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Car reviews - Mini - Countryman - D

Our Opinion

We like
Addresses head and heart aspects of family car purchase, still handles like a Mini, lots of standard tech
Room for improvement
Firm urban ride, excessive road noise, unrefined idle-stop, not as fuel-efficient as expected

Mini logo17 Aug 2017

By HAITHAM RAZAGUI

Overview

THE second-generation Mini Countryman is charged with surfing the wave of SUV sales popularity that was missed by its predecessor, which sat in showrooms as buyers flocked toward other premium-priced compact crossovers from Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Range Rover.

People who first drove out of a Mini dealership while they were single or perhaps as a child-free couple lacked a realistic reason to return once they had reproduced. That shiny new Mini would have to wait until mid-life crisis time.

Until now. The Countryman has grown, if not grown up. It is far more useful than before, as we found during our week of toddler-based torture testing, but we are speaking in relative terms.

And on days when the offspring are in childcare, or with the grandparents, that Mini badge on the bonnet lives up to its promise of driving fun.

Price and equipment

For the second-generation Countryman, Mini simplified the range to four mainstream variants, starting at $39,900 (plus on-road costs) for the Cooper with three-cylinder turbo-petrol engine, rising to $43,900 for the Countryman D tested here with a four-cylinder turbo-diesel.

Those wanting more poke can pay $46,500 for the Countryman S and its four-cylinder turbo-petrol while $51,500 nets a Countryman SD with a more highly tuned version of the diesel and all-wheel drive. Performance fans will go for the $56,900 John Cooper Works (JCW) version with the Cooper S wick turned right up and harnessed by all-wheel drive plus suspension modifications.

Standard equipment comprises a 6.5-inch infotainment system screen satellite navigation, DAB+ digital radio reception, Blueooth phone and audio streaming and USB input, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control, camera-based road sign recognition, a powered tailgate, a reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, automatic park assistance, keyless entry and start, part-leather upholstery, automatic high-beam, 18-inch alloy wheels with run-flat tyres, foglights, a two-tier boot and forward collision warning with low-speed autonomous emergency braking.

A pretty comprehensive spec, then, but that didn’t stop our test vehicle from having a further $8800 of options splashed all over it including $2400 worth of Climate package comprising a panoramic sunroof, heated front seats and sun-protection window tints, $2200 of Mini Yours leather upholstery, the $1500 Chilli package that adds LED headlights, LED foglights and three selectable driving modes, the $1300 19-inch “Masterpiece Spoke” alloys in Spectre Grey, $600 for illuminated Chestnut interior trim, Anthracite roof lining and chrome interior highlights at $300 apiece and $200 for black bonnet stripes.

The black roof and mirror housings specified for our car were a no-cost option, though.

Should you wish to spend even more, Mini will happily sell you a John Cooper Works Chilli pack ($4900) that includes the basic Chilli upgrades plus Cross Punch leather trim, adaptive dampers, 18-inch JCW wheels and a bodykit.

Then there is the Multimedia Pro pack ($2400) with 8.8-inch touchscreen upgrade, 12-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system and a head-up display, a Convenience pack ($2150) with electric front seats adjustment self-dimming interior mirror and security alarm and the Road Trip pack ($750) with rear picnic bench, rear seat armrest luggage net and tyre pressure monitoring system.

Interior

Apart from the questionable stripy ‘Chestnut’ interior trim customisation to go with the equally tasteless nappy-contents light brown exterior paint job our test vehicle, the Countryman cabin is typically Mini in terms of its layout being highly stylised without compromising functionality or usability.

Being a BMW Group product, finding an excellent driving position in the Countryman was a cinch. The steering wheel is great to hold, with an instrument pack that moves with it and there is also plenty of reach adjustment.

Shorter drivers complained that the extendable thigh support was too long even in the retracted position, forcing them to adopt an uncomfortable angle for their legs in order to use the pedals.

However, those at the taller end of the spectrum found the extendable supports to be a significant advantage and apart from the aforementioned problem for shorter drivers, our Countryman’s optional leather seats were very comfortable.

Headroom is generous too, even in the rear, including for the surprisingly comfortable central position on the bench despite the panoramic sunroof fitted to our test vehicle.

Limited legroom on the other hand, meant it was only just possible for two 186cm-tall people to sit in tandem as the person in the back found their knees entirely filling the scalloped area of the seat in front.

Fit, finish and quality of materials were as expected for a vehicle of this price and size, with the suede-like door trims a particular highlight even though they were thinly padded and therefore not as comfortable as they looked when used as armrests.

Slick touches including mood lighting strips in the door bins and puddle lights projecting the Mini logo onto the ground at night were other neat features that helped justify the Countryman’s price point.

Although the dual-zone climate control system was beautifully simple to operate with its three rotary controllers and minimal button count, we found we had to set it around 4 degrees cooler than most vehicles in order to achieve comfortable cabin temperatures.

This could have been in part due to the panoramic glass roof with mesh-style sunblinds that may be sufficient for what the British consider summer, but proved inadequate during a Queensland winter. It was worst for rear passengers and proper blackout fabric would be preferable.

We can see why Mini went for the mesh as it does provide a pleasant way of achieving that wind-in-the-hair feel with the sunroof open while also offering some protection from the sun. Better was the sun-protecting side window glass that we immediately noticed the absence of when driving other vehicles directly after the Mini.

Cupholders are of a good size, able to carry anything from takeaway coffee to 750mL drinks bottles, with sprung plastic inserts that hold the drinks containers firmly.

The glovebox is broad and deep but does not provide a lot of height, though the uniform shape makes it more useful than it looks. Door bins all round are generously sized, especially in the rear, and can easily take 1.25L drinks bottles.

A space in front of the gear selector suitable for sunglasses or a couple of smartphones is ideally located for the latter as it is below the USB, auxiliary audio input and 12V power outlet.

The only other storage option upfront is a recess beneath the central armrest and another space inside the armrest itself that houses BMW Group’s snap-in telephone adapter, but could be used for other purposes.

While rear passengers do get some incredibly large door bins that can accommodate big drinks bottles, there are no cupholders and only small map pockets for them to store their stuff. There is no central armrest either (it is optional), but people back there do benefit from a set of air-conditioning vets.

Getting a child seat in the back was easy due to plastic guides for the Isofix anchorages on both outboard positions and sensibly located top tether attachment points on the rear of backrests. The fact the rear bench can slide forwards and backwards to balance legroom with boot space was another handy feature to help maximise the space around the child seat when placing and strapping the youngster in.

It is needed, as the door apertures make life a little difficult compared with more conventional SUVs, particularly when threading an infant past the door frame and their capsule’s large side bolsters.

There was just enough room for a tall passenger to sit in front of a bulky rear-facing infant capsule, too, but those using child restraints had better take them with you on the test drive to make sure the entire family can fit.

Mini quotes 450L of boot capacity for the Countryman, but it is hard to imagine this being the case with the back seats in their rearmost position and fully reclined. Perhaps it includes the large and deep additional storage area beneath the boot floor that provides a surprising amount of additional space.

We managed to fit a reasonably large stroller into the boot with the rear seats right back, but little room remained for other family related paraphernalia or groceries. The rear seat bases independently slide with 60:40 split, which helped us liberate extra space and the backrest folds in 40:20:40 configuration, which among other things provides a load-through option for longer objects that proved invaluable during a trip to IKEA.

The rear bench folds flush with the boot floor, which in turn is on a level with the boot lip. With everything flattened down, the Countryman’s load capacity extends to a useful 1390L.

Also useful was a little recess in the side of the boot area with an elasticated net plus numerous other elasticated straps to help keep small items secure when on the move or simply keep them still while larger items – and small children – are loaded.

The electric tailgate on our mini was either faulty or had an over-sensitive hands-free opening system because on numerous occasions that opened or closed unexpectedly.

Also unexpected was the number of times the adaptive cruise control systems through an error saying vehicle detection was unavailable. It sorted itself out after a few minutes, but it was off-putting.

But our biggest gripe with the Countryman interior was excessive road noise, particularly from the rear tyres that generated a constant whirring. It was a problem on all road surfaces, particularly on coarse-chip bitumen.

Like the hard ride we will discuss later, we level some of the blame for this unwanted aural intrusion on the optional 19-inch alloy wheels fitted to our test vehicle. These factors made life inside the Countryman unpleasant for adults and threatened to disturb a sleeping infant.

Fortunately the volume of many of the other Countryman related noises – warning chimes and so-on – could be altered using the infotainment system, which is a pretty full-featured affair apart from its slightly small screen. And when not carrying little ones, the quality-sounding audio system helps drown out the road noise.

Although the Countryman is big for a Mini, it is still pretty small for an SUV.

But no longer is there such a dramatic sacrifice for style when using one to transport a young family, thanks in part to some clever interior packaging.

Engine and transmission

The 2.0-litre turbo-diesel used in the Countryman Cooper D produces 110kW of power at 4000rpm and 330Nm of torque between 1750 and 2500rpm, pushing all this to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.

In practice, this powerplant is all about low-down torque, and the transmission is more than willing to oblige with quick, slick shifts that effortlessly keep the four-cylinder diesel in its sweet spot. It is grunty enough to chirp the tyres under brisk step-off acceleration or trouble the tyres’ traction when powering through tight bends.

Asked to provide sustained acceleration at higher speeds, such as motorway on-ramps, it does run out of puff. This is especially true on hilly terrain, which is fine when taken at low urban speeds but can be a struggle when travelling at 80km/h and above.

But for urban, suburban and motorway work this engine just gets on with the job. We found little reason to slide the gear selector over to manual mode other than to effect down-changes during dynamic driving, and even then the Countryman’s intelligent calibration meant we could mostly leave the transmission to its own devices when Sport modes were activated on both the drive selector and gear selector.

At low speeds and when idling there is no doubt about what fuel is being burnt under the bonnet of this Mini, which is one of the reasons why we would usually recommend the quieter, smoother petrol option in a vehicle of this size.

When the idle-stop system kicks in and out, the diesel engine sends a shudder through the cabin that is not befitting at premium vehicle such as this. And although the idle-stop routine of the less expensive three-cylinder petrol is also unrefined, it is far less agricultural than this.

Our average fuel consumption during our test was 6.0 litres per hundred kilometres, achieved during the week of mixed driving including plenty of suburban errand runs. We doubt anyone would get close to the official combined-cycle figure of 4.8L/100km as we only got it down to 5.0L/100km after a long motorway journey.

This is another reason to seriously consider the less expensive petrol option over the diesel.

You could probably do without the three-mode drive selector option, which comes as part of the Chilli pack that also includes LED headlights and LED foglights, both of which are only really useful if you regularly drive in the country at night.

Driving in the eco-focused Green mode does not result in a frustratingly doughy throttle response or laggy transmission behaviour, and it is quite satisfying to see the additional kilometres of tank range being racked up on this mode’s special trip computer display.

Only on a country twisty road does Sport mode make sense, and even then its over-sensitive accelerator pedal calibration gets a little bit too much and is not really suited to the rest of this cost and dynamic package. More on that later.

Ride and handling

On the optional 19-inch alloy wheels with Pirelli run-flat tires of our test vehicle, the Countrymen had an overly firm ride at urban and suburban speeds that really jolted on sharper hits.

More positively, the suspension did become more compliant above 80 km/h and the tied-down feel provided a sense of big car stability at high speeds and the fact this is Mini’s largest model to date has apparently done little to blunt the fun and dynamic nature the brand has become known for.

Still, for the trendy, affluent urbanites who will drive this car around the city, the intrusion of even minor road imperfections – and especially speed humps – may become as wearing as the pervasive road noise mentioned earlier.

As good as the 19-inch wheels look, they are a fashion-over-function upgrade and we would suggest you stick with the standard 18-inch items.

Back to the good news. Cranking the driver seat to its lowest position makes it possible to forget this is an SUV and sets the scene for the kind of ducking and diving through traffic or taking roundabouts flat out that smaller Mini models do so well.

Heading beyond the city limits brings rewards and plenty of compensation for the slightly rough round-town driving experience, too, for the Countryman’s steering and chassis positively fizz with feedback on challenging twisty roads.

The steering is also delightfully crisp, with the grin-inducing initial turn-in revealing a front-end that gives more and more when asked, a dogged determination to follow the driver’s chosen line that is especially useful in tightening radius corners.

In Sport mode the touchy throttle response makes it all too easy for the diesel engine’s torque to overcome the tyres’ cornering traction limits and the hard sidewalls of the run-flat Pirellis combine with the stiff primary ride to send the Countryman skipping around on rippled cornered surfaces.

The more we drove the Mini in these conditions, the more we learned that despite its scruff-of-the-neck attitude at lower speeds, the Countryman is immensely satisfying to drive on fast roads when maintaining momentum through corners with lighter throttle applications and more measured steering inputs.

Driven like this, we could peel back layer after layer of grip, poise and playful adjustability.

Unfortunately the brakes were its weakest link, not really providing consistent deceleration or the kind of braking performance that provides confidence on hilly roads. There was also a fair bit of squirming when slamming on the anchors.

Then again, this is the sensible shoes diesel Mini Countryman and some of the more expensive variants are better suited to the kind of back-road blasting we subjected it to.

But at least we know the affordable end of the range is also more than capable of putting a smile on our face.

Safety and servicing

Safety watchdog ANCAP handed down a maximum five-star crash-test safety rating, specifically for the Cooper D variant tested here while all other variants remain officially unrated. It got 90 per cent for adult occupant protection, 80 per cent for child occupant protection, 64 per cent for pedestrian protection and 51 per cent for safety assist technologies.

Dual frontal, side chest and side curtain airbags are standard, along with anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency brake assist. Autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, a reversing camera and front/rear parking sensors are also standard kit, along with a speed limiter and road-sign recognition for speed limit change alerts. However lane departure warning or lane-keeping assistant are not fitted.

Mini provides a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, while the vehicle determines its own servicing intervals based on frequency of use and driving style. Mini also offers pre-paid servicing packages that can be purchased within the first 12 months of ownership.

Verdict

The SUV craze shows no signs of slowing down and while purists might question the size-related misnomer that is Mini’s latest Countryman, the model provides the brand with a key volume-seller that will help it keep the core hatchback model as a fun and compact vehicle that does not have to bloat with every generational change in order to keep customers and their growing needs satisfied.

We put our Countryman through the young family routine wringer, and it came up pretty well provided we made a couple of minor compromises that those with their heart set on this brand would likely tolerate.

Our main gripes were due to some of the options fitted and could be overcome by simply not specifying them. It was possible to deal with some of the other issues by customising various electronic settings.

And when let off the leash, this Mini delivers much of the fun driving experience that buyers of the brand’s smaller models appreciate.

But we’d save a few thousand dollars to spend on options by going for the three-cylinder petrol instead of this diesel.

Rivals

Audi Q2 1.4 TFSI Design from $41,100 plus on-road costs
Despite cheaping out on some interior trim, the feel that there is a real depth of engineering in this car ultimately put a big smile on our faces. This engaging and characterful car strikes an almost miraculous balance between fun handling and safe, mature ride and refinement, but lacks the space for infant capsules to be installed behind tall front passengers.

Fiat 500X Cross Plus from $38,000 plus on-road costs
It is more than conceivable that a Countryman may be cross-shopped against a top-spec Fiat 500X. They are both cute, but the Mini is on another level in terms of interior quality and driver appeal.

Mercedes-Benz GLA180 from $43,900 plus on-road costs
Starting to feel a bit old and does not feel as special as a Mercedes should.

Cramped inside and a bit crashy on ride comfort, too. Doesn’t matter, it sells by the truckload.

Infiniti QX30 GT from $48,900 plus on-road costs
From Japan via Britain, the Infiniti is an outlier in this company and pricey too, albeit well equipped. Looks too much like a Mazda3 and feels too much like a Mercedes A-Class to get our nod.

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