It is clearly still a Mini, just a much bigger and more sophisticated version of its namesake, the dinky 1960s Austin Seven Countryman that was at best no higher than the wheels of a heavy-duty truck.
Albeit less cute and cheeky, this MINI Countryman is still playful, versatile and practical. And that appeals to singletons and families alike, even those outside the Mini fan club.
Maximising the Mini crossover
The first-generation Mini Countryman launched in 2010 was the first Mini with four doors, a large tailgate, five seats and optional all-wheel-drive. It might have been significantly larger than the 1960s model, but this second-generation MINI Countryman is even bigger. It’s the biggest Mini ever.
It’s 200mm longer, 30mm higher, 30mm wider and ground clearance has improved by 25mm. All this, together with a wheelbase that has been extended by 75mm, has allowed for a seriously spacious five-seater with improved luggage capacity.
This premium compact crossover now has genuine family appeal, essential to keep Mini lovers within the brand’s fold as well as broaden its appeal as a first family car. Its crossover/SUV capabilities too are likely to charm the adventurous.
Two front-wheel-drive models, the 6-speed manual or automatic 3-cylinder 1.5-litre MINI Cooper Countryman and 6-speed manual or 8-speed auto 4-cylinder 2-litre MINI Cooper S Countryman, have made their way to local shores.
Both models are fun to drive but, unsurprisingly, it is the spirited Cooper S Countryman that elevates the excitement quotient.
Once upon a time the small, cute, low-cost cult car was renowned for its perky, fun-loving personality rather than its offerings. Today there is no mistaking that this is a premium vehicle.
Almost everything on the second-generation MINI Cooper S Countryman has been beefed up. Even the car’s facial message has more of an “I mean business” look about it.
It’s substantial and chunky-looking, the car’s short overhangs and large wheel arches endowing it with an athletic stance, its aluminium roof rails further emphasising its height and amplifying its crossover characteristics.
The sporty, retro-inspired cockpit manages to capture the quaint charm of past models. There’s some real interesting stuff on the inside, not least of which are the aviation-inspired console toggle switches, race-inspired gauges and pedals and the optional larger 8.8” colour touchscreen with its LED ring surround.
The large, orb-like touchscreen is the dominant dashboard feature. And it works a treat. It is very sensitive to touch and very user-friendly.
Playfulness, so inherent to the Mini brand, has not been entirely lost, like the graphic of the MINI Countryman wearing sunglasses to display outside temperature.
All models come standard with a 3-spoke leather sport steering wheel and comfortable yet supportive leather and suede-like front sports seats. The seating position is a fairly low-slung sporty one, all switchgear within easy reach of the driver or a thumb away on the multifunction steering wheel.
Infotainment offerings and smart connectivity solutions are plentiful. The MINI Connected App acts as a personal assistant and allows you to listen to your favourite radio station in the world; the MINI Find Mate is used to track down frequently used objects connected to the system; and the MINI Country Timer measures driving fun over demanding terrain.
Fun aside, the MINI Countryman also has a serious side, offering a host of driver assistance systems. Collision warning with city braking comes standard. This can be extended to include the Driving Assistant system with camera-based active cruise control, pedestrian warning with initial brake function, high beam assistant and road sign detection. Park Distance Control, rearview camera, Parking Assistant and head-up display are also available as options.
This beefy compact crossover is versatile and practical. Cabin space is now significantly more generous, even for those in the rear. So too is loading space. By folding the rear seats capacity can be increased to 1 390 litres, a 220-litre improvement over the first generation.
A nifty addition to the luggage compartment is the MINI Picnic Bench, a foldout loading sill cushion that provides seating for two people on the compartment lid.
Even the business of opening the tailgate is made easier through the optional “touchless” electric tailgate control, a foot-waving movement under the rear bumper.
The Cooper S’s 2-litre turbo engine is really perky, the test model fitted with the 8-speed automatic gearbox and steering wheel-mounted shift paddles that allow for a significantly more dynamic and spirited driving experience than that offered by the less zesty 6-speed Cooper model. And of course, exhaust note from the dual exhausts on the Cooper S is throatier.
Power delivery is keen and smooth – important for cheeky overtaking – the gear changes slick, and while steering does not feel quite as true as its predecessor, it does tighten under braking.
The Servotronic function on the electrically assisted electronic power steering (EPS) adjusts the amount of steering assistance to suit the current speed. I, though, prefer driver input directness like that offered by the basic EPS system on the first generation.
This playful, not-so-little cult car loves to stretch its legs on the highway, feeling more planted at speed, and enjoys showing off its zippy capabilities in an urban environment.
Fittingly for a crossover/SUV, it was mostly in the undulating and challenging terrain of the KwaZulu-Natal countryside that the car was put through its paces.
From twisty, pot-holed tar roads dotted with livestock and children, to the slippery sands of the gravel roads that wind their way through the sugar cane fields and forests, the MINI Cooper S Countryman proved its mettle as a compact crossover.
Sport mode was put to good use not only on the twisting and undulating tar surfaces, but also on the thicker, loose gravel on the route. Even with the chunkier alloy wheels fitted to the Cooper S Countryman, it was here that the vehicle tended to feel a tad wallowy in the normal mid- or green-configured mode. But sport mode gave the added bite, agility and tighter steering necessary to negotiate the unique challenges that come with gravel surfaces.
The suspension, too, is a tad more refined than its predecessor. Still firm, but ride quality has improved, comfortable even over the hard-packed corrugations that one of the gravel sections dished up. Handy too to aid visibility in dusty conditions are the Countryman’s fog lamps.
This new Countryman has succeeded in preserving the essence of the Mini brand while still managing to combine a premium offering with versatility, practicality and space.
But a superb build quality, smart technology, premium refinements, SUV qualities, increased space and extended standard offerings come at a price that is not quite as mini as it was in bygone days.
Refinement also brings with it less emotional connectivity. But that perhaps is less important with a family car and to the generations currently on the road who have come to expect refinement over personality.
This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 20 April edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.