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Car reviews - Mini - Countryman - S All4 Chilli

Our Opinion

We like
Eager handling, fantastic AWD grip, great brakes, direct steering, speedy 1.6-litre turbo engine, compact dimensions, rear-seat space, feeling of safety and security
Room for improvement
Needs more low-down torque, hard ride on 18s, gawky styling, clownish dash, ridiculous analogue speedo, high Cooper S pricetag, costly options, small cargo area, some road noise

29 Apr 2011

HERE’S A STRETCH – a Mini that’s more than four metres long and offers the choice of four driven wheels and five seats.

Not in our wildest dreams did we think BMW would actually do to this. But then we saw the X6 (SUV, not Austin Tasman/Kimberley) and realised that anything is possible.

Now we’re sure original Mini creator Alec Issigonis isn’t so much rolling in his grave as spinning out like a misguided Hadron Collider in utter incredulity. And perhaps disgust.

But this is 2011, so there is no point discussing the merit of using the hallowed ‘Mini’ name on something for which ‘Maxi’ might better suit. Bending and stretching brands is a German pastime nowadays anyway.

Ich bein ein bender!

Kicking off from $37,700 for the front-drive Cooper, the ‘Countryman’ is here, and – as fans of the regular R56 Mini – we could not wait to get our mitts on this new R60-series variant.

With only Suzuki’s Jimny Sierra and SX4 undercutting it in length, this is no gargantuan SUV. Yet the Mini crossover will compete with everything from Volkswagen’s Golf to the Volvo XC60.

Don’t be fooled by the styling though – the R60 is neither an off-road adventurer nor English, since it has a monocoque body and is built in Austria.

Ich bein ein Wiener!

So how Mini is the Countryman then? Even though it is approximately 100mm wider and 150mm taller, the R60 could be nothing else inside or out.

From a compact SUV point of view it is one of the most distinctive, from the Mini face (that’s blunter and angrier than ever), upright pillars and wheel-at-each-corner stance, to a bewildering number of personalisation options.

Priced at $56,050, our rorty test car was the top-line (breathe in now everybody) Cooper S All4 Countryman Chilli – a daft name that reads more like a rural election poster. Free of the go-faster bling, the base model looks cooler, calmer and more resolved in our opinion.

‘Bohemian Brothel’ sums up the black and red leather trimmed cabin, especially as so much of the adjacent trim is metallic-look plastic. Again less would be more – but that’s not really the BMW-era Mini way now, is it?

Indeed the brand cues are lashed on with dominatrix intensity – from the thick boxy pillars to the cartoonish dash, you will know immediately who makes this car.

What we want to know is why people do not complain more about the cheapo hard plastics in Minis yet slate, say, Suzuki interiors? Despite the hide trim and virtually to-scale GPS map of the world, this interior’s ambience falls short of meeting its $60K-plus on-the-road pricing (though it suffices in the least expensive versions).

Fiddly and difficult to access sums up the Mini’s twee power window switches, nestled far out of the way below the equally bitsy climate-control buttons in the lower recesses of the centre console. Matching these are equally annoying overhead toggles for the interior lighting.

We also want to mention the gimmicky airliner throttle style hand brake that feels incredibly low-rent, as well as the ‘rail’ system between the front seats. You can option it up with a sunglasses case (like our test car) which oozed tackiness, or pay up for the handier centre armrest with small storage space. We’d prefer to see a better use of space.

The speedo, too, is a joke. We have never seen one larger, with its needle orbiting an oversized central info display screen like a Sputnik satellite lost in the ‘Land of the Giants’. It is useless except to the vehicle’s occupants following behind.

Thankfully a (long-serving BMW-sourced – like much of the remaining switchgear) digital item (perhaps the world’s smallest!) sits within the standalone tacho perched directly on the steering column. The Alfa GT coupe did that 35 years ago.

You don’t get an idea of how compact the Countryman is until you are ensconced behind the (excellent) three-spoke wheel, for the front passenger is really quite close to you. The thick pillars heighten the feeling since you need to peer around them, while the door openings are surprisingly narrow.

How roomy this car is depends on where you sit. Even the tallest drivers, nestled within a firm but supportive bucket seat, will find sanctuary but a forward-jutting (yet too small) glovebox ruins the knee room for some long-legged types.

Yet two average-sized male adults will have no problem at all sitting comfortably in the back, with ample space for all body extremities. We’ve never said that about any Mini since its ancient Morris 1100 offspring of almost 50 years ago. Plus, there is the convenience of (the very necessary) overhead grab handles, map pockets and large door bins.

Further back the boot is really small (350 litres with the seats up) and quite raised off the ground. Pulling three separate flaps (which make up the three-part, two-person rear backrest arrangement) can extend the cargo space up to 1170 litres, for a flush (if highish) floor area.

Raising them again is a right pain, since you need to keep pulling each strap until the heavy backrest is back in situ. Otherwise it will lock three-quarter way up in a position BMW calls ‘cargo position’ that offers 440 litres of space. And years of chiropractic therapy.

On the other hand, the Countryman does have child-seat anchorage points directly behind the backrests, while a standard sized pram can fit in the boot, according to the company combined with the really very decent legroom and headroom on offer, it makes for a practical hatchback alternative – though most regular ones like the Golf or Focus have a far larger luggage area. Clearly, conveying four adults was the priority here.

Sitting slightly higher in traffic will doubtlessly appeal to the demographic too, as it helps offset the poor side and rear vision that the fat/phat pillars impart. There is also a very real sense of inherent safety and strength engineered throughout the vehicle’s structure, and that is another plus point, for sure.

So, as with the rest of them, this Mini’s interior is a mixed bag. Thankfully the driving experience isn’t too far from what the renowned hatchback version offers.

Behind the snub grille is BMW’s sweet and strong 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol unit. A rather sluggish naturally aspirated petrol and lusty turbo-diesel are also available.

Can this Cooper S engine cash the cheques that the rich bodywork promises, to mix a bad 1980s metaphor? Strangely, the answer is yes if you’ve never driven any modern-era Mini and no if you have.

Fast off the mark and eager to drop down a gear or four to quickly build momentum thanks to a well-suited six-speed automatic gearbox, the 1.6T suits the Countryman’s character as an overtly sporty compact SUV.

And that’s before you find the ‘Sport’ button hiding down at the bottom of the dash. One press and the exhaust growls a little more, the throttle holds back a bit less, the transmission is even more eager to kick down and the car feels like it hunkers down for more serious performance business.

Note that although off-the-line acceleration isn’t electric, the speed piles on very quickly once the engine starts to sing in this mode, sixth gear is resisted (though you can manually select it using the paddle shift or gearshifter’s manual override), and before you know it the law is being broken.

Back in regular ‘D’ at 100km/h the tacho is showing 2000rpm. Fuel consumption suffers, though, rising from an indicated 10.3L/100km around the inner ‘burbs to a steep 12L/100km-plus.

Should a Renault Megane RS 250 owner start regretting his/her decision not to wait for the Countryman Cooper S then?

No. There just isn’t enough substitute for this 1600cc’s AWOL cubic inches when an instantaneous overtaking manoeuvre is necessary. This thing needs revs to rocket forward, so until it flies past the 4000rpm mark nothing much happens, revealing a lack of torque on tap in the lower rev ranges.

Secondly, a full load takes the wind out of the Countryman’s sails somewhat.

Yet the missing midrange torque is most telling even with just a couple of people on board anyway, for it means that this oversized Mini cannot hope to be a proper hot hatch alternative unless all you are accustomed to is a Honda CR-V – in which case it will seem like a Porsche Cayman R. The jackrabbit acceleration response in any gear simply isn’t there, and that just won’t do.

We doubt you will find a sharper-steering compact SUV though. Turn-in is crisp at 2.4 turns lock-to-lock, tipping the Countryman into corners with an instantaneous enthusiasm usually reserved for much sleeker machines. The steering, too, has the weighty attitude of a handling-obsessed machine.

The thing is, though, the driver feels a tad detached from the Mini when the road gets interesting. Yes, it will dart through a turn with appealing relish it grips you like an early episode of True Blood and the brakes put an end to activities with time-warping glee.

But ultimately the weight plus lack of low-end torque plus SUV riding height conspire against GTI intimacy and interplay. You do not need to drive a regular Cooper S hatch to notice the difference. Nice try though, BMW.

Meanwhile, the All4 permanent AWD system is seamless in its transition from 50 per cent front-drive to full-rear torque distribution, and aids in the Countryman’s stable and secure high-speed feel. There’s certainly less torque steer on wet and greasy roads than in the regular FWD Cooper S. Yet despite the rural-ish name you can’t go bush so don’t bother trying.

Speaking of trying, the Goodyear 225/45R18 rubber and blacked out five-spoke alloys look the part, but they do make for a fidgety ride on anything other than the smoothest roads. Know any of those in your area? They’re also prone to transmitting plenty of road noise inside the cabin on our coarse bitumen blacktop.

But… the Countryman Cooper S is more supple-riding than its short-wheelbase brethren and that’s a blessed relief.

After a week in our test car, we dropped it off with mixed feelings.

On the one hand the styling, handling and fun factor push boundaries (as well as buttons) for compact SUVs. Option the C’man ‘S’ up tastefully and you will have a safe, secure and sumptuous urban runabout that is not too heavy on the juice either.

The pricing, however, is alarmingly high for the Cooper S All4 the cabin layout now reeks of an Austin Powers parody with its preposterous post-modern pastiche presentation, and there isn’t quite enough low-down oomph or steering tactility for a hot hatch hoon to find refuge within.

Yet if you love what this all represents and can afford it then there are no glaring problems, and we are sure you will be charmed.

We reckon the smart money might be with the front-drive Cooper D diesel ($41K, 82kW, 270Nm, 4.4L/100km, 115g/km CO2, 0-100km/h in 10.9 seconds) on standard rubber and with only a couple of choice options.

Whichever version you choose, it makes more sense than the flawed (but friskier) Clubman.

So, yes, the Countryman is a stretch. But at least it is useful for a Mini, unique for an SUV and fun to boot.

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