by Jim Bray
Is the Mini Countryman as angry a car as it looks? Well, no. But what is? After all, this Mini looks pretty mad. (click the image to the right to open a slide show)
It's a bit strange, because minis are traditionally cute little things. Judging by the look on the Countryman's face, er grille, however, with its unhappy-looking downturned ends, the Countryman looks as if it's quite PO'd. Is it saying "back off, I don't want to be driven?"
The Mini's mean mien is a mite mystifying. After all, it's a Mini, so it's designed to be driven and to be enjoyed. On the other hand, the "Countryperson" appears to be meant more as practical Mini for everyday use than the typical, er, "mini-Mini" fun and sporty car line. I can't wait to see their take on the "Mini-Van."
The Countryman certainly comes across as taller and bulkier than most other Minis - maybe they should call it a Maxi - and it carries a higher center of gravity that can actually make it feel a tad tippy at times. That's despite it having all wheel drive and other tweaks designed to help it stick to the road.
And it's no muscle car, even in the John Cooper Works performance version of Mini Canada's test sample. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that.
Minis began life as a classic British car whose front wheel drive/transverse engine configuration was so ahead of its time that most mainstream cars these days have stolen at least some of the Mini's design magic. It's hard to find a small, mainstream car these days that hasn't borrowed the front drive/transverse engine setup Mini pioneered.
Then, like the rest of the British car industry, the company fell on hard times was eventually put out of its misery.
Then BMW decided the little bugger was worth saving and rescued Mini's corporate owner. Except that rather than bring back the classic Mini, they re-imagined it for the new millennium. The result was the current Mini, a car that still has the old Mini DNA and a kind of British bulldog stance - except that the new Mini is so much bigger that you could nearly fit an old Mini into its trunk.
Well, maybe that's an exaggeration.
Big things in little packages...
The rest is history. So now we have a proliferating line of Minis including the "rally-blooded" Mini John Cooper Works Countryman ALL4 (the name's so long it barely fits on the car!) of this review.
Under that stretched Mini skin is a pretty nifty little engine. It won't set the world on fire but it will put a smile on your face if you love driving. The little 1.6 liter turbo four pumps out 208 hp at 6,000 rpm and 192 ft.-lb. of torque from 1,750 - 5500 rpm. In this car, it's very nearly enough. Not quite, but close enough for a cigar.
Mini says the car will do 205 km/h.
Power gets to the wheels (all of them, in this instance) via a very nice six speed manual with a lovely light clutch. Beware its penchant to stall, however, until you get used to it. I stalled it twice, thereafter driving it with a paper bag over my head just in case I did it again.
Mini Canada's sample Countryperson featured the line's front struts and multi-link rear axle, fitted with the ALL4 all-wheel drive that should make zipping around winterized country roads particularly entertaining, while keep you safer at the same time. The rack and pinion steering offers really good feel, though the car understeers noticeably, making twisty bits a bit twitchier than they need to be.
Brakes, discs with ABS etcetera all around, are fine, as is the pedal feel.
When driving the Countryman, you really do get a sense of its "mini-jumbo" size, yet the car doesn't feel all that big once you're ensconced in the cabin - even though you can actually put people in the back without them trying to garrote you with their shoulder harnesses.
A bit schizophrenic, perhaps, but it works.
The driving position is fine and everything works well, but the interior layout is a love-hate proposition that seems designed for style over substance. Switches are chrome toggles, which is fine, but they're labeled with such tiny type it's hard to make out what they're for. And what's with the big speedometer atop the center stack, just where you don't want squeamish passengers to see it? There's a digital speedo on the instrument panel in front of the driver, too, so having this big wheel proclaim to your peeps just how blatantly you're abusing the speed laws seems unnecessary and a tad unwise.
If you don't speed this isn't an issue - unless you're with people who use the big readout as a way to mock you for NOT speeding...
The electronic stuff - Mini's sample came with the "Wired" package - is pretty state-of-the-art, but it's also as annoying as all get out. Programming the already-paired Bluetooth connection for audio streaming is ridiculous – I had to pair for the phone, then go through a bunch of menus to configure it for audio connection as well. Most cars these days do both at once and the Mini should, too.
Other toys in the Wired package include voice recognition, an Integrated Visual Display, USB Audio, Smartphone Integration, MINI Connected and a navigation system. The package adds $1850 to the sticker price. Bluetooth, at least, should be standard.
The sample Mini also came with the "Premium" package ($1990), which added a glass sunroof, auto dimming interior mirror, an annoying centre armrest up front, automatic HVAC, front fog lights, automatic headlights and rain sensing wipers.
Standard equipment for this particular Mini includes a multi-function steering wheel with cruise control controls, a heated, leather sport steering wheel that feels great in the paws, heated windshield washer jets and outside mirrors, a spoiler (don't ask it about any movies or TV shows you haven't seen yet!), a bunch of cosmetic stuff (body-colored roof, mirror caps, etc.), sport seats, bi-xenon headlights and driving aids such as Dynamic Traction Control (DTC), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Automatic Stability Control (ASC+T) and a nice and tight sport suspension. Whew!
A kudo to BMW/Mini: the push button start/stop button has fixed one thing about such beasts that made such an otherwise great innovation problematic: when the engine's running, you usually have to go through "off" to get to "accessory." But here, the engine stops if you press the start/stop button but the car will stay in accessory mode. To shut down the whole shebang, you have to press and hold the button. It works great, and hopefully this will become industry standard quickly, kind of like the European "three blink" lane change signal light feature is slowly becoming ubiquitous.
The Countryman's rear seat folds down to reveal a surprising amount of hauling space.
Driving the car feels a tad weird at times, almost as if the run flat tires are wandering over grooves in the asphalt - even when there aren't any such grooves. It's quite noticeable and more than a tad off-putting. Not groovy, indeed!
The Mini Countryman Starts at just under $39,000, optioned up it's about $42,500, not counting all the taxes and other fees we pay in the interest of fairness and social justice.
The Mini Countryman is a strange beast, kind of a hybrid functionally, if not technologically. It's yet another fun little Mini - understeer, wandering and tippiness nothwithstanding - yet it isn't quite as much fun or quite as little as most Minis. A rather strange concept, indeed.
A new type of crossover, perhaps?
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
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