By Christopher A. Sawyer
Let’s get something out of the way right now: Despite what has been said by Mini and others, the Countryman is not a crossover as that term is currently understood. Yes, it has room for four adults (five if you order the three-across rear seat), more carrying capacity in the rear, available all-wheel-drive, and it sits taller and has a higher seating position than the standard Mini. It’s also good for the school run, capable in sloppy weather, and would be perfect for that trip to the ski resort.
What the Countryman isn’t is: ponderous, tippy, skittish, gigantic, overly tall, truck-like, slow, uninvolving, uncoordinated or non-descript. It handles like a Mini (despite its greater height and boxier body), accelerates like a Mini (the turbocharged Cooper S Countryman goes from 0 to 60 mph in a claimed 7.3 seconds and tops out at 128 mph), stops like a Mini (no nose-down, tail-up antic from this one, it always feels planted), and it has the dynamic cohesiveness of a Mini. So if the Countryman is a crossover, it redefines the meaning of that word.
If the Mini Hardtop (the vehicle everyone thinks of when they hear the name “Mini”) lacks anything, it’s space. The rear seats are near-useless, but the carrying capacity is surprisingly accommodating if you fold down the rear seat. Carrying people and things is not what the Mini Hardtop is all about.
The Countryman takes care of that problem. It is taller, boxier, and has a higher seating position. You sit more upright without being uncomfortable, and the field of view is greatly by a C-pillar that is more glass than metal. The cargo area isn’t enormous, but it is regularly shaped. With the rear seat up there’s 16.5 cu. ft. of space, 41.3 cu. ft. with the seat back folded. Shell out an additional $250 for the flat load floor option, however, and a secondary load floor (located on top of the main load floor, and turning that into an now underfloor storage space) can be raised to create a vertical wall to separate the cargo area from the passenger area below the height of the rear seats. Unfortunately, the pouch containing the jack — there is no spare as, like all Minis, the Countryman has run-flat tires — takes up about a quarter of the available space. (Without the flat floor option, it’s right out in the open and in the way.) The real question isn’t whether you need it or not, but why it is an option in the first place.
If you’re starting to get the idea that this Mini can be a bit expensive if you don’t pay attention when ticking off boxes on the order sheet, and that it has a few idiosyncrasies, pat yourself on the back. There are so many combinations, no two Minis have to be the same. However, if you go wild ordering packages and stand-alone items, you’ll drive the sticker price to the stratosphere. On the Mini site I steered clear of the John Cooper Works articles, accessories, and automatic transmission while clicking every other option (always choosing the higher priced alternative when there was a choice), and the list price was an eye-watering $40,800. That’s $13,050 above the $27,750 base price. No wonder Mini’s parent company, BMW, is doing so well financially.
Perhaps some of this is an attempt to recoup the costs associated with creating the Mini’s dynamic capabilities. By this I do not mean how fast it goes, stops and turns, but how well it does each of these things and how integrated the car feels. This is where the Countryman shines, and it took time and effort to get there.
Take, for example, the clutch, brake and throttle pedals, and the gear lever. All have an interconnected feel. The weighting and heft of one mimics that of the others, and determines how cohesive their use will be. It won’t take long — if you forget the ridiculous Sport button that gives quicker throttle and steering response — to realize that the interrelationship between these controls was honed over many thousands of miles and many hours of work. Press one pedal and you will know intuitively just how much effort it will take to depress the others, when the clutch will begin to bite and how aggressively, and how much throttle it will take to smoothly move from gear to gear. Topped by a fat chrome-trimmed leather ball, the gear lever itself slots into each position with authority. It has none of the slop, imprecise notchiness or noise you get from so many small vehicles with manual gearboxes these days. The feedback tells you the engineers who developed this car did not see this task as a job, a chore, a necessity. They viewed it as a duty, a responsibility, and an opportunity to deliver a superior experience.
The same is true of the steering, which has a very linear feel from straight-ahead to full-lock. It may not be the most communicative steering ever put on a car, but it’s damn nice and helped by a satisfyingly thick-rimmed steering wheel covered in supple leather. I know, this may sound funny to some, almost orgasmic to others, but there is much more to the equation than how a car responds to its inputs. The driver must be able to discern from the efforts he is expending what to expect from the vehicle. And how crisply, cleanly and clearly these messages are given and received determines just how much you like driving a vehicle. As you might have guessed, I liked driving the Countryman ALL4 a lot, despite the noise and extreme firmness of the run-flat tires;. Especially as they could get L-O-U-D over uneven and coarse surfaces, and initiate rattles within the interior. Also, they made the ride bumpy, but stopped just short of being overly harsh.
What I didn’t like was the styling, inside or out. Ever since the Frank Stephenson Mini Hardtop (2001 to 2007) was modified to meet Europe’s pedestrian safety standards (they run over a lot of people in those crowded European cities), the Mini has lost some of its charm, style and mischievousness. With the Countryman, the Mini form is overlaid by big bumpers, an imposing face, and a roof that tries desperately to bridge the gap between the Hardtop and the Coupe. It is a contrived toughness that, from the front three-quarter view, looks like an open-mouthed fish with a serious underbite, and makes one wish that Frank Stephenson could have been pried from McLaren just long enough to smooth out the rough edges.
Inside, the design borders on parody, with a large dinner-plate sized speedometer front-and-center. The parody comes not only from its size, but the fact that the air vents to either side look like ears and make the whole seem to be a caricature of Mickey Mouse dropped into the center stack. Of course, this section is so large because it has to house the 6.5-in. navigation screen, and — as if to prove the designers have taken the Mini styling heritage too literally — still provide room for a center speedometer no one but the passengers can read. (The driver has a digital speed readout in the tachometer that sits directly behind the steering wheel.)
Ingress and egress are easy, you just slide across into the seat. Room is cavernous compared to the Hardtop, and you can carry a reasonable amount of cargo while also carrying life-sized passengers in the rear seat. Fold the seats down, and the Countryman will swallow everything you might buy at a subdivision-wide garage sale. Unfortunately, the test vehicle came with the no-charge three-across rear seats, making the Countryman a five-passenger vehicle. I say “unfortunately” because the thought of a Countryman with four bucket seats is intriguing, as are the extruded aluminum rails that run down the center of the interior. (To them you clip a number of accessories, like sunglass holders, you can order from your dealer.) Four seats also is more in keeping with the Mini sporting ethos, though I suppose practicality must yield to purity in cases like this. Particularly when the Countryman will be used as an everyday load and people hauler.
TVD verdict: 4.75 out of 5
The Countryman is an absolute riot to drive and proof that the folks at BMW haven’t destroyed the dynamics and fun of the Hardtop as it fills more niches while it expands the Mini family. The styling is subjective — I’m not a fan — but the Countryman’s biggest problem is the same as that found in all Minis, the tires and suspension. Run-flat tires support getting the maximum use from the minimum space by eliminating the spare, but their ultra-stiff sidewalls, aggressive tread design and the suspension’s inability to dampen their noise and harshness without affecting the Countryman’s dynamic purity can make this a noisy, rough ride. Nevertheless, the Countryman left me smiling, if a little hard-of-hearing.
2012 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4
Options: Cold Weather Package (power folding mirrors, heated mirrors and washer jets, heated front seats), $750; Premium Package (anti-theft alarm system, Comfort Access key entry, Chrome Line interior, auto-dimming rearview mirror, automatic climate control), $1,750; Sport Package (Jet Black Double Spoke 18-in, alloy wheels, xenon headlights, white turn signals), $1,500; Mini Connected with Navigation (voice-command, Mini Connected, Comfort Bluetooth and USB/iPod, Mini navigation system), $1,750; black headlight housings, $100; dual-pane panoramic sunroof, $1,000; center armrest, $250; flat load floor, $250.
Destination charge: $700
Price as tested: $35,100
Engine: Transverse 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder with twin-scroll turbocharger and intercooler. Aluminum block and heads. Dual over head cams with variable valve timing, and four valves per cylinder.
Horsepower: 181 @ 5500
Torque: 177 @ 1,600 – 5,000
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
EPA mileage rating: 25 city/31 highway/28 combined.
Steering, Suspension and Brakes
Steering: Electric power rack and pinion.
Suspension F/R: MacPherson struts./Independent multi-link with alloy longitudinal suspension arms.
Brakes F/R: 12.1-in vented discs/11.0-in solid discs. ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, stability control, traction control and brake assist.
Dimensions (in inches)
Width: 78.6 w/mirrors
Fuel capacity (gallons): 12.4
Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 16.5 (seats up), 41.4 (seats down).
Powertrain: 4 years/50,000 miles.
Vehicle: 4 years/50,000 miles.
Corrosion: 12 years/Unlimited.
Free scheduled maintenance: 3 years/36,000 miles with option for 6 years/100,000 miles.
Roadside Assistance: 24-hour roadside assistance for 4 years/Unlimited.