OXFORD, U.K.—It’s the MINI for people who like the Cooper’s style and attitude, but who really want a bigger compact car. The Countryman was the largest MINI when it was introduced 11 years ago, until it was overtaken in size a couple of years ago by the Clubman.
Now, its second generation is 19 cm longer; three cm wider; and has 30 percent more cargo space than before. It’s been updated with the new three- and four-cylinder turbocharged engines found across the rest of the line, and comes with new technology, both optional and standard. But is it still a MINI?
The Countryman stands out in a sea of MINIs at the assembly plant in Oxford (though it is, in fact, made in The Netherlands) because it’s 14 cm taller than the regular three- and five-door Coopers. It’s no taller than the previous generation, however. The greater size comes from its all-new architecture, shared with the BMW X1 compact SUV, which is itself a little bigger still.
The shape is undoubtedly MINI, but the new generation is more “pared-back and modern” according to its designers, which means some of the rounded edges have been squared off, and some extra metal edging added to the wheel arches and surrounding black accent strip.
The headlights are now each completely surrounded by daytime driving light rings, which is both distinctive and useful. It’s the sort of thing you probably wouldn’t notice without the two generations sitting side by side, but the end product does look tidy and capable.
Being taller than a “regular” MINI, it’s easier to get in and out of the Countryman—passengers sit a little higher and everyone can see a bit farther down the road. This is one of the appeals of an SUV, and it’s quite intentional.
There’s no doubt this is a premium product, which makes sense—parent company BMW knows a thing or two about making a high-end vehicle. The base car comes with cloth seating but my tester was optioned to the hilt with leather this and that, including embossed Union Jacks on the backs of the headrests. It all costs extra, but the prices are a bit lower than you’d pay for on other premium vehicles.
There’s more space inside than the previous generation, with slightly more legroom and headroom. The driver and front-seat passenger have lots of space to spread out, and the passengers in the back share a similar amount of space, accommodating even six-foot-plus people comfortably. A third person back there will be a bit more of a shoulder-to-shoulder squeeze, but no one will complain on shorter trips.
The rear seats actually slide forward and back, and their backs fold completely flat in a 40-20-40 split. This boosts rear cargo space from 450 litres with the seats up; to 1,390 seats-down. That’s more than 100 litres of extra room than the Clubman. Compare this to 1,308 litres in the Honda Civic hatch when the seats are down, or 1,235 litres in the Mercedes-Benz GLA.
The large central dial in the middle of the dash is retained for the navigation system and information panels, while regular dials and gauges sit in front of the steering wheel. The same chunky toggle switches for climate control found on all MINIs are still there in the centre, so there’s no danger of thinking you’re in a Civic or Corolla.
If you want to pay $1,450 extra for the “Essentials” package, which includes high-quality leather upholstery and wood trim, and then another $250 for the “MINI Yours—British Oak Illuminated” option, you’ll get additional translucent strips of accent lighting that change in colour and intensity between day and night.
Or you can pay an extra $250 for the intriguing “picnic bench,” which is actually just a padded seat for the rear tailgate, so you can sit down while changing your boots or watching your kid’s soccer. It all sounds very nice and very premium, and it’s typical of the greater-than-usual amount of potential personalization all MINIs offer.
Every new generation of every car gives its maker a chance to update the software to match the rest of the lineup. So of course the Countryman features all the connectivity you’d expect, and most of BMW’s new driver’s assistance aids.
As before, there are three separate drive modes for Normal, Sporty, and Green, which basically firm everything up or relax everything down, depending on how you feel like driving that day. Most importantly, they’re matched to the new turbocharged engines first introduced in the three-door Cooper in 2014 and now found in the five-door, Convertible, and Clubman. They include direct fuel-injection, variable camshaft control on both the intake and exhaust, and variable valve control.
The basic Cooper engine is good for 136 hp and 162 lbs-ft of torque, but I didn’t get to drive that—not every world market will get it. We will in Canada, though, for the first time. The previous generation was only sold to Canadians with the more powerful Cooper S engine, which now makes 192 hp and 207 lbs-ft of torque. That impressive torque number means the tester I drove here was as zippy and nimble out of the corners as I’d expect a MINI to be, despite a weight that tops 1,665 kg.
The base Countryman now weighs just under 1,500 kg with a manual transmission and front-wheel drive, which is a lot for the little three-cylinder engine to handle. Add all-wheel drive and an automatic transmission and it porks out to more than 1,600 kg. I can’t vouch for its driving satisfaction because it wasn’t here to try out, but I’d suggest taking one for a test drive before buying the smaller engine.
There’ll also be a high-performance John Cooper Works edition available in the summer, and even a hybrid coming in June, a first for MINI. A hybrid drivetrain for an already fuel-conscious smaller car just hasn’t been worth the extra cost until now.
Here’s the important bit to most potential MINI buyers, and yes, the new Countryman is great fun to drive—at least in its Cooper S edition, expected to be the most popular option. Steering is firm and power is plentiful, and the tester car ripped around England’s narrow country lanes with all the confidence and spunk you’d expect. Torque kicks in low-down, and passing vehicles is not a problem.
All three regular versions – the Cooper, Cooper S, and JCW – come with either a six-speed manual or an automatic. The Cooper is the only variant available in front-wheel drive, and its automatic is the familiar six-speed available on the rest of the lineup. All-wheel drive is also available for the basic Cooper and the only option for the other two; all AWDs come with an eight-speed transmission and paddle shifters on the steering wheel. You don’t even think about which gear you’re in, of course, but just blip down a couple of cogs if you want more pull through a corner, or are passing a slowpoke.
There are no official fuel ratings yet, but it’s fair to say it’ll be just a little thirstier than the Clubman, which has similar powertrains and a bit less weight. That model varies from a best of 8.4 L/100 km in the most basic Cooper; to 9.7 in the stickshift Cooper S AWD. That’s premium gas, too.
The AWD system is newly revised and adjusts power between the two axles as needed, taking just a quarter-second to activate when the computer senses any wheel slip. It’s combined with the latest version of traction control, which is itself constantly evolving in all vehicles, and the MINI is sure-footed on slippery roads.
The company set up an off-road track for me to try out the AWD in a Countryman fitted with chunky winter tires, but it was really more of a muddy trail with a few bumps along the way than anything an SUV would want to tackle. In truth, of course, it was the kind of track a MINI driver might venture onto on the last stretch to the cottage. In Canada, AWD is usually more useful for finding traction in snow and on ice or wet roads, and I’m sure the Countryman would be fine in such conditions.
The new Countryman starts at $26,990, and at first glance, it looks to be less expensive than the previous generation, which had a base price of $29,950. It’s not a fair comparison, though, because the 2016 model was only available in Canada as a more powerful Cooper S. For 2017, the new Cooper S starts at $31,990, an increase of $2,000. This is probably why BMW’s brought in the less-costly variant, which will look good in ads and pull people into the showrooms to be upsold on the Cooper S.
You can buy a compact car for a lot less money, but the MINI does have its own unique style and a premium finish, so really, its value is in comparison to upscale competition like the X1, GLA, and Audi Q3. All those German cute-utes are more costly—the Audi is the least expensive, starting at $34,600, which is in itself almost $3,000 more than the equivalent Cooper S. There’s a good choice of MINI options for that amount of cash.
The new MINI Countryman is every inch a MINI in style and design, though there are a lot of inches to it now. It’s a very long way from the cozy original of the 1960s and it feels far more spacious than the tidy comportment of the current three-door, but it does still offer the MINI experience.
It’s a compact car for sure, and it’s difficult to imagine its dimensions could be stretched any more and still retain its appeal. This is surely as big as it should get. But if you like the style and you want the experience, it offers a character you won’t find in any other make of car.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.