2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman
It’s time to stop thinking about the Mini as a quirky British economy car.
It’s still plenty quirky, but with the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman, a small SUV-styled crossover utility vehicle with four doors and a hatchback, it scoots far away from any economy image. The model tested here had a bottom-line sticker price of $35,650 and options can bump it up even higher.
Besides, like its Mini Cooper siblings, it is an offspring of BMW of Germany, which owes its success to a knack for high-performance tuning and the premium prices that go with it. A lot of that rubs off on the Mini, but especially on the Countryman.
The Mini was, of course, an economy car back in the 1960s, a little British box on tiny wheels with front-wheel drive and a crosswise-mounted four-cylinder engine.
Though economical and a hoot to drive, especially in the higher-performance Cooper version, it never caught on in the United States as import economy-car buyers gravitated toward the endearing and anvil-reliable Volkswagen Beetle.
The Mini eventually died out, along with most of the United Kingdom’s once-robust automobile industry. It would have remained entombed but for BMW of Germany, which bought the brand and resurrected the Mini as the Mini Cooper in 2000.
That car, larger than the original with two doors and a hatchback, exceeded expectations and became sought-after as it spawned higher-performance S and John Cooper Works models, as well as a convertible and a slightly larger three-door Mini Cooper Clubman.With the new Countryman, Mini delivers a couple of its own firsts: all-wheel drive and four doors. Both contribute mightily to its desirability and utility. At the same time, it retains its counterculture personality.
The Countryman exhibits the expected Mini traits: the giant speedometer in the middle of the dash, redundant because there’s a digital speed readout in the tachometer behind the steering wheel; the 10 toggle switches surrounded by soft faceguards to keep them from spearing human flesh; the tiny sun visors that don’t slide and are useless to the side; the small-type audio readout with barely minimal information, and the lack of seatbelt height adjusters.
It’s all part of the personality, and it is personality that the Mini sells above all, including the fact that buyers can customize their rides to the point where each could be one of a kind.
The Countryman also could be considered unique but for the fact that Nissan got there first with the Juke. The two cars have virtually identical specifications. They are each 13 feet 6 inches long, weigh about the same, with about the same passenger and cargo space. They both come with front-drive or all-wheel drive and powerful—for their size—turbocharged engines.
The Juke is slightly more powerful, with a 188-horsepower, 1.6-liter turbo four compared to the 181-horsepower 1.6 turbo in the Countryman. It weighs a smidgen less and, because the Nissan brand is not considered as premium except in its Infiniti division, costs whole lot less. An earlier tested Juke checked in at $26,615 compared to the tested Countryman’s $35,650.The Countryman has either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic with a manual shift mode operated with the shifter or strategically-place steering-wheel paddles. The paddles are intuitive and the shifter of choice on winding mountain roads.
The Juke, on the other hand, uses a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT), also with a manual-shift mode. But because the CVT has no shift points, they are artificially inserted by an onboard computer.
The tested Mini Cooper Countryman retained much of the charm of its siblings. But because of its taller and bulkier profile, it did not have the point-and-shoot handling characteristics of the little two-door hatchback.
With a higher center of gravity, it had a darting handling feel that required attention on freeways to maintain a straight line. Steering inputs happen right now so corrections are frequently needed. That could get fatiguing on a long trip, though it’s entertaining on twisty roads.
The ride, toughened by stiff-sided run-flat tires (there is no spare), drives road irregularities smack into the driver’s torso and prompts jiggling rattles from loose interior parts like the cargo compartment cover.
But if you don’t hammer it too hard, the Countryman is an agreeable everyday companion. The cloth-covered and heated front seats are supportive and comfortable, with good lateral support. Out back, the two bucket seats are not quite as good but reasonable even for trips. They slide fore and aft to compromise between passenger and cargo space.
A sort of railroad track runs the length of the passenger pod and accommodates cup, cell phone and sunglass holders. Like most BMW products, there’s a long list of options, including $250 for a tiny armrest/console that can barely hold a candy bar.
The tested Countryman also had a $1,750 premium package that included a double sliding-glass sunroof where both sections opened for ventilation and the front opened completely. But the so-called sun shade was a cheesecloth-like affair that allowed too much sunlight to intrude inside.