IN LUCIRE, it’s often been quite easy to do a Mini story. When stuck, use any old story about previous Mini owners: HM the Queen, John Lennon, Peter Sellers. Or, that old standby, The Italian Job. Mini doesn’t mind because, at the end of the day, it is supposed to be a heritage product, with design cues that are meant to remind us of the original 1959 model. BMW has stayed firmly away from anything that might remind us of aberrations such as the 1969 Clubman, the Mini that thought it was a Mk II Ford Cortina.
Countryman, then, is one of the Minis that depart from the formula. In essence, it’s a crossover: a larger Mini, with five conventional doors for the first time, and one might even say it’s deceptive of the company to call it ‘Mini’. It’s probably more accurate to call it ‘Maxi’, and that’s where the difficulty comes in.
If you’re a car historian, Maxi was indeed a corporate stablemate to the Mini back in the 1960s and 1970s, but it looked nothing like the clever little car. If anything, it looked old-hat when it launched, thanks to carryover doors from another unhappily styled British car, the Austin 1800, usually nicknamed the Landcrab. So any comparison to the Maxi is invalid: Countryman may be large, but it adopts many of the design cues of the Mini. It is, if you like, a Mini on steroids, with a raised ride height and the option of four-wheel drive.
If it is a Mini on steroids, then, maybe the more accurate historical vehicle is the Morris 1100, a car from the creators of the original Mini, with styling input by Pininfarina. Through much of the 1960s, it was Britain’s top-selling, mid-sized car: innovative, roomy and a great handler. It wasn’t a crossover, but a conventional saloon, but it fulfilled what Mini says Countryman does. Countryman is for those people who find the basic Mini too small, because they’ve now started a family, yet want all the Mini brand values, and greater accessibility.
When explained like that, it makes perfect sense, and a Morris 1100 it isn’t, either. In the 21st century, families who begin with a Mini and want to stay brand-loyal might not want something as simple as a larger saloon. (BMW will sell them an Einser, if that is the case.) No, Mini means something a little special, whether it’s The Italian Job you’re buying in to, or Goodbye, Pork Pie. So scaling up a front-wheel-drive car, as the British Motor Corp. had done with the Morris in the 1960s, won’t cut it. There needs to be something for the urban jungle, what you have is above a mere Golf or Auris. You need to sit more highly, and peer down on their choices.
Enter the crossover.
There’s a market for these in any case. As much as we wanted SUVs to go away in the mid-2000s, car companies kept coming out with more. The Mini Countryman faces off a number of rivals on the smaller end of the scale, none of which have quite the same cheeky appeal: BMW’s own X1, with lines emphasizing sporting appeal; the Volkswagen Tiguan, which just looks like a raised Golf; and the Audi Q3, which looks like a scaled-down Q5. We haven’t tested the latter two to offer intelligent comment.
Then there are oddballs such as the Nissan Juke, which is such an odd amalgam of genres it might as well be a bad Bollywood film, and mainstream entries in the compact SUV market such as the Samsung QM5, a.k.a. Renault Koleos.
Let’s start with the street cred of the Countryman. Alongside any of its rivals, it has oodles. Our test car, a Cooper S All4 fitted with so many extras it approached the NZ$70,000 mark, turned heads wherever it went. What was interesting was that it was male heads that it turned, all of whom remarked on how this was the latest. Countryman is butch, from lights that are no longer cute and round up front, to the chrome surrounds of the glass area that separate it from the rest of the car, making the lower metal half look larger and tougher. It’s no coincidence that BMW wanted Countryman to be the rally star for Mini: no regular Mini could look this mean, not even the tricky (and very fun) John Cooper Works model.
My old friend Maitland Waters thought it could be a babe magnet, but I have a feeling it was really the male soul it stirred. And maybe it should. All that extra size says two things about a male driver of the car: first, ‘I still enjoys a drive,’ and secondly, ‘Look at the extra room I have. There’s no problem with my equipment.’ Because it’s no longer the nimble, go-karty Mini of yore, it’s not a babe magnet. It signals that we’re family men. And that attracts a very different kind of woman altogether.
Dynamically, it is exactly what you expect: a larger Mini. The size means that the go-kart feeling is gone, but Countryman remains a decent handler. However, as with the Clubman we tested in 2008, you still need to turn the sport mode on for the gearbox to ensure a decent pace (and, for that matter, a more throaty noise from the exhaust). Otherwise, it has a tendency to be sensible, which is fine if you actually have the kids in the back—less so if you want to relive the getaway over the Italian Alps in Genève.
But Dad can’t be sensible without watching the dollars. Mini claims 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg Imperial) and carbon dioxide emissions of 157 g/km. The latter figure is definitely not Mini-like—only the John Cooper Works models surpass that with 167 g/km—but the former seems respectable. We never saw our test car exceed 40 mpg in real-world testing, and as usual we were somewhat lead-footed, but given the size, we were still happy with figures in the mid-30s.
However, we did have our trade-mark Italian Job CD in the player through this test, just to see if it would work. Strangely enough, it does.
While models like the John Cooper Works beg to be driven because of their dynamics, the Countryman begs to be driven because of how it looks. It’s not cute, but, for those of us of the male gender, it is a statement vehicle. We didn’t even bother sitting in the boot to see if it could fit a human being, or subject it to those very practical tests, because we actually wanted to drive it.
Lately, BMW has been very good at turning those cars that inexplicably connect to the soul but make little practical sense, like the X6, which we love. We can’t see Countryman appealing to the ladies quite as much as a regular Mini, but for the boys, and the rally fans, it hits the spot. We’d have it ahead of the Asian brands, even the BMW X1. And on paper, it draws us in a lot more than Tiguan or Q3. None of those have the rallying image—and in that respect, Countryman trades on something very new to the Mini brand: the present.
Forget Paddy Hopkirk and the Monte Carlo Rally, or The Italian Job. It might have those retro details, but, it’s the present World Rally Championship that Mini wants us to think about. For the first time since BMW took over the British brand, it has a car that is no longer obsessed with heritage. That seems very 2010s. •
Mini means something a little special, whether it’s The Italian Job you’re buying in to, or Goodbye, Pork Pie. So scaling up a front-wheel-drive car, as the British Motor Corp. had done in the 1960s, won’t cut it. There needs to be something for the urban jungle, what you have is above a mere Golf or Auris. You need to sit more highly, and peer down on their choices
Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.
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