I still remember the way the press and enthusiasts altogether reacted when MINI took the veils off the latest Countryman. Even though the BMW-owned brand started a new marketing campaign before the crossover was unveiled, to prepare the collective mind to the idea of a bigger than ever model, most people were still disappointed and couldn’t get their heads around it. Today, a few months after the unveil, the decision to increase the Countryman’s size so much is starting to make sense.
The reason why the British brand went down this road in the first place was because that’s what customers were asking for. If you have a friend that owns a MINI you probably already know that he or she loves the car for the way it drives/looks/sounds, and at the same time complains about the space it offers. That being said, the new Countryman aims to fix those quirks offering the space of a compact SUV with the driving experience of a MINI Cooper.
This is where the Countryman really steps in. Built atop the new UKL front-wheel drive platform developed by BMW, the biggest MINI ever made is now sharing its underpinnings, engines are gearbox choices with the BMW X1. And while the X1 might seem like the bigger and more practical choice, the Countryman counters with its style, chic interior and clever details, while still offering a decent amount of space for its occupants.
Exterior and Interior
It’s true though, the X1 does seem a noticeably bigger but when taking a closer look at the specs of the two cars, you might be surprised. The difference between the two is almost negligible and that’s exactly what you feel once you get inside the MINI. To be more precise, while the width of the two is exactly the same and the X1 is taller by just 1.5 inches, the BMW is also longer by 5 inches. However, when it comes to the room you get inside, the two feel almost identical while the X1 has just 50 liters of extra storage space in the boot with the seats up, compared to the Countryman’s 450 liters.
That storage space can drastically change though as the Countryman can be fitted with rear seats which can slide forward and have their backrest angle adjusted. Folding them will offer you up to 1,390 liters which means you can store a lot of stuff inside it. Compared to the old one, the changes are remarkable, as it used to offer between 350 and 1170 liters of boot space.
But that’s not the only thing that changed. While the exterior design remained equally attractive, with an evolutionary design more than anything else, the interior’s quality has gone up. The big center speedometer is gone and instead, just like every other new MINI out there, we now have the infotainment screen which, for the first time, comes with a touch-sensitive screen for more convenience. Since the infotainment controller was positioned quite unfortunately on the center console right next to the armrest, it’s a welcome upgrade by all means.
The features of the MINI Connected system have also been upgraded and now resemble the newest BMW iDrive system in terms of menus, submenus and functionality. The animations have also been improved making quite an impression on myself and the occupants of the cars when they first noticed it, having clean designs which are easy to understand and use. To top everything off, the Head-Up display comes in handy and there’s even a button on the dash allowing you to turn it on or off, if you decide you don’t need it.
Speaking of buttons, the cabin remains a typical MINI environment, decked with toggle switches everywhere and offering plenty of customizing choices for the customers. The one that you notice immediately is one big piece sitting between the infotainment screen, top part of the dash and the start button. It’s a big trim piece which can be had in a variety of choices. In the case of our tester, it was beige with black stripes and it came alive at night, having blue and red LEDs behind it, giving a rather special feel altogether. Definitely a nice touch by MINI.
The headrests also sported the Union Jack motif, while the steering wheel came straight from the John Cooper Works catalogue. In terms of leg and headroom, the changes compared to the previous Countryman are more than noticeable, four adults being absolutely comfortable in the MINI now, even if they are over 6-feet tall, both up front and in the back.
In this regard, the Countryman once again seems to follow in the footsteps of the BMW X1, but there’s more to it. Under the hood of our tester hid a 2-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged diesel mill otherwise known around the BMW Group grounds by the B47 codename. This engine is now being used not only on UKL-based cars such as the MINI range and the BMW 2 Series Active and Gran Tourers, but also on the facelifted version of the 3 Series, the 2 Series and even on the new 5 Series.
In Cooper SD guise, the aforementioned engine develops 190 HP and 400 Nm (295 lb-ft) of torque, numbers which proved to be good enough for the G30 5er so why wouldn’t they be for the Countryman as well, right? Well, while on the 520d BMW made sure to isolate the sounds coming out from under the hood as much as possible, in the case of the MINI the mill does feel rather gruff and rough around the edges.
It’s well balanced but the sound it makes does protrude quite easily inside the cabin. While the 8-speed Aisin-sourced gearbox changes gears in a hurry to keep fuel consumption low, whenever you go over 2,000 RPM, the sound of the diesel engine makes itself heard and it doesn’t really suit the character of the MINI as a whole.
Nevertheless, the Cooper D and Cooper SD models appeal to those looking for a more practical choice from the MINI range. As a matter of fact, the Countryman as a model was developed to appeal to those faithful customers who used to own a hatch and now need more space for their young families. Therefore, the fact that a diesel engine is a bit noisier than a petrol alternative shouldn’t surprise anyone and those wanting a more efficient cruiser should know about these downsides before committing to buy.
On the performance spec sheet, the Countryman is also faster than the X1 xDrive20d model, reaching 100 km/h (62 mph) from standstill in 7.4 seconds when fitted with the ALL4 all-wheel drive system as our tested had. The sprint is not back breaking and, to be honest, the car doesn’t feel that fast but the numbers don’t lie, we put them to the test and the claims from Oxford were right on par with what our stopwatch showed.
The ALL4 system is also quite capable offroad but you won’t get to put it to the test too often anyway. That’s because of the low ground clearance of the Countryman of just 165 mm (6.5 inches). Sure, you can go for some mild off-roading, taking on some mountain roads and shallow water but that’s about it. Truth be told, you’d probably also end up feeling sorry if you took the car off paved roads as we did, as we felt like it was just a pointless exercise.
ALL4 might also appeal to those living in places where it snows all the time and in the snow the system does handle itself quite nicely as we found out earlier this year. Get a set of winter tires as well and you’ll be able to plow through some serious snow thanks to the massive amounts of torque available from down low.
Out on the road, the MINI Cooper SD Countryman handles itself quite nicely, carving canyon roads with eagerness and in a composed way, without any abrupt mood swings when changing direction on the fly. It keeps its composure but we wouldn’t invoke the famous ‘go kart feeling’ when describing how it feels on the road. Maybe it’s due to the diesel engine or the weight, but it does lean into corners more than you’d expect from a MINI. Then again, at close to 1.6 tons, what would you expect? Maybe the JCW Countryman should be your choice if you want to race down a curvy mountain road.
Around town the Countryman feels at home, with a fast steering rack that helps you navigate busy city streets and park this generous crossover into tight parking spaces. The car comes with parking sensors as standard and they will come in handy as the rear visibility isn’t this car’s forte. Around town we also saw the fuel consumption go up to 10 l/100 km (23.5 mpg) whereas outside the city limits it dropped to around 7 l/100 km (33.6 mpg), good numbers but not even close to the claims. Luckily for me, I did spend most of my time with the car out of town, making the most of the best optional feature the car came with, an Autohome roof tent.
Autohome Roof Tent
When MINI initially announced its collaboration with Italian roof tent manufacturer, Autohome, I was rather taken aback, initially thinking that nobody in their right mind would even consider such an option. And yet, it took just a weekend with such a combination to make me change my mind.
The Autohome roof tent is possibly the perfect solution for a couple or even young families that love to travel and camp in the middle of nature. Made out of Airtex and fiberglass, it is heat-resistant, remains cool, insulates, it is sturdy and easy to repair, if the occasion rises. The base of the tent has a 20 mm insulation and four handles to allow you to install it on the roof of your car as easily as possible. It also comes with a very comfortable mattress and two pillows.
The best bit about this tent is the fact that it can be so easily opened and closed. To raise it, all you have to do is unhook its three clamps, two at the front and one at the back. After that, since the tent comes with four gas springs, it will automatically raise by itself to a total height of 94 cm (37 inches). The length of the tent is 210 cm (83 inches) and it is 130 cm (51 inches) wide, accommodating two adults, easily.
Upon opening it you get two doors with an inner sealing, one on each side and 2 windows, one up front and one in the back. All of them come with mosquito netting. Inside the tent you’ll also find an LED lamp as well as plenty of storage pockets that really come in handy at night. Folding the roof back is just as easy as opening it as all you have to do is pull on it and it will fold right down.
Having spent a couple of nights with it, in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains I can tell you that it could very well be worth the investment if you like to travel and spend time in the middle of nature often as it will save you quite a lot of money in hotel bills. Since the tent also sits on top of the car, you’ll also stay protected from all sorts of bugs and woodland critters that may sneak inside over night or even during the day. Unfortunately, the Autohome roof tent isn’t available in the US just yet.
The new MINI Countryman is definitely a big step up compared to its predecessor. It improved in all important areas, from the engine power to the space offered inside and even the optional features offered. The fit and finish are better, the car is more comfortable and it will be a perfect choice for a MINI fan looking to stay true to the brand and have his needs of luggage space tended to. The big issue here is that the Cooper D seems like a better proposition.
The 150 HP 2-liter diesel engine it comes with will be enough for a family man and it is considerably cheaper. By the same reasoning, I wouldn’t go for the ALL4 all-wheel drive system as you would rarely need it. This way you’d save some money and some weight off the generous hips of the Countryman in the process, leading to an even better fuel consumption. Another issue the Countryman has to deal with is cannibalization within the BMW Group.
That’s because the X1 is still an appealing proposition that comes with a closer than comfortable price tag. Whereas the Countryman Cooper SD All4 starts at €36,414, the X1 xDrive20d starts at €41,450. Leaving aside MINI fans and the more special character the Countryman brings to the table, the X1 is actually its biggest rival at the moment. Nevertheless, the MINI appeals to a small niche, one that’s just as madly in love with the brand as they are dedicated to its core values and for them, there’s no other option out there.