When going to a track day, odds are you’ll be choosing the most powerful or performance-oriented car you have in your inventory. You want to be setting the fastest time possible, and having a fast car will help you achieve that. Now, what was I doing last weekend at Clark International Speedway in a diesel crossover?
Before you get your pitchforks up saying crossovers and diesels can also hit the track, yes I know it is possible. Why else would manufacturers build high-performance crossovers and even test them out on the Nurburgring if not for the purpose of going fast?
And that's why we're here at Clark for the Mini Driving Experience.
Here at the Mini Driving Experience, we could've taken the keys to the flyweight Mini 3-door, or the potent Cooper S. In fact, we could've taken anything we fancied out on track and take it for a spin. However, time constraints meant we were stuck with the sensible-shoes Countryman D.
Driving a Mini Countryman diesel on track? It looks more suited for a Sunday family day than the speedway. Just look at it. The design shows no performance intentions, nor the promise of a thrilling drive. It's a jacked-up, five door Mini with a diesel under the hood. Nothing more, nothing less.
Or so I thought.
Before we hit the track though, we met up with BMW driving instructor, KK Wong. There, he promised to show us that all Minis – whether big or small – can perform well in the right hands.
He first briefed us on the proper driving position along with the ideal driving line at Clark along with the usual do’s and don’ts. He then showed us how Mini’s Anti-Brake Locking System (ABS) worked by doing a braking test. While it goes against logic to engage the ABS on purpose, the Mini’s ABS was so advanced that it didn’t feel like the brakes were locking up. Instead, it just quickly stops the car without any of the brake pedal judder you’d get with a conventional ABS engaging.
After that, it was track time, but KK wasn't going to let us rip around Clark International Speedway just like that. Instead, we'd have to follow KK around the track, but there was a twist. While we had to stay behind him, he was showing us the proper line around Clark. If he reckons you can handle a faster pace, he'd up the ante, and the adrenaline levels. He would even give live commentary over the radio, telling you how to take the line faster.
So I hopped in to the diesel-fed Countryman, and to be honest, I didn’t expect it to handle like a Cooper S. After all, you wouldn't expect a tall vehicle shod in eco tires to be fun around the race track. A few laps out on the Speedway changed that perception, and I was actually surprised to see it take the corners well. Sure, it was no go-kart or a hot hatch, but the Mini DNA that I've been told about was present. It felt taut for a relatively high-riding vehicle, which is something you wouldn't normally describe for a crossover.
Just as impressive was the Mini’s Dynamic Stability Control. On its normal setting, the system felt obtrusive, cutting out power when it deems necessary. But switch to to Dynamic mode and it sticks to the racing line without dampening the fun. It's good to see a stability control system that protect drivers on the road, which can also loosen the reins a bit if you decide to have some fun on the track.
With all-wheel drive and that intelligent stability control system as my safety net, little did I know that KK was picking up the pace. Note to self: following a race car driver around the track, even if he is driving a three-cylinder hatchback, is tough. KK may have been only using the Mini One; the slowest car, he said, but I was struggling to keep up with him in the Countryman D. I could line up a lot of excuses such as driving a crossover, lack of seat time and whatnot, but KK Wong is one heck of a driver. And it also doesn't diminish the fact that I just drove an economical crossover around the track, and didn't feel like losing control during the run. He certainly helped me see the light, bringing the best out of Mini Countryman D from my own hands.
After the track experience, it was time for us to drive solo. KK Wong planned a time attack which would allow us to see who could set the fastest lap time. We didn’t run the whole length of CIS though. Instead, a small section of the first few corners were used, and we had to stop in a designated box in order to stop the clock.
Again, with the excuses, I was 'handicapped' by the Countryman but it continued to impress nonetheless. It was a challenge to set a competitive time in the tall crossover, given that I was up against lower-riding Coopers and Clubmans. Again, the Countryman surprised me once more as I set a time that beat out some of the sportier models.
While I didn’t get to set the fastest time of the day nor break lap records, a day at the track with the Countryman was nonetheless very fun. Despite it being a diesel crossover, it still handled very well on track and I even managed to pick up some tips and tricks which I can apply on my next track event. The Mini’s advanced ABS and stability control even showed me how far technology has come.
If anything, the Mini Countryman D made me realize something. It's not always the car you bring on the track, it's how you use it. So regardless if you have a sedan, a coupe, or a crossover, if you leave the track with a smile on your face, you know you had a good day. And needless to say, Mini's crossover is definitely up to the task of delivering driving thrills.