The reborn Mini brand made its debut in 2002 with the two-door Mini Cooper hardtop. A two-door convertible followed in 2004 and the Clubman arrived in 2008, sporting a passenger-side second-row access door. Now the Countryman is set to hit U.S. streets in early 2011 with two full-size rear doors, a slightly elevated “semi-command” seating position, and available all-wheel drive. Bigger and more useful than other Minis, the Countryman could appeal to more consumers. But will making it bigger take away from the “go-kart” handling that has made Mini so successful? Is bigger too big? Let’s examine the Countryman and see if Mini got it right by going bigger.
Photos courtesy of MINI.
#10. It’s bigger, but not big.
At 161.3 inches long, the 2011 MINI Cooper Countryman is 14.7 inches longer than the Mini Cooper hardtop and 5.5 inches longer than the three-door Clubman. It’s also about four inches wider than those vehicles, it sits six inches higher than the hardtop, and ground clearance is up by 1.2 inches. With those larger dimensions, some may think the Countryman is meant to compete against small suvs. That’s not the case. It’s much smaller, about the length of subcompact hatchbacks like the Honda Fit and Kia Soul. So, while the Countryman is bigger, it’s really not that big.
#9. It’s the first modern Mini with four doors and all-wheel drive.
The 2011 MINI Cooper Countryman is offered in three models: base, S and the all-wheel-drive S ALL4. Mini’s new all-wheel-drive system uses an electromagnetic center differential. Under normal driving conditions, it sends slightly less than 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. If slip is detected front or rear, 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. The base and S models have front-wheel drive.
#8. It has no direct competition.
Even more than other Minis, the Countryman is in a class by itself. It has a slightly raised seating position, but is much smaller and more fun to drive than a compact SUV. It is sized like a subcompact hatchback, but it costs considerably more. Mini says its core competitors will include the Kia Soul, Scion xD and xB, and Toyota Matrix, and it should also grab sales from the likes of the Honda CR-V, Audi A3, Nissan Juke, and Volkswagen Golf. But none of those vehicles offers the same feature set as the Countryman. We see it as a step-up model for current Mini owners who need more room to haul people and cargo. It may also take customers from the hardtop and Clubman, but given its greater utility, it could become the brand’s best seller.
#7. It gets the new generation of Mini engines.
Mini’s two 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines are updated in the 2011 Countryman. The base engine improves from 118 horsepower and 114 lb.-ft. of torque to 121 horses and 118 lb.-ft. of torque. The turbocharged version in the S models makes 184 horsepower, up 12 from last year, and 177 lb.-ft. of torque. An overboost mode ratchets torque up to 192 lb.-ft. for a few seconds during hard acceleration. Both engines are mated to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Mini says the base engine can launch the car from 0 to 62 mph in 10.5 seconds, while the turbocharged engine cuts that time to 7.6 seconds.
Mini made only turbocharged S ALL4 models available for testing and all had the manual transmission. The turbocharged engine pulls nicely from a stop, with no noticeable turbo lag. A stab of the throttle at freeway speeds also makes passing fairly easy. The all-wheel-drive system prevents torque steer (the steering wheel pulling to one side during hard acceleration), but we suspect it is still evident and slightly annoying in front-drive models.
It’s definitely entertaining to churn through the gears with the six-speed manual. It shifts easily, though with a somewhat rubbery feel. Clutch take-up is also somewhat abrupt, which can cause those unfamiliar with the car to stall it at a stop.
#6. It has plenty of room for four adult passengers, plus some cargo.
Like other Minis, the Countryman has plenty of head and leg room up front, with sporty, supportive bucket seats. The rear seating row, however, is far more useful. A six-foot adult can fit behind another six-foot adult thanks to second-row buckets that slide fore and aft. Those seats have far less side bolstering than the fronts, so they aren’t nearly as comfortable and passengers will lean and slide around in sharp turns. Between the second-row seats is Mini’s Centre Rail system. It comes in a full-length one-piece version or a two-piece unit with shorter rails front and rear. Numerous accessories can be clipped to the rail, including cupholders, sunglass cases, and MP3 holders. We’d like to see a center armrest for rear passengers.
The rear seats fold down, but not entirely flat, to open up 40 cubic feet of rear cargo space. That’s about as much as a Mazda3 hatchback. In back, the Countryman has 18 cubic feet of cargo space, about as much as a trunk in a large sedan. It also has a load floor that flips up to reveal a shallow tray underneath. Given this space, the Countryman has enough room for a trip to the grocery store, even with a full load of passengers. With the rear seats folded, it will also fit large boxes, making the car a viable option when you’re headed to Home Depot.
#5. The handling isn’t exactly go-kart direct, but it’s still fun.
The 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman rides on its own all-new platform. It’s longer, rides 1.2 inches higher, and the weight is up about 240 pounds over the hardtop. All these factors make it less nimble than the smaller Minis, with more lean in turns and more tire squeal when it’s pushed hard. Still, the Countryman is quite fun to drive. After that initial lean, it takes a nice set through turns, and it reacts quickly to fast changes of direction, though not as fast as its smaller siblings. Like those cars, though, the steering is practically telepathic, but it is weighted slightly less. It turns with razor sharp precision and offers plenty of road feel. The S model’s Sport mode firms up the steering a bit, while also increasing throttle response and holding gears longer in automatic transmission models.
#4. It’s the most comfortable Mini.
The flip side of handling is ride quality, and the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman makes up for any loss of handling with a more pleasant ride quality. While other Minis have a busy ride that jostles passengers around and pounds over sharp bumps, the Countryman’s extra suspension travel helps it soak up most road imperfections. Only sharper bumps register with passengers, but that’s the case with most cars. The smoother ride quality will make the Countryman a viable choice for customers who wanted a Mini but couldn’t live with the sometimes harsh ride.
#3. It has Mini’s odd ergonomics.
The Countryman’s dashboard is much like that of other Minis. It has a retro look with a large, round, centrally-located speedometer. The speedometer surrounds a central screen that displays the navigation system and the new Mini Connected system (more on that next). It’s hard to see your speed in the round dial, but there is a digital readout in a steering wheel-mounted tach. The radio controls are grouped together under the speedometer, which is a nice change as other Minis separate the volume control. The climate controls are found under the radio controls, and below them are a set of toggles for the windows and central locking system. The cupholders sit in front of these toggles, so a drink can get in the way if you need to raise or lower the windows. Not all people will like the centrally-located controls, but you eventually get used to it.
#2. It offers a cool infotainment system, but it’s only for iPhones.
With the release of the Countryman, Mini introduces Mini Connected, an infotainment system that runs through customers’ iPhones. It provides an iPhone dock in the center console and displays the various features in the center screen. Those features include internet radio, local Google search, Twitter access, and RSS feeds. Drivers can use the dashboard touchscreen to control these features. The internet radio feature allows you to find and listen to any of 25,000 radio stations no matter where you are in the world. We found it pretty cool to listen to Chicago radio stations while driving the car in Hamburg, Germany. The Google search will prove useful when looking for stores, restaurants or landmarks, and the Twitter and RSS access will keep you connected to the information you find important. Be aware, however, that Mini Connected is subject to the sometimes weak signal quality of AT&T.
#1. It’s the most useful Mini.
With four doors, available all-wheel drive, and useful passenger and cargo space, the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is a much more useful car than its smaller siblings. The rear seat is hospitable for two adults, the cargo area can handle a trip to the hardware store, and the all-wheel drive system adds slick road security. While the Countryman is larger, it’s not large, so much of that fun-to-drive Mini character remains. Pricing has not been announced, but a Mini official said the price should start between the Clubman and Cooper convertible. That would place the Countryman in the $23,000 to $30,000 price range. It will be more expensive than most cars of its size, but also more fun. And with that usable space, it should sell well. Bottom line, Mini built a bigger car, but it’s still damn fun.