Although most print media outlets ignore the convention, MINI officially spells its name in all capital letters. It's a cute contrivance from a company that could just as easily have called itself MICRO, given the stature of its cars. But now it has one worthy of a little emphasis.
The Countryman is the HUMMER (another, more fitting all-caps brand) of MINIs. At a foot wider, more than a foot longer and a couple of inches taller than the company's previous behemoth -- the stretch limo-esque Clubman -- you could conceivably hollow out one and use it as a garage for the other cars in the MINI lineup.
The size matters, but the Countryman also marks a number of firsts for the automaker. It's the first MINI with five portals, if not technically five doors. You may recall that the Clubman has one door for the driver, another for the passenger connected to a smaller suicide-style door that expands the opening, plus a pair of swing out barn doors for the cargo area. Open all of them at the same time and it looks like someone put wheels on a Swiss Army knife.
But the Countryman is the true multi-purpose MINI, because it is also the first car to wear the name that is available with all-wheel-drive. Aimed at inclement weather and light off-roading, the system, called All4, is one of those “front wheel drive until you need more” setups that can get you out of a jam, as long as it doesn’t involve boulders or fallen trees. Nevertheless, to advertise its off-pavement prowess, MINI has chosen the Countryman to be the template for its entry in the World Rally Car championship.
All4 is matched to a 181 horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and the combination comprises the top of the line Cooper S Countryman All4, which has a base price of $27,650. If that’s a bit premium for you, turbo and non-turbo front-wheel-drive models start at $22,350, and all three versions can be had with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
Visually, the Countryman is a slightly cartoonish 9/8th scale take on the standard MINI Cooper Hardtop, which is itself quite a character. But, done up in the iconic MINI two-tone paint job, hood stripes and a Union Jack or two, it works well in a tough little British bulldog sort of way. Despite its girth relative to other MINIs, this is still one of the smallest CUVs on the market and the bold design helps it stand out among the true giants of the class.
Classic MINI styling cues are abundant in the cabin, as well, including the speedometer, which is about the size of a Stromberg electric wall clock, in the center of the dashboard. At some point this affectation is going to get old, but it does make a good home for the Countryman’s optional infotainment systems. Disappointingly for a vehicle targeted to Gen-Y, neither USB nor Bluetooth are standard equipment. A fact that is rudely rubbed in your face by the inclusion of buttons for the phone system even on cars without it.
Another MINI-esque aspect of the interior is that it only has room for four passengers, although, for once, they might actually be comfortable. The two rear buckets slide fore and aft to increase leg or cargo room as needed, but in lieu of a hump there is a chrome accessory rail running down the middle of the car that works something like the roof racks often installed on MINIs to maximize their utility. Several different attachments can be ordered (a cup holder for your drink, a holster for your cell phone, a tissue box for your runny nose) and they can be positioned anywhere you want them along the rail.
Well, almost anywhere. The section in front of the emergency brake -- where these sorts of things would actually be useful to the driver -- has its clip-in point blocked off to keep you from putting something there that will interfere with the L-shaped brake lever.
There you have it, lawyers can even take the fun out of a MINI.
That is, until you get moving.
First, it is important to remember that this isn’t called the Trackman, or Dragman (RuPaul surely owns the rights to the latter.) No, it’s the Countryman, a name that evokes images of gentleman farmers surveying their land and lazy trips to the general store. Nevertheless, it is a MINI, which promises good times, especially when there’s a turbo involved.
Hit the Sport button for sharper throttle and steering response and the Countryman feels every bit the German-engineered driving device that it is (MINI is a card-carrying member of the BMW Group.) The faster you go, the better it gets as the steering increasingly speaks to you with a clarity far above that of any of the other “cute utes” the Countryman competes against. Grip is nicely balanced, and the ride quality more than suitable, let down only by the hard sidewalls of the run flat tires that my test car was fitted with.
With or without them, there’s no spare in the Countryman. In its place is a space-saving fix a flat kit and air compressor. It’s an odd choice for a car that is ostensibly meant to be driven far off the beaten path, but indicative of how likely its target customers will actually do that.
Instead, as with all MINIs before it, they’ll buy it for its style, a reasonable fuel economy rating of 28 mpg combined and an exceptional – if not incredible – ability to fit into parking spaces.
Still, some fans of the brand find the whole thing off-putting, seeing it as bastardization of the name and its reputation in the quest for the almighty dollar. Well, they’ve got that last part right; the Countryman is already MINI’s second best-selling vehicle and it’s only just started to hit showrooms. Nevertheless, they’re looking at it the wrong way.
MINIs are cool because they are smaller than most other cars. The Countryman is potentially cool because it is smaller than most other crossovers, even if it is one big mother.
2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman
Base Price: $27,650
Type: 4-passenger, 5-door crossover
Engine: 1.6-liter inline-4-cylinder
Power: 181 hp, 177 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual or automatic
MPG: 25 city/31 hwy