8:00am Thursday 16th September 2010
By Andrew Smith
To call the Countryman a Mini is something of a contradiction because in terms of size it certainly isn’t mini. Cutting through the hype, this car is firmly in hatchback territory and competing against the VW Golf and Ford Focus, so unlike the standard model, it does not create a niche of its own but rather takes its place in an already crowded market.
That said, there is always something special about driving a Mini thanks to the pin-sharp “go-kart feel” handling and exhilarating turn of speed in the Cooper S models.
The question was whether that would carry on through to the Countryman, which is almost two feet longer and six inches higher than its stablemate.
Mini parent company BMW did a lot of research and found many owners were switching because they had started a family or needed a bigger car with, crucially, four doors and a large boot.
Built in Austria, the first Mini to be made outside Oxford, the Countryman is the answer.
And to add further appeal, BMW has added optional four-wheel drive which, while not exactly allowing the car to ford rivers, will be sufficient to negotiate the type of snow and ice which left many motorists stranded last winter.
Behind the wheel the car certainly feels larger. There is enough room in the back seats to accommodate two, or even three, adults in relative comfort while the boot is big enough for a couple of suitcases or a pushchair — something which would be very difficult in the traditional format car.
Inside, the test cars were fitted with comfortable leather seats and the basic layout is familar to anyone who has driven a Mini, although the central speedometer, originally designed to mimic the original Mini dial, has ballooned still further to accommodate a satellite navigation system and a host of other optional electronic tricks.
I found it difficult to read this cartoon-like layout and its central position means you have to take your eyes off the road to check. Fortunately, there is a digital read out in front of you incorporated in the rev counter.
BMW has introduced a new diesel engine with the Countryman, the first it has produced in-house for Mini with significant improvements in fuel consumption — it can return more than 67 miles per gallon — and emissions.
And while it is frugal, it is also a reasonable performer. But the Cooper S is still the star of the show with its instant throttle response and surge of acceleraton that can really stretch the car to its limits.
But with the combination of four-wheel drive, traction control and cornering brake control, it is very difficult to feel where the car’s limits are as you can feel the electronics kicking in and gently ensuring the car stays on track, which some would say takes a little of the fun away.
The handling its not quite as sharp as the smaller car but it is still very rewarding to drive and more than a match for the competition, although the price range of between £16,000 and £22,000 is at the top end of the hatchback market.
Mini is still pitching this car at a young, fun-loving market encapsulated by features such as the sliding central rail which can include holders for sunglasses, an iPod or even hooks to hold take-aways. This rail can run all the way to the back of the car if you opt for the four-seat option, or five seats are available at no extra cost along with a half-sized rail.
The car is also at the cutting edge of technology with the Mini Connected function allowing an iPhone to be linked into the car’s entertainment system. A free app includes features such as web radio (so you can listen to your local station anywhere you want), a news feed, Facebook and Twitter support — the possibilities seem endless.
Ultimately the Countryman is an ideal solution for those wanting a Mini but with that all-important extra space.
And the future already looks bright for the new arrival. If you want one, the waiting list stretches to January.
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