Just how un-Mini can a Mini be and still legitimately be called a Mini? At what point does the entire Mini brand collapse under the weight of its inability to grow beyond its diminutive name? In sum, is the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman a real Mini or just a Pontiac Vibe that's been genetically reengineered to resemble an old British car?
The Countryman is the Mini that dares to have four conventional side doors. It's also the first Mini to offer all-wheel drive. And, of course, it's the biggest Mini ever. Everything the Mini hasn't been, the Countryman is.
So the Countryman isn't just another small crossover, but a corporate existential crisis. But at least it's an existential crisis you can drive. And how it drives may solve the crisis.
Big for a Mini
Sure it has the cute Mini face and it has the chunky monkey Mini proportions, but by Mini standards, the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is huge.
Its 102.2-inch wheelbase is 5.1 inches longer than the regular Mini hardtop and at 161.8 inches overall, the Countryman stretches out a full 16.2 inches longer than its little brother. For contrast, the 2010 Toyota Matrix's wheelbase is only 0.2 inch longer, but the Matrix is 10.1 inches longer overall. So while the Countryman is bigger than other Minis, it's still a small car by most any other standards.
But as a small car with a relatively long wheelbase, the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is a family-friendly little twerp. That is, as long as the family doesn't have too many members and none of them are too wide.
Every Countryman has two bucket seats in front and a useful cargo space behind the second-row seats that can hold up to 12.4 cubic feet of luggage. Putting the second-row seats down opens the space up to a sizable 41.3 cubic feet.
But it's that second row that's the problem. Instead of a three-wide bench back there are what amounts to two foldable clones of the front buckets. So the Countryman is rated to seat only four, not five. And there is no option for a third seat. So if you want a 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman and have three kids, sell one of the kids. If you have four kids, buy two Countrymen.
Go for the base 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman and you get a vehicle that weighs 46 pounds shy of 3,000 pounds, according to Mini. That's a sizable chunk of weight given that the base 1.6-liter four makes just 121 horsepower and a woozy 114 pound-feet of peak torque at 4,250 rpm. The six-speed manual transmission shifts well, but it can't beat back the laws of physics and the base Countryman feels strained and unsettled. Go for the six-speed automatic and there's a gooey layer of torque converter slop that turns the Countryman into a misery box.
But at least it's a misery box that gets good mileage. The EPA rates the $22,350 Cooper Countryman at 27 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.
Do whatever is necessary to get yourself into the far more engaging Cooper S, as its turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder is rated at 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. There's even more torque on tap in "overboost" situations where production swells up to 192 lb-ft. It may be going too far to call the turbo Mini engine great, but it's an indispensible component in making the Countryman S a blast to drive. It also delivers 26 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway according to the EPA.
The turbo motor isn't really zingy in the typical four-cylinder fashion. Instead, it delivers such sweet torque production that there's always thrust available even if you forget to downshift. Plus the six-speed manual feels solid and its ratios are perfectly matched to the engine's power band. The six-speed automatic isn't as sweet, but it's tolerable with the turbo engine and it includes handy paddle shifters.
Mini claims the base, manual-transmission Countryman will tiptoe from zero to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds and that, cross-referencing on the Official Inside Line Metaphor Chart, is an eternity. Meanwhile, the Cooper S with the turbo rips off the same deed in 7.0 seconds (7.3 with all-wheel drive) and, looking at our table of approved adjectives, that's "zippy."
As solid a product as the front-drive Cooper S Countryman is, the Cooper S Countryman ALL4 with all-wheel drive is even better.
The all-wheel-drive system uses a direct-drive center differential and a rear diff with an electromechanical clutch pack. In normal driving, all the torque is directed to the front wheels and the ALL4 runs like any other Countryman. But on a dusty or slimy surface, up to half the torque can be directed to the rear wheels.
It's enough to kick the rear end around if you're into that kind of thing. It doesn't quite have a rally-car level of control, but there's potential in there that you can feel. Let's see what Prodrive can do with it in the WRC next year.
Every Mini has been known for its nimble chassis and the Countryman has one, too. With MacPherson struts in front and a multilink system in back, the Cooper S Countryman is stable and has quick reflexes despite its ride height and relatively long wheelbase. No, it's not as instantaneous in its reactions as the smaller Minis, but it's still plenty good.
Some of the credit goes to the standard 205/55R17 Pirelli P7 tires all Countryman models wear (18-inchers are optional 225/45R18). But beyond the tires, Mini should also get some credit for tuning the electronic power rack-and-pinion steering well. The Cooper S Countryman feels connected in a way few, if any, other crossovers do.
Still Very Mini on the Inside
The interior design is in the now-familiar Mini idiom. That means a huge speedometer (about the size of some supermarket produce scales) centered on the dash with a tachometer atop the steering column. It's a very self-conscious design, but then again Mini isn't aiming to please everyone. It just needs the people who like a Mini to like it. And they will.
Whether finished in cloth or leather, the 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman interior feels high quality. And with its slightly elevated seating position and ride height, it's a good perch from which to control the car. But be warned, space for hips and shoulders is limited. Mini lists the Countryman's width at 70.4 inches, which is almost an inch wider than a Toyota Matrix, but a lot of that width is fender flares and side mirrors. And the Countryman's greenhouse is significantly narrower than the vehicle's beltline.
In compensation for its lack of a center seat in back, every Countryman has a "Center Rail" system that runs from the dash to the rear seatbacks. All sorts of boxes, entertainment components and handcuffs could potentially be attached to these two rails, allowing the interior to be optimized for particular tasks and tastes. An electronic network embedded in the rails allows devices like cell phones and iPods to be integrated into the factory entertainment system. Ultimately how many gadgets and doodads the aftermarket and Mini's own accessories department will offer for the rail system remains open for speculation. However, it should guarantee the Countryman's popularity among technologically avant-garde dominatrices.
Mini Me Made Meaningful
The 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman's modest utility will knock it off the buying lists for many family buyers. And anyone who wants the full Mini experience is still better off choosing one of the shorter two-door models. So, yes, the Countryman is aimed at a very narrow sliver of the market.
Still, it's a lucky sliver. They're getting a crossover that drives pretty much like a Mini and looks cuter than a bulldog puppy. If their aesthetic sensibilities are attuned to the Mini vibe, they'll be fully satisfied. It's not just a Pontiac Vibe.
Ultimately, the Countryman is just a modest step out of the comfort zone for Mini. Yes, there is a Mini existential crisis, but the Countryman is not the product of a total personality meltdown. The 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is still very much a Mini.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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