By its very name, the Mini brand is limited in what type of vehicles it can produce. After releasing the Mini Cooper hardtop in 2002 and the convertible for 2005, BMW's sub-brand was obviously a bona fide success. With a thriving brand comes more product, so the slightly larger Mini Cooper Clubman followed in 2008. For 2011, Mini is releasing its biggest vehicle yet and its first with all-wheel drive, the Countryman.
But should Mini really go bigger? Wouldn't larger dimensions detract from the "gokart" handling that has become the hallmark of the brand? We found out with a test drive of the forthcoming Countryman in and around Hamburg, Germany.
Bigger, but not big
The 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is the reborn brand's first four-door vehicle, riding on unique architecture. The 102.2-inch wheelbase is 5.1 inches longer than the hardtop's. Overall length is up by 14.7 inches versus the hardtop and 5.5 inches compared to the Clubman. The Countryman is also four inches wider than those vehicles, sits six inches higher than the hardtop, and has 1.2 inches more ground clearance, creating what Mini calls a "semi-command" seating position.
Clearly, the Countryman is a different animal, but the product lineup is similar to other Minis. It starts with the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman base model, and extends to the S and all-wheel-drive S ALL4. All models get updated versions of the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines powering current Minis, and the improved engines roll out to the Cooper and Clubman lineups for the 2011 model year. The base engine makes 121 horsepower, up from 118, and 118 pound-feet of torque, up from 114. The turbocharged version in S models gains 12 horsepower to 184 and torque peaks at 192 pound-feet in overboost mode, which is up by 15 pound-feet. Like other Minis, both engines come with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
The Countryman isn't scheduled to go on sale until January, so standard equipment has yet to be announced. However, features should closely match those of the hardtop and Clubman, including the S model's sport seats and fog lights. According to a Mini official, pricing should come in between the Clubman and convertible, which would put it in the $23,000 to $31,000 range, depending on trim. Like other Minis, the Countryman will also be highly customizable, with over 100 factory options and 200 dealer-installed accessories.
Testing the turbo
Mini made only turbocharged S ALL4 models available for testing and all had the manual transmission. The Countryman weighs about 240 pounds more than a Mini Cooper hardtop and the all-wheel drive system tacks on another 150 pounds, but the turbocharged engine gets the S ALL4 model underway easily, without a whiff of turbo lag. Power comes on strongest over 2800 rpm, and passing is easy as long as you have the revs up. The AWD layout prevents torque steer under hard acceleration, but it is a minor issue with the other models and we suspect it is still evident in front-drive versions of the Countryman. Mini says zero-to-60 mph takes 7.6 seconds in a front-drive S model and 7.9 seconds in the S ALL4. Those numbers would indicate a peppy car that isn't particularly quick, and that's exactly how the Countryman S ALL4 feels.
Mini's manual transmission is a joy. It is easy to find the gears, though the shifter has a slightly rubbery feel. Clutch takeup, however, can be abrupt, which can cause drivers to stall when taking off. European versions have a slick start/stop feature that works well. Unfortunately, the U.S. EPA cycle doesn't recognize the gas savings of this system, so we won't get it.
The 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman's added size, weight and ride height give it a different driving character than its siblings, but the Countryman really isn't that big. At 161.3 inches long, it's about the same length as a Honda Fit or Kia Soul, placing it in the realm of subcompacts. Much of the Mini sprightliness is still there, but the Countryman leans more in turns with more tire squeal when it's pushed through sharp corners.
Driving the car on scenic German roads outside of Hamburg, dashing from one quaint hamlet to the next, we found the Countryman still very nimble. After the initial lean, it takes a nice set in turns and tracks through predictably. The steering is wonderful: quick, direct, and practically telepathic. It is weighted slightly lighter than in other Minis, but you can get some of that weight back by pressing the S models' Sport button. It firms up the steering, and also increases throttle response and holds gears longer in automatic transmission models. All in all, we wouldn't characterize the Countryman's cornering acumen as gokart-like, but it's still quite fun to drive.
ALL4 northern climates?
Mini had us do some "off-roading" during the test drive, but it amounted to negotiating campground dirt roads. The S ALL4 features an electromagnetic center differential. Mini says that under normal driving conditions, the system sends slightly less than 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. If slip is detected, up to 100 percent of the power can go to the axle with grip. The system also begins sending more power to the front wheels at 75 mph and ramps up to 100 percent of the power to the front at 87 mph when rear-drive won't help. Despite the taller ride height, ALL4 is meant more for slick road security than off-road prowess.
More Mini, more comfort
The 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is also the most comfortable Mini. The taller ride height gives it more suspension travel, which translates to a smoother ride. Passengers aren't jostled by every road imperfection like they are in other Minis, and only sharp bumps intrude on comfort. Even the occasional cobblestone street proved easy for the suspension to handle.
Inside, the Countryman is far roomier than its siblings. Front seat occupants sit on supportive bucket seats and enjoy plenty of head and legroom, but that's true of any Mini. The Countryman excels for rear seat room and cargo space. Thanks to the extra space and rear seats that slide fore and aft up to 5.1 inches, two adult passengers can fit in back, though the standard rear buckets lack the support needed for long-trip comfort. Instead of a center seat, the Countryman has a one- or two-piece rail system that can hold cupholders, MP3 player stands or a variety of accessories. Given the lack of seating support, we wish the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman offered a center armrest.
The rear seats fold almost flat to open up 40 cubic feet of cargo space, eight more than in the Clubman and about the same as a Mazda3 hatchback. The rear load floor folds up to reveal a small well, but the load floor isn't even because of the split between the rear seats.
Up front, the driver is faced with the typical Mini dashboard, with its large central speedometer and curious ergonomics. The radio, navigation, window, and door controls are all placed in groups on the center stack. The layout takes some getting used to, but it's functional once you know where everything is.
New for 2011 is Mini Connected, an infotainment system exclusively for customers' iPhones. It provides an iPhone dock in the center console, and displays internet radio, local Google search, Twitter access, and RSS feeds on the center screen. Drivers use the dashboard touchscreen to control these features and listen to any of the more than 25,000 internet radio stations. We like the way the system works, and found it cool to listen to local radio stations thousands of miles from home, but it's limited to iPhones and reception is subject to the whims of your AT&T signal.
Your main Mini?
So, in the final analysis, is bigger better? Well, that depends upon your perspective. If you're a single driver who enjoys the Mini Cooper hardtop's amazing dynamic character, the Countryman won't be quite as satisfying. But if you want a more comfortable car, need to carry people and cargo fairly often, and still want to drive a fun, sporty car, the Countryman fits the bill.