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RPM TV Website | June 27, 2017

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Maximum attack as Mini Countryman goes on SUV offensive

Maximum attack as Mini Countryman goes on SUV offensive
Deon Schoeman

When is a Mini still a Mini? It’s a question that’s been posed ever since BMW took over the British brand, and started building cars that were bigger and fancier than the original. The new Mini Countryman is the biggest Mini yet – and it might also be the most versatile. But does it maximise the Mini experience?

I suppose it depends on what people expect of a Mini. To me, the badge still evokes images of a small, sporty, agile machine with a strong streak of individuality and a real talent for driving fun – in other words, the antithesis to the Countryman’s expanded dimensions and portly kerb mass.

However, BMW is clearly intent on extending the Mini brand’s reach. And while it’s got rid of niche models like the Coupé and the Roadster, it wants to attract a larger, more mainstream audience to the nameplate with derivatives that are – yes, you guessed it — bigger and more versatile.

The new Countryman looks even bolder, even more pugnacious, than its predecessor. It’s also grown in all dimensions: the car is 20 cm longer, 3 cm wider and 13 mm taller. The wheelbase has grown by 7,5 cm, and the ground clearance has increased by 25 mm. The result is a Mini that looks more like a sporty SUV than a hatchback or a crossover.

BMW is keen to promote the Countryman’s extended, SUV-style capabilities, and the exterior treatment confirms this. The roof rails, for instance, are much more prominent than before, while scuff plates at the front and rear, as well as along the sides, suggest a measure of go-anywhere talent.

That said, don’t take those cosmetic embellishments too seriously: the 165 mm ride height is generous by road car standards, but it doesn’t turn Countryman into an all-terrainer. The big wheels and low-profile run-flat tyres don’t help either.

However, because the Countryman is bigger, the interior gains are significant.

Not surprisingly, the newcomer’s cabin is spacious and well equipped, while retaining Mini-specific traits like the large round centre dial with its integrated colour display, and the toggle switches. That said, the execution has become very smart and sophisticated – more BMW than Mini, in fact.

That’s a good thing, considering that the cockpits of older generation Minis haven’t always convinced as far as tactile quality and longevity are concerned. Here, the execution looks and feels more substantial, leaving a welcome impression of overall solidity.

It’s left to the on-screen menus, the comprehensive connectivity options and the garish lighting schemes to express the youthfulness that has been part and parcel of the Mini personality since BMW took over the reigns. In the Countryman, those elements feel almost too frivolous, though.

There’s nothing silly about the Cooper S drivetrain, though …

For now, Countryman buyers get to choose between the Cooper and the Cooper S. The Cooper has a 1,5-litre three-cylinder turbo engine good for 100 kW, but this Cooper S is equipped with a two-litre, four-cylinder turbo producing 141 kW and 280 Nm. Coming in May is the fiery 170 kW JCW version, while a frugal 110 kW turbodiesel joins the range in September.

A six-speed manual gearbox is the default transmission across the range, while the Cooper can also be had with a six-speed auto. Cooper S models offer the option of an eight-speed Steptronic auto in standard or Sport versions, the latter with shift paddles. All Countryman models are front-wheel drive, except for the upcoming JCW which will have all-wheel drive as standard.

The Cooper S, as tested here, may not be as hard core as the JCW, but it has ample urge, and the selectable Driving Modes add extra zest. Select Sport, and you get crisper steering and sharper throttle response, as well as a more virile exhaust note. The optional dynamic damper control adds a tauter ride to the Sport mode’s sphere of influence.

Best of all, those extra centimetres don’t get in the way of the Countryman’s dynamic talents.

On the move, the supersized Mini doesn’t feel as big as it looks. This Countryman S gets from rest to 100 km/h in 7,4 sec which is brisk, but not exactly in the hot hatch league, while top speed is 224 km/h.

It’s still a wieldy and agile machine, and the steering feels better weighted than before, while the chassis is always up to the task, even when caning the car through the twisties. That raised ride height never gets in the way of driver feedback: in fact, the harder you drive the Cooper S Countryman, the better it gets.

The biggest surprise of all is how good the Countryman feels on dirt roads. Despite considerable wheel spin and lots of stability control intervention, the Mini is easy to control on loose gravel, showing an inherent composure that’s impressive. The suspension set-up is responsive but never unforgiving.

This second-generation Mini Countryman hasn’t only grown in size – it’s also a more grown-up car. In fact, this is probably the first Mini family car. It’s no longer a quirky runabout, but in this guise, it’s a hatchback and small SUV rolled into one. Vitally, it retains enough of the brand’s DNA to wear the Mini badge with pride.

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