The resurgence of Mini has been nothing less than spectacular. For a brand that, by its own admission, was going nowhere until its purchase by BMW as part of the Rover Group back in 1994, its worldwide sales have topped 1.7 million in the past decade.
And as a cruise through any remotely hip portion of the U.S. will reveal, the Mini hasn't just been a rousing success in Europe where small cars are not automatically viewed with derision. Mini's success here in North America has been dramatic enough to convince a number of other carmakers to believe, rightly or wrongly, that Americans are eager to buy premium small cars.
Yet despite its showroom achievements, Mini's bosses are well aware that to retain the sales momentum built up since the modern-day hardtop reached showrooms at the turn of the millennium they need to keep broadening the appeal of the lineup with new and different models, without losing the Mini essence.
It certainly worked with the convertible. It worked somewhat less well with the Clubman — a lengthened version boasting a rear-hinged side door. Now, nine years after its rebirth, we've been invited to drive a preproduction prototype of what is Mini's boldest model to date: the four-wheel-drive, four-door Countryman.
The 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman clearly pushes the limits of the Mini brand, taking it into a class it has never before occupied. But any lingering concerns about it diluting the values that have made the hardtop such a success are quickly defended by Mini officials who suggest the Countryman will help reinforce the brand's success and appeal to a whole new group of customer along with existing Mini customers who may otherwise have left in search of roomier alternatives.
Vienna Sausage Inside Line spent a day with the Countryman at Austria's OAMTC driver training center (it stands for Osterreichische Automobil Motorrad und Touring Club, if you must know), an hour or so from Vienna. We weren't able to test the new Mini — still wearing token bits of disguise — on public roads but a series of low-speed handling maneuvers combined with some high-speed track work provided some interesting insights to the dynamic properties of the new car, known internally by the code name R60.
First let's deal with the matter of size. In isolation it's difficult to judge just how much bigger the Countryman is than the standard Mini. Park the two side by side, though, and it is immediately clear that it competes in a totally different class. At 161.3 inches in length, 70.4 inches in width and 61.5 inches in height, it shadows its popular sibling by a respective 15.6 inches, 4.1 inches and 6.1 inches. Not exactly mini, then!
If it helps you get a handle on the size of the 2011 Mini Countryman, this newest Mini is a few inches shorter in length than a Volkswagen Golf but is almost 3 inches taller. At 102.2 inches, the Mini actually rides on a slightly longer wheelbase.
The increased dimensions not only allow the inclusion of four doors but also provide the basis for a relatively commodious interior with sufficient accommodation for four adults in U.S. versions of the new car — European versions will feature an optional three-across rear seat providing space for up to five at a squeeze. Not only that, but the design of the rear door opening makes entry and exit straightforward and much less restrictive than BMW's own 1 Series.
Cargo space, meanwhile, is more than double that of the standard Mini at 12.3 cubic feet (or 15.4 cubic feet if your rear-seat passengers don't mind riding bolt upright). Split-folding rear seats allow for 41.3 cubic feet of max cargo room.
Taking the High Road
The first thing you become aware of when stepping inside the 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman is the increased height of the firmly cushioned front seats. They are mounted 2.8 inches higher than those in the standard Mini, due in part to its increased ground clearance, which is put at 5.9 inches — or 0.7 inch more than the hardtop. The elevated seating provides a commanding view of the road and excellent all-around visibility. However, it also contributes to a less sporting driving position than other Mini models.
The retro-looking dashboard, with its large central speedometer and toggle switches, will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in more recent Mini models. But as design boss Gert Hildebrand points out: "We've added higher-quality plastic trim to the center console to give it a more up-market feel." An interesting addition is what Mini calls the Center Rail. Running back between the front seats, it allows different items such as a mobile phone holder and storage boxes to be clipped on and moved throughout the cabin.
With the launch of the Countryman, Mini has revealed a revised range of four-cylinder gasoline engines as well as an all-new four-cylinder diesel power plant destined for European versions, the likes of which are also set to head into face-lifted versions of existing Mini models later this year as part of a midlife refresh.
The gasoline engines headed to North America are reworked versions of today's 1.6-liter engine. In naturally aspirated form in the Cooper Countryman it delivers 121 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque. With a twin-scroll turbocharger it provides the Cooper S Countryman, driven here, with a more muscular 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque — or 192 lb-ft for brief periods of full-throttle acceleration in which the turbocharger boost pressure is increased from a nominal 17.4 psi to 20.3 psi.
As with all existing Mini models, both the Cooper and Cooper S Countryman come as standard with front-wheel drive. But the Countryman can also be specified with an optional four-wheel-drive system, called ALL4, to help bolster its traction. The hardware — developed in a three-way partnership involving BMW, Getrag and GKN — uses an electromagnetic clutch to apportion power between the front and rear wheels, while adding 154 pounds to the car's curb weight. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard across the lineup, while a six-speed automatic with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles is an option.
But Can She, You Know, Dance?
First impressions under controlled conditions? The 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman is easy and satisfying to drive, if not quite as engaging as Mini would have us believe. With its raised seating positioning providing a commanding view of the road and typically light steering, it requires little effort and can be positioned with fingertip ease — qualities that will undoubtedly see it appeal to a wide range of buyers.
But with a curb weight of 3,042 pounds, the Cooper S Countryman never feels as lively as the 2,491-pound Cooper S hardtop — an observation borne out by its claimed 0-62-mph time which, at 7.9 seconds, makes it almost a full second slower than its similarly powered sibling. It also loses out on top speed at 131 mph versus 142 mph, despite running the same gearing and 3.71:1 final-drive ratio in six-speed-manual guise.
But that's not to say the new Mini is lacking in real-world performance. Changes to the valve timing and detailed improvements to its turbocharger installation provide the top-of-the-line Countryman's compact, transversely mounted engine with excellent response and near seamless qualities all the way throughout the rev range. Mini says the Cooper S Countryman can squirt from 50-75 mph in 7.2 seconds in 4th gear, which hints at solid rolling acceleration.
Underpinning the Countryman is a newly developed steel floor pan and aluminum-intensive suspension — the latter using a combination of MacPherson struts up front and Mini's multilink arrangement at the rear. The Cooper S Countryman wears 17-inch wheels and 205/55 rubber. The prototype we drove, though, was fitted with optional 18-inch wheels with 225/45 tires — a combination Joerg Weidinger, the man responsible for the new car's chassis tuning, admits favors grip over compliance.
A Mini Grown-Up
On the low-speed handling course laid out by Mini, the Countryman demonstrated excellent body control and, thanks to its optional four-wheel-drive system, heady levels of traction. However, the new 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman predictably lacks the nimbleness of the smaller hardtop when faced with rapid changes of direction. Put that down to the new car's higher center of gravity, additional weight and larger dimensions, all of which conspire to make it less agile than existing models. It feels more grown-up, more mature — a description that also applies to its ride, which with added wheel travel, is smoother and more controlled.
Under normal driving conditions, the Countryman's ALL4 four-wheel-drive system apportions drive in an equal 50/50 percent split front-to-rear. However, it can alter the ratio to provide either the front or the rear with up to 100 percent of drive depending on prevailing traction. In a bid to avoid nasty oversteer as you close down into tight corners, drive to the rear is disconnected on the overrun.
Despite the Countryman name, Mini is quick to dispel suggestions that its new arrival is suitable for rugged off-road driving. "It's a car to get you from the city to the country on bitumen roads, not across rocky terrain or through streams," says Hildebrand. One look under the front bumper, where two large and sturdy rubber flaps hang down to channel air around the front wheels, is enough to discourage you from taking it too far off-road, for fear of damaging the underbody.
From what could be gleaned in our brief drive in Austria, the 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman will be an easy car to live with. It's not as driver-oriented as existing Mini models. But what it lacks in overall dynamic behavior it more than makes up for in terms of space. Seems that the Countryman does more than just expand our perception of what a Mini can be. It turns Mini's dynamics-over-space ethos quite completely upside-down. But with Mini's track record, traditional Mini styling and impressive levels of quality, we're not betting against the Countryman's success just yet.
While there's no official word on pricing for the U.S., Mini officials suggest the top-of-the-line Cooper S Countryman driven here will come in at around $30,000 — some $7,000 above the Cooper S hardtop — when sales begin in February 2011. That might be a challenge for shoppers accustomed to more sheet metal for that kind of money. But the same prevailing wisdom said the original Mini shouldn't have been a big success.
Either way, we might lower the suspension a bit.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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