Take Porsche, for example. When came up with the Cayenne in 2002, many purists and enthusiasts cried sacrilege, as to them, creating an SUV from within the ranks of a sports and supercar maker like Porsche is the ultimate sin. But, 9 years later, the effect of the Cayenne on the Porsche name (not to mention the sales revenues) is so positive that they've been emboldened to try making their own saloon: the Panamera.
MINI's situation is different. Unlike Porsche, MINI is the comedian of the automotive world... great for a smile, great for a laugh, but not to be taken too seriously.
Like a comedian breaking out into serious acting, MINI is trying to hit a wider target audience; an audience that needs room for a family and enough space for more than just a few grocery bags, yet have the same flavor and flair as the original MINI.
This is their attempt at it, and they call it the Countryman.
Let's find out what it's like.
First of all, uh, It's a MINI of many firsts: it's the first proper 5 door MINI, the first to breach the 4-meter mark and the first one made available with 4-wheel drive. Of course the Clubman is the first real attempt at an "expanded" MINI, but really it just focused on extending the length of the 3-door version and not much more. The Countryman truly expands on the MINI's usual dimensions, measuring in at 4110mm long, 1789mm wide and 1561mm tall, truly expanding on the dimensions of the MINI on all fronts.
Strictly speaking, this is not the first car to bear the Countryman name, as back in the 60's there was the Austin Mini Countryman; though that was more of an ancestor to the Clubman than this new Countryman.
If there's one car that can warrant as much attention, stares and admiration as a high performance supercar, then it has to be the MINI, and the Countryman definitely has that same style cred. On the outside, MINI has updated their time honored design with something that looks much more modern; a little futuristic even, especially considering that MINI is a brand that's decidedly retro. The design is truly update, unlike the different shades of 1 shade of gray that the 2nd generation New MINI differed from look of the 1st gen New MINI. The headlamps have been reshaped, the grille and bumper are quite unique, and the rear end is quite clean. The white tub roof now features a unique kink in the rear quarter window, and overall, the car looks good riding on the flat black rims.
With the Countryman being a crossover, it now has 4 real doors for passengers (versus the 2 and a half doors for the Clubman), removing the headache (literally) that ensues by trying to get in the back seat. Where the extended dimensions have a profound effect is on interior room, as the Countryman is the first MINI to get proper seating for 5, and allows grown ups to comfortably occupy the back seats. For cargo,
At first glance, the dashboard is exactly the same as its stablemates, but upon closer inspection, several things have changed. The proportions are different, with larger aircon vents among other things, and some details have changed, including a unique parking brake handle. Nevertheless, everything works perfectly and is easy to get acclimatized to after an hour behind the wheel, not to mention the premium feel and the Germanic quality as for the first time, a MINI model is being made outside of Oxford, England, as it is made entirely in Graz, Austria.
Another aspect where the Countryman (or any MINI for that matter) shines is in the controls. For me, MINI's steering wheel for the S line is simply the best in the business. I love the feel of that three spoke steering wheel, and it just makes the drive a bit more engaging than usual. Then there are the other driver oriented details like the rally-style tachometer (complete with all essential readouts like a digital speedo, trip and fuel computers), the large analog speedo at the center of the dash, as well as the aircraft-style toggles and switchgear.
Some may say that the Countryman could be a bit more BMW than previous MINIs (the German company does own the MINI brand, along with Rolls-Royce), but is that a bad thing? Well, I like the application of the i-Drive-esque system to the center console, allowing the system to play and browse your iPod's music and videos. I do find that the BMW-style paddle shifters take a lot of getting used to, because while their paddles offer one handed driving (both paddles control can control up and down shifts) and manual shifting convenience, they just don't feel as natural as I would want.
For practicality, the Countryman again delivers the goods; literally. As I write this, I've just completed a move-in to a new place, and the versatility and cargo capacity of the Countryman was a definite plus; thanks to the Countryman having double the carrying capacity of the MINI hatchback with 350 liters with the rear seats up and 1,170 liters with the rear folded flat.
I was expecting it to feel lumbering and heavy, especially since the car has a higher center of gravity and more mass to huff around. However, at the heart of the Countryman S is the more powerful turbocharged version of MINI's 1.6 liter engine, easily pumping out 184 metric horsepower. In retrospect, the same 1.6 liter motor that I found a bit much for the MINI Cooper S 3-door seems to be a perfect fit for the Countryman S, enabling it to reach 100 km/h from naught in 7.9 seconds, just 0.7 of a second shy of the Cooper S, and tops out at a claimed 208 km/h.
Playing with the Countryman S in the corners yields another surprise: the MINI driving experience hasn't been diluted at all. It's really difficult to notice that there's more MINI around you while tackling turns, as the signature MINI design and engineering touches definitely shine through with the sharp, go-kart handling thanks to having the wheels as far out to the car's corners as possible, the sporty suspension set up and front wheel drive; though the Countryman S is available with the brand's first 4-wheel drive system, dubbed ALL4. Steering feel is very positive and the nose is eager to point in the direction you want it to. On the straights, you just nail the throttle and the 1.6 liter engine springs to life, matched with the transmission kicking down a gear or two for some wheel-spinning acceleration.
Now if you need to slow down and drive efficiently, the Countryman S will willingly do so. Over the course of a few days, my average in the city (with light to moderate traffic) was 11.3 kilometers per liter, which isn't very far off the claimed urban consumption of 12.6 km/l. Some think that being a turbo engined car that the Countryman S would be inefficient, but keeping the needle 1500 rpm can yield a steady 20 km/l in 6th gear at 50 km/h. Some have asked me if it rides softer than the Mk. II MINI, but again, the difference really is just minute shades of gray.
As fortune would have it, on the day I was supposed to return the Countryman S, heavy rains brought on by an unusually early storm gave an opportunity to try out the latest addition to the MINI family in less than desirable conditions. This is quite important, especially since the Countryman boasts much better ground clearance than any of its MINI stablemates. The ride height allows you to drive through a puddled road with confidence, though gutter-high floods should still be driven around and not through; something I had to do during the storm as this car, after all, costs PhP 2,890,000.
Back in the 90's, I remember watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, seeing then-comedian Will Smith strut his stuff with those quirky "threads" and that signature 'fro. Who would have thought that he would turn into one of the a very sought after action star and critically acclaimed dramatic actor after watching that old 90's sitcom. Maybe MINI can do the same with the Countryman.
MINI purists can and will cry foul, but after a few days behind the wheel of the new Countryman S, I feel that MINI's formula for their first "crossover" works very, very well. The Countryman can do more, can carry more and can go more places than its brothers, yet somehow they've been able to make it drive just the way I want it to... the MINI way.