with the freedom and vision that the increasingly important segment deserves, will go on.
Mini Countryman Cooper S ALL4 auto
Location High Wycombe, UK; On sale now; Price £28,025 Engine 4cyls in line, 1998cc, turbocharged petrol; Power 189bhp at 5000-6000rpm; Torque 207lb ft at 1350-4600rpm Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerbweight 1530kg; 0-62mph 7.2sec; Top speed 138mph; Economy 44.1mpg; CO2/tax band 150g/km, 29% Rivals: Audi Q2 1.4 TFSI Sport, Mercedes GLA 250 4MATIC Sport
What is it?