Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Do you need a smallish, all-wheel-drive turbocharged wagon to convey you and the Missus down a soggy or snowy road to your weekend cottage? Then Mini has got just the wagon for you: the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4.
The rest of us, however, are left scratching our heads wondering why this vehicle, with an as-tested price of $35,400, is worth anywhere near that much. Sure, before adding all the options our car started out with a more reasonable base price of $27,650, but even the $35K version doesn't have a navigation system or leather seats. So yes, it could have been even more expensive.
Maybe Mini is hoping to pinch some Pacific Northwest or Nor'easter all-wheel-drive sales away from Subaru and Audi. After all, they're a trendy bunch in those parts, so they might be more willing to forego a little utility to drive a Mini.
Then again, even if those two unique groups become interested, there's still a big swath of flyover territory in between that needs convincing. That's going to be a much tougher pitch and even after ample time behind the wheel, we're still skeptical.
The engine in the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4 is the same one found under the bulbous hoods of other 2011 "S" model Mini Coopers. It's a recently updated 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with Valvetronic and direct injection. The maximum torque produced remains the same as last year's S engines (177 pound-feet at 1,600 rpm), but horsepower has increased by 9 to 181 at 5,500 rpm.
We're happy to report that the Countryman S All4 is far from slow — even with the added weight and inevitable mechanical losses of all-wheel drive. Sixty mph arrives in 7.6 clutch-torturing seconds (7.3 with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip).
While that's pretty impressive for a small-displacement four-cylinder engine, the thing that truly impresses us in everyday driving is the deep and broad torque plateau that begins at just 1,500 rpm. Especially with the additional 15 lb-ft of twist (192 lb-ft total) available in limited spurts during "over-boost" conditions. There's hardly a reason to tach-out each shift because there's always enough grunt to satisfy a need to pass or merge even at relatively low engine speeds.
The Beauty of All4 Drive
There is a front-drive Countryman S, but our "All4" gets a permanent all-wheel-drive system. It consists of an open front differential with brake-actuated left-to-right torque redirection, along with an electromagnetic clutch-operated rear differential. Front-rear power distribution varies from 100-0 to 50-50.
At the test track and in less intense driving, it works seamlessly and most would be hard-pressed to detect power being shifted around. Also, there's none of the driveline-induced over- or understeer that happens in some other vehicles if you happen to jump out of the throttle midcorner.
Our Countryman S All4 was also equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission, although a six-speed automatic is available for an extra $1,250. We like the gear spacing and the well-spaced shift gates, but the clutch is another story. The weighting is fine; it's the engagement point that's a problem, as it requires using your entire leg rather than simply flexing your ankle. In other words, if your journey requires a lot of starting and stopping or a hill or two, your left leg is going to feel it. Thankfully, the car has a standard hill-hold mechanism that keeps you steady while you're working that clutch pedal.
That said, all-wheel drive paired with a manual transmission is a unique combo you can't find in many (hardly any) crossovers. Of course, Subaru and Audi do offer this, though in decreasing numbers.
A Big Mini That Still Drives Small
The Countryman's suspension consists of MacPherson struts up front and a multilink setup in back. Our test car rode slightly harsher due to its $1,000 Sport package that includes 18-inch wheels (short tire sidewalls) with performance run-flat tires (stiff sidewalls). The package also includes auto-leveling xenon headlamps with pressure washers, white-lens turn signals and black or white hood stripes. Our test car was also outfitted with optional $1,000 Anthracite-colored double five-spoke wheels — they only look like two-piece bolted-together wheels, however.
We found the ride and handling trade-off was often very good. In fact, compared to the smaller Minis with their shorter wheelbases and squarer footprints, we prefer the less frenetic ride and lack of nervousness in the Countryman's steering. We attribute this to, among other things, the Countryman's 102.2-inch wheelbase and suspension travel.
The Countryman's wheels are 1.9 and 5.1 inches farther apart than the other Mini models and although it looks much higher off the ground, the Countryman's ground clearance, at 6.3 inches, is only 1.2 inches greater than that of the other Mini models. Yet the car still feels confident and capable, but without the need for constant vigilance. We wonder how many of the occasional tire thumps would still exist if the stiff-sided run-flats were replaced with conventional tires.
Pushed to their limits, however, the Countryman's Goodyear Efficient Grip tires (there's a marketing coup) grip our skid pad with 0.83g in lateral acceleration and weave through the cones at an exhilarating 67.7 mph. Pressing the Sport button modifies only steering weight and throttle tip-in, not suspension firmness. We have loved the direct action and the remarkable amount of feel from the electric-assisted power steering in the Mini since it first arrived. It's as good in the Countryman, just less likely to change lanes if you sneeze.
The brakes are more than capable of handling the extra weight, too. Our shortest stop was 117 feet and the pedal feel was consistent throughout the tests with little, if any, signs of fading.
Scaling the Mini Lineup
In terms of relative and absolute size, the Countryman holds some surprises when compared to the rest of the Mini clan. It is, indeed, about 5-6 inches taller than the Clubman or Cooper, and naturally, its two full-size rear doors push the now-familiar shape into a longer vehicle, too. Some say the proportions of the Countryman don't quite work (wheels look too small and the driver looks like a child behind the wheel of a regular Mini Cooper) but compared to the 2.5-door Clubman and the basic two-door Cooper it isn't much larger inside with two exceptions: rear leg- and shoulder room.
Despite the Countryman's overall length measuring 6 inches longer compared to a Clubman and 15 inches next to a Cooper, front legroom in this Mini actually measures 1 inch less than both of the smaller coupes. Rear legroom is much improved, however, as the Countryman has 1.5 inches more room than the Clubman and nearly 4 inches more than a standard Cooper. There's at least 6 inches of additional shoulder room in the rear bucket seats of the Countryman as well, which makes it feel even more spacious.
Finally, the luggage and maximum cargo capacity measurements may sound significant on paper, but they don't render much more utility in absolute real-world-use terms. The Countryman can hold 16.5 cubic feet of luggage (including some under-floor space) with the rear seats up and 41.3 cubic feet of cargo with the seats folded down.
Honestly, none of the Minis are cargo haulers — the name Mini should tell you that — and each could easily swallow groceries and/or a couple of bikes if you really tried. And yet, all Minis seat just four passengers — in sliding scales of comfort depending on the scale of those passengers, that is. By the way, the rear buckets in the Countryman slide a few inches fore and aft for a little extra flexibility.
At 3,252 pounds, the claimed curb weight of the Countryman All4 is 584 pounds greater than a Mini Cooper S and 397 pounds more than a Clubman S. Despite our skepticism and an engine that hums at 2,500 rpm at 70 mph in 6th gear, this translates to an EPA combined (real-world) fuel consumption difference of just 3 mpg, which is pretty remarkable considering the weight and all-wheel drive.
We validated the government estimate with our own 26 mpg over 1,400 miles of mixed driving.
Does It Work?
When we finally put our data away and stopped drawing the obvious comparisons, we must admit that we enjoyed driving the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4. Not just because of the attention it earned, but because Mini retained the charm of the other models while making it more livable, some say tolerable, as a daily driver.
Had this been a full test of a front-drive $25,250 Countryman S and not this $35,400 All4 with its $7,500 in options, we'd feel much better about the four seats, so-so luggage and cargo volume, and tragically Mini interior design. We love how the Countryman drives, rides (most of the time), and even the looks are growing on us.
But at $35,000, this Countryman is less impressive, mainly because there are so many other vehicles in the same price category that offer so much more. That's not the final word on this particular Countryman, though, as we recently added it to our long-term test vehicle rotation. Now it has 12 months to show us why it deserves its lofty price. As of right now, we're thinking the base model is a better way to go no matter where you happen to live.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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