While all-wheel-drive, a higher ride height and four doors all play their part in shaping MINI’s new Countryman, the mission objective has always boiled down to one thing: space.
As MINI’s younger customer base transitions into their next phase of life: kids, mortgage, and matrimony (possibly not in that order) – space was the key element craved by this growing market.
As you would expect of any BMWBLOG Drive Review, we will bring you to the racetrack, the open road, and the congested streets of metropolis driving in due time – but first – let’s get to the question we know you’ve all been asking: how many kids can I fit in the MINI Countryman?
BMWBLOG just had to find out. So we called up our good friend Raj Singh, a teacher at David and Mary Thomson Collegiate, located on the East side of Toronto. Our mission? To stuff as many book reading, iPod listening, basket ball dribbling, french fry eating kids into the MINI as possible – with all five doors shut, as we would expect you to do the same when driving down the road; you don’t want to lose a kid out the hatch, after all.
As it turns out, the MINI Countryman will fit an astonishing 18 kids within the confines of its stylish sheet metal. And we’re not talking small children, we’re talking well-fed, happy and energetic High School students. Perhaps the Countryman is not so mini after all – but is it still a MINI when it comes to the driving experience? Read on to find out.
Impressions as a Daily Driver:
Bam! From the moment you get inside, this MINI surrounds you in a psychedelic party of expression and art. Edgy, funky, and trendy are the adjectives of the day. All this before you even hit the ‘Start’ button mounted neatly on the dash, just beside the key insert. Of course, none of this differentiates the Countryman from its little brother, the Cooper. In fact, this explosion of style and character is what cements the Countryman’s birthright in the lineup, beside the now iconic Cooper.
Highlights inside the cabin would be the neon green ambient lighting, glowing from the door latches and cup-holder rail running longitudinally through the center of the cabin. A large, panoramic sunroof offers plenty of vitamin D for all passengers, and the front glass panel fully retracts to reveal the naked sky above (sunblock lotion not included).
MINI has received a brilliant version of BMW’s iDrive application called MINI Connected, passed on as a ‘hand-me-down’ within the family. Daily errands are less cumbersome with such helpful aids at your fingertips. Once you’ve synched your cell phone to the MINI’s computer, your full address book, recent caller list, and missed calls list is visible from the MINI’s in-dash screen. You’re only a spin and a click away from placing a call with the pointy shaped, chrome info-tainment controller located just behind the gear selector on the center console.
Buttons feel solid and precise and interior plastics are of decent quality and feel, appropriate for a car at this price point. Our test car arrived with the available “Carbon Black Leather Lounge” upholstery, featuring bright white stitching and trim around the solid black leather seats. Every single visitor to the MINI’s cabin remarked at how stylish the leather seats were – we would put these seats on the ‘must have’ list when ordering the car.
Visibility is good, though the rear C posts seem to limit rearward visibility with their slightly stout width – but we’re splitting hairs here. Many Countryman buyers will appreciate the higher seating position while behind the wheel, and for many reasons. First of all, a commanding view of the road ahead tends to give some drivers a feeling of confidence behind the wheel, and allows them to see further down the road – perhaps over the roof tops of smaller cars, say for instance… the Cooper. Also a plus is the ease of ingress/egress from the seats; you’re able to slide in and slide out without stepping up, or crouching down. This makes a big difference in the urban environment where you’re constantly jumping out to pay the parking meter or swat away the parking police.
Fuel economy is excellent, with EPA figures of 8.7 liters / 100km (27 mpg) city and 6.5 liters / 100km (36 mpg) on the highway. While the press material calls for premium explosive Champaign, the fuel door sticker stated minimum 89 octane, which could save you around 5 cents / liter at the Canadian pumps.
For a small car, the cabin is quiet and a relaxing place to withdraw from the chaos of the city around you. The suspension is firm but poised over the pot hole riddled roads of Toronto; our only complaint in the suspension department would be the car’s tendency to get unsettled while cornering over bumps – a bit of jitter could be felt from the rear suspension. The fold-down rear seats allowed the rear hatch to swallow our camera gear in one gulp, and overall, we were impressed by the utility and practicality of this 4 door MINI. The Countryman handled the daily commute to work, a trip to the airport, and camera toting duties in stride.
More Than the Sum of its Parts?
My first inclination before getting behind the wheel was to write-off the Countryman as a failed ploy to sell a bloated, obese MINI for its badge – while losing sight of the spirit of MINI: the go-cart handling, the fun personality, and the look-at-me flare. After 10 minutes behind the wheel, my pessimism turned to adoration. It is incredible how the designers have increased size, while keeping proportions nearly to scale. The whole experience basically feels super-sized – but not in a cholesterol filled McDonald’s kind of way, but rather a half-size up on a pair of runners. This MINI managed an 8 out of 10 on the smile per mile meter, and we suspect that with a proper manual transmission, it could have nailed the needle. And true to MINI tradition, a manual is available.
Perhaps the best indication of this MINI’s ‘fun factor’ would be the response it elicited from passerby’s, and a fellow Countryman driver. After parallel parking near Yonge Street downtown, a curious driver walked over before paying the meter. “Is this the new 4 door MINI?” asked the inquisitive man. “Ahh, yes!” I exclaimed while shutting the rear door. Awkward moment. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm was appreciated, and one peek at the interior conjured spastic exclamations, “It’s gorgeous! What style!” I agreed.
Even more endearing was a moment frozen in time, as we turned left on an advanced green, in front of another Countryman sitting at the lights. A flurry of waves and gaping smiles filled the cabin. Was I in some kind of impromptu car commercial? I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out from behind a mailbox and spring, “You’ve been punk’d!” No, it turns out that there is a tight knit MINI fraternity in Toronto, and apparently fellow MINI drivers feel a real kinship to their fellow owners. Little did this couple know I was a journalist cleverly disguised as a Countryman owner, and their jovial greeting would be captured in print. This experience left me with a great feeling, and further established the Countryman’s place within this trendy brand.
If you’re still questioning its stylish appeal, consider that during our “How MINI Kids in the Car” photo shoot even the school principal decided to join in on the fun, and become the calender girl of our shoot, lying across the hood; we have the pictures to prove it!
A Lap of Mosport:
Every weekend without exception a MINI Cooper is ripping through an autocross course, or lapping a local racetrack somewhere on the continent. While our Canadian friends are carving the ski-hill with four-wheeled friends obediently at the wait, our fellow American readers are enjoying the beach-side racetracks of sunny locales. And a MINI is sure to be among them.
With the above in mind, we put in a few hot laps of Mosport’s DDT track. The Countryman targets a growing demographic who are moving on from the small cars of their youth to more practical, utilitarian machines. But fear not – practicality need not spell out “T-O-Y-O-T-A” with a side of boredom and monotony. There is, after all, a WRC race car modeled on its chassis. Buckle up for a lap of Mosport.
Full throttle down the back straight, our 1.6 liter was into over-boost, offering up a full 192 ft/lb of torque starting at 1,700 rpm. At 5,500 rpm the single twin-scroll turbo was squeezing 181 hp from its 4 cylinder unit, trailing off towards its 6,500 rpm redline. Up through the gears and the MINI feels willing, cramming more air into its engine, and content to keep on pulling no matter how long the straight. Of course, we’re not on the salt flats, and an impending corner looms ever closer. As we get on the brakes the Countryman sheds speed with stability and impressive deceleration – we are hung from our shoulder belts.
At corner entry, the MINI’s front-heavy weight distribution of 59% is felt, and the nose must be coaxed in against understeer. But get it right as you trail-brake in, and the MINI will turn towards the apex and grip with tenacity, its “ALL 4″ all-wheel-drive system varying power from the front to rear wheels as you power out from the apex. In steady state cornering, the Countryman exhibits moderate understeer, but considering its weight distribution, it handles admirably, certainly worthy of the MINI badge. At apex, the Countryman could be balanced with throttle, and was ready to power out to the exit. Transitions felt a bit sloppy (we place some blame on the tires), and moderate body roll was noted but the fact of the matter is: this MINI could keep pace with cars of a much more sporting pedigree. Once again, given the manual transmission and a set of firmer, stickier summer tires, we suspect this 4 door MINI could make quick work of a few cocky two doors out on the track, and certainly through the autocross – a MINI’s spiritual home. But be forewarned: when your track brethren spot the baby seats as you pass them – they may become less friendly in pit lane. Humility is a hard pill to swallow.
Our only slight would be the lack of lateral support in the seats. Elbows, knees and feet become your default ‘place holders’ and this lack of support through the lateral G’s will leave you tired after lapping the track. Otherwise, we have no performance related complaints.
In a sentence: We found the Countryman to be track-worthy, and a prolonged four wheel drift sealed the deal for us.
A Two Hour Tour:
While on previous Drive Reviews we’ve ventured as far as Philadelphia, a packed schedule kept us closer to home this time around. We took a pleasant two hour tour to the city of Bowmanville, a quaint small town with as much crime as elevators. That is to say: none.
Dinner with close friends was enjoyed, and over dinner our conversation inevitably turned to the handsome 4 door waiting outside. “How is it on the highway?” Quiet, composed and surprisingly comfortable. The seats were very supportive over the longish drive, and the longer wheelbase offered a stable, less fidgety ride over expansion gaps in the highway. Wind noise was negligible, save for the flip-up mesh screen protecting the sun-roof when open. We’ve lamented this appendage before, and we’ll whine on about it a little more in the next section of our review.
Where’s The Beef? Qualms and Quibbles:
It’s always difficult to criticize such well put together machines, but alas, as journalists it is our responsibility and duty to point out what could be improved.
One of our biggest gripes is with the less than impressive stereo. In a car that breaks the $40,000 CAD dollar mark as equipped, we expected higher fidelity sound with less distortion at moderate volume levels. This is a groovy car – of course its radio will be rocking on occasion! We would like to see the Countryman equipped with a sound system that can keep up with its owners.
As we pointed out earlier in the review, we found the front seats to be lacking lateral support during sporty driving. If you will venture to the racetrack frequently, this may be of concern, but shy of the track, the seats are very comfortable and well bolstered.
I was deeply annoyed by the seeming lack of intermittent wipers. I fiddled and fuddled with every possible push / pull / twist / raise / and lower combination to no avail. But just before I was about to throw the towel in, a friend pointed out that there was a button on the tip of the wiper lever. Presto! Intermittent wipers. Score 1:MINI, Score 0:Shawn. I must add that these wipers were rain sensitive, so they increased or decreased their speed according to the intensity of the rain, all the way up to raining-cats-and-dogs setting.
And lastly, the much begrudged mesh sun-roof protector. We understand the engineering behind it, and we’ve lamented its design on previously tested BMW cars. Whenever a double pane panoramic sun-roof is mounted, the front panel of glass will lift and slide overtop of the rear panel. This creates space between the two panels, which must be protected from debris and birds entering the space. Hence, the mesh guard. Unfortunately, at speeds over 50 km / hour, the mesh emits a high-pitched hissing noise, and it’s nearly intolerable at highway speeds – forcing me to close it against my flowing hair’s better judgment. For those who really enjoy open air motoring with the sunroof retracted, we recommend going for the smaller, single pane sunroof whenever possible. This smaller sunroof features BMW Group’s serrated edge diffuser, which cancels buffeting without making any additional noise.
That’s all in the complaint department, and considering the whole package – we found very little to whine about.
MINI’s mandate when building the Countryman, was to offer greater practicality and usability, relative to the run of the mill Cooper. What we found in the Countryman was an explosive mix of fun, style, frugality, utility and character. And with space for 18 kids, what more could you want in a MINI?
A very special thanks to the students, principal, and teacher Raj Singh of David and Mary Thomson Collegiate for their auspicious contribution to this article. We also wish to thank MINI Manhattan for their generous sponsorship of this BMWBLOG Drive Review. Last but not least, thanks to MINI Canada for affording us a week with the new Countryman.
Photos Credit:Kevin Luc