Having spent some quality time with the new MINI Cooper Countryman ALL4, I’m left with the proverbial question mark hovering over my head.
I absolutely get the need for a larger MINI, one with more doors, cargo and passenger capacity. And frankly, the Countryman fills that bill nicely. The “?” appears when I’m informed the Countryman is meant to be a crossover. Why do the minds behind MINI feel a need to go there? The company built its rep on sporty driving characteristics, tidy size, and a playful attitude. When I look at the Countryman ALL4, sitting up over its tires and wheels like a SUV wannabe on stilts, I’m like; “What are these guys thinking man?”
The thing I always dug about MINI is the cars were authentic. The Countryman can no more be a crossover than a poodle can be a pit bull. Even a cursory glance underneath the Countryman tells you it isn’t intended for trail duty. The chin spoiler is hanging out there waiting to snag every errant bit of debris it travels past.
Additionally, MINI’s characteristically super quick steering, when combined with the Countryman’s elevated ride height, leave you feeling more than a bit “tipsy” in quick maneuvers—even though body roll is nicely controlled. You have to completely recalibrate your steering inputs to avoid jerking your passengers all over the place.
On the plus side though, grip is great. The new all-wheel drive system contributes nicely in this regard. This is MINI’s first all-wheel drive model, BTW. My tester was an S model with the 181-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 mated to MINI’s six-speed manual transmission. It was nice combination, enabling the Countryman to exhibit swiftness, if not exactly outright speed. Still though, the six-speed’s gates could be defined a tad better. I found myself lost in the MINI’s gearbox a couple of times, though I suppose if I lived with it more than a few days I’d get more adept at negotiating it.
Another plus is the innovative new Center Rail system. Extending from the front to the rear of the passenger compartment, it replaces a conventional center console. You can attach different specific storage solutions to it for cupholders, external audio devices, mobile telephones and other comfort features. All in all, the Countryman is a nice car. It has all the traits I love about MINI product—in a new more capacious package.
But honestly, the first thing I’d do if I bought one would be to take it to a suspension house and get it set down to the proper ride height. Check out the Countryman’s photes and imagine how aggressive a lowered version would look, particularly with the new “angrier” styling cues. That’s the direction MINI should have gone. Further, if the Countryman sat lower, particularly with its all-wheel drive, its handling would be amazing. Plus, it would be better looking—in addition to larger, and more capacious. A lowered all-wheel drive turbocharged Countryman with an 18-inch tire and wheel set would introduce a whole new variety of driving fun to the MINI lineup.
Driving pleasure is part and parcel of the whole MINI vibe. Why make a MINI that looks like it wants to do something it can’t excel at? If the Countryman were truly capable of going off road that would be a different matter altogether, but it isn’t, so the car looks pretentious. MINI’s product people would be much better off ordering the car lowered to the Cooper’s standard ride height and telling the world they have a more capacious model for people who want to indulge themselves in the MINI experience but have families and things to haul. This would go over really well, particularly now with gas prices strapped to a skyrocket.
And yes, I get that MINI plans to take the Countryman rallying in an effort to build some cred. However, just as Subaru learned with the WRX and STi, even if it is based on a rally car, you still have to tune it specifically for the street to really make it work. MINI needs to bump the faking and get back to making.
MINI Cooper Countryman pricing starts at $22,350.