June Neary spends some time with a more versatile MINI, the Countryman
Will It Suit Me?
I've always like the thought of owning a MINI but space has always defeated me. MINIs are cute - but just not big enough. Even the Clubman estate, innovative though it is, wasn't quite what I was looking for. But here's a MINI model that may be - the Countryman.
The first generation Countryman was the largest MINI to date at its original launch back in 2010 and this MK2 model, now updated, is larger still, offering extra potential for this cheeky brand to capitalise on the well documented loyalty of its customers. This model provides somewhere to go for those with commitments who, like me, have outgrown a very compact car.
Like all MINIs, this one looks unique, displaying all of the brand's usual traits, from the foursquare stance with the wheels pushed right out to the extremities of the vehicle to the unmistakable font end with its rounded headlamps. Everything is scaled up for this larger five-door car though, with the wheelbase and the overall height far in excess of anything that has gone before. I liked it. The car has been updated with full-LED headlights, a restyled front grille and LED foglights. The rear apron has been redesigned too and the tail lamps are now LEDs.
MINI's usual high beltline looks even higher on the Countryman and there's a hatchbacked rear end giving access to a big 450-litre boot. That's easily enough for pushchairs and the like. The second row of seating contains three fully-fledged seats and the rear door openings are quite large, enabling easy entry and exit. In addition to overall interior width, leg space is pretty generous too, with an extra five centimetres of knee room over the old MK1 model. The rear seats can be shifted back and forth by up to 13cm, prioritising either passenger legroom or boot capacity depending on the situation.
Behind the Wheel
If you like the driving experience of the standard third generation MINI models, then you'll like the feel of a Countryman since the recipe very much the same. The most popular engine option is the 3 cylinder 1.5-litre 136hp petrol unit in the base 'Cooper' model. There's also still a 'Cooper D' diesel option too, a 2.0-litre engine developing 150hp. The brand also offers a 'Cooper S' performance variant, which uses a 178hp 2.0-litre petrol unit and is able to complete the sprint to 62mph from rest in just 7.5 seconds. All three of these core derivatives can be had with manual or auto transmission and either front or ALL4 four wheel drive. At the top of the range is the John Cooper Works high performance variant, which has ALL4 traction and borrows the 2.0-litre petrol unit from the Cooper S and tunes it out to 306hp, making 62mph achievable in only 5.1s. In my opinion, the most interesting engine option though, is the Plug-in hybrid set-up used in the pricey PHEV variant, which features ALL4 4WD and auto transmission and uses the 1.5-litre petrol unit from the Cooper, boosted by an 88hp electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery.
That optional 'ALL4' 4WD system I mentioned is worth having I think, if you're to comfortably get the kids to school in a snowy snap. It's an advanced set-up with an electro-hydraulic differential to vary the power distribution between the front and rear axles according to the detected levels of grip. Under normal conditions, 50% of the engine's output is sent to the rear but as grip is lost, up to 100% of drive can go in that direction. This should add a further dimension to the MINI's acclaimed on-road handling. And it does.
Throw the car hard into a corner, and it becomes clear that you're driving something quite different from the MINIs we know and love. It rides higher than the brand's ordinary three-door model and of course, it's much heavier, statistics that have to tell somewhere. But it's one of the better driver's choices in a segment not noted for setting any standards in dynamic prowess.
Value For Money
With prices starting at over the £23,500 mark, it isn't cheap for its size - but it is decently equipped. Reflecting customer demand for high-end features, equipment levels on this MK2 model have been increased. All variants get a Navigation System, Bluetooth, Cruise Control an Emergency E-call set-up and 'Active Guard' autonomous braking. Naturally, being a MINI, there's broad scope for personalisation, with extensive colour and trim options and advanced technology including an 8.8" inch touchscreen display as part of the MINI Navigation System XL. The luggage area can be accessed via an optional electric tailgate that can be opened with a wave of your foot beneath the bumper. One unique option is the Picnic Bench - a flexible surface that folds out of the luggage compartment and provides seating for two people.
Throughout the range, there's the option of finding around £1,500 more for Steptronic automatic transmission. As is the norm elsewhere in the MINI line-up, the Cooper S and JCW cars have a lot more visual aggression about them with a redesigned front grille and more shapely bumpers. Safety-wise, all cars get front, side and curtain airbags along with three-point seatbelts for all occupants.
Could I Live With One?
This was the first MINI that I felt I could really live with, family commitments and all. Yet it isn't boringly practical, the whole reason why MINIs appeal to me in the first place. The Countryman then, is a car that will continue to bring new customers to the brand: they might even include me.