The people at Mini must have picked up a lesson from Porsche. How else to explain the rationale behind Mini offering a four-door, all-wheel drive SUV?
When Porsche started selling its Cayenne SUV it was because it realized that Porsche Carrera owners around the world parked their sports cars next to a SUV, so why not make that SUV a Porsche as well? Following the same logic, the Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4, starting at $26,950 for the turbo-charged 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder with 181-hp, is the Mini that functions as the household workhorse that hauls the goods home from Home Depot, the buddies to softball and your hyper-active nephews to the ski hill. Save the much smaller, classic Mini Cooper for fuel efficient commuting and zipping around town on date night.
This is a Mini
From the outside the Countryman looks like the engineers put a regular Mini on steroids and sent it to WWE wrestling school. It’s taut, not bloated, and from the front and rear the Countryman looks like it wiped the “cute” off its identity and replaced it with the DNA of a Mack truck.
Slide into the driver’s seat, which is much easier to get in and out of thanks to the car’s extra inch of ground clearance, and you’re surrounded by a true Mini environment. The spacious interior can fit six-foot tall Americans and Europeans in the front and rear. The iconic giant speedometer is in the center of the dash. There are the usual toggle switches for windows, lights, and more, and a go-kart steering wheel that screams “fun” as soon as you wrap your hands around it.
Want more Mini touches? They’ve got ‘em. A center rail runs from the gear shift through the seats and through the split rear seats. Use it to hold your gadgets or sunglasses or go into Mini’s accessories and see what you can attach to the rail — sunglasses cases, cup holders, lights, folding tray tables and so on. Mini open-sourced the specs for the rail and asked product design companies to go to town with ideas.
Another tongue-in-cheek move is the parking brake. It’s not just a lever alongside the seat. Instead they turned it into the throttle levers on a plane. Who knew setting the parking brake warranted a cool experience?
But it’s the area behind the front seats where this compact SUV shines. Rear passengers enjoy bucket seats; no one has to ride bitch. The space created between the seats allows you to run a snowboard or a par-3 set of golf clubs from the rear cargo area through the cabin without having to fold down a seat. About that rear cargo area – pull up its floor and you discover a plastic tray that’s perfect for stuffing a wetsuit, waders or muddy boots into or hiding your bunny costume from your girlfriend.
This is not a Mini
This is the first Mini I’ve driven where I can stuff (barely) a mountain bike in the back with the seats folded down. And its full-time all-wheel drive system and ground clearance made short work of a couple inches of fresh late season snow I blitzed through on a snowboarding day.
With that size and drive train comes heft, and when it comes to the superlative handling and zip people have come to expect from Minis, specifically the turbo-charged Cooper S model, the Countryman is slow.
In the smaller Cooper, this engine turns the MINI into a pinball machine lever, but it’s overmatched in the Countryman. Zero-60 times are a reported 7 seconds. I was getting smoked by minivans at stoplights. And while pushing the car on tight mountain switchbacks, that heft — and relatively light rear end — led to a couple of fishtails. Sure, the traction and stability control kept things moving forward, but still, this was a new experience for me in a Mini.
The last big disconnect: The Countryman is made in Austria, not England, the brand’s birthplace.
Making this Mini More Like a Mini
The Countryman tested here came with nearly $8,000 in options that pushed the sticker to $35,150. That’s BMW 3-Series territory, people, and a 328i has more rear legroom and a trunk.
Among the options included was Mini’s smooth STEPTRONIC automatic transmission with paddle shifters. And it was only after I switched the transition into “Sport” mode that the fun began. This move kept the revs above 2,500 rpm, fast enough to keep the turbo engaged and produce the go-kart vibe that I’d been missing.
I rocketed past a line of full-size pick-ups on the way up an 11,000-foot-elevation mountain pass. Punching out of corners brought a smile to my face (and induced the fishtailing above). Maneuvering through freeway traffic felt like a video game.
The satisfying aspect about this discovery was that you could make the car move even faster by spending less money.
First, skip the all-wheel drive. It adds nearly 150 pounds and frankly, unless you live in Whistler or remote New England, you don’t need it. Doing so shaves $1,000 off the starting price and should see you do better than the 24.5 mpg I average over city commuting and hard mountain driving.
Second, go for the standard 6-speed manual transmission. A Mini stick shift is one of the most fun transmissions to work and saves you $1,250.
I could’ve done without the $1,500 premium paint job and $1,750 Premium package, which included the panoramic sunroof (sunroof equals less headroom), automatic climate control, and Harman-Kardon sound system (I’m half-deaf anyway).
If you live where it’s warm, you can save another $750 by nixing the Cold Weather package’s heated seats and mirrors.
Removing this stuff will bring the price a grand or more below $30,000. Keep the Sport package, which includes 18-inch wheels and Xenon headlights. At this price, you’ll get all that Mini spunk at a more Mini price.