by Michael Frank
The new 2017 Countryman is a half-foot bigger than its predecessor (making it the largest-ever MINI) but it’s still only VW Golf-sized. The headline appeal is that at the starting price of $26,950 for the front-wheel-drive Cooper, you get a small, stylish city car that’s easy to street park, but capacious enough to handle bulk grocery shopping trips, weekends away and more. The Countryman’s 47.6-feet of cargo volume (with the rear seats folded) is on par with Volvo’s pricier, $41,700 V60 Cross Country wagon, and nearly on par with what that Crosstrek can swallow, too.
Driving the Countryman around the rolling hills of Oxford, England, where MINIs are made, the new Countryman feels decidedly huge, but that’s relative to the paved lanes that haven’t been widened much beyond their original design for carriages 300 years ago. Still, the setting is a perfect place to test the car because the asphalt bumps and heaves, rolls off camber, and the roads are absurdly crowned, falling precipitously from center white line to gritty shoulder.
Where the outgoing Countryman could feel punishing on rural alleyways like this, the new car benefits from a wheelbase that’s about three inches longer and just over an inch wider. This chassis is far more comfortable on challenging asphalt and (once we got to the M40 expressway), a lot less boomy over highway expansion joints. It’s an adult-feeling MINI, but it’ll still bomb-around hard when pushed. That’s in part because, thankfully, there’s still sharp feel to the steering, a MINI hallmark, so placing the car precisely between curbing and the onrushing traffic became reasonably rote. It also means mild off-roading is possible (granted we are on a muddy two-track that would’ve been passable on a rear- or front-drive-only car). That does mean getting your Cooper or Cooper S with All4 all-wheel drive (or even a Plug-in hybrid with AWD, coming in June) is about handling snow or gravel roads, not rock-crawling, but even the bulk of Jeep and Range Rover owners don’t take on such rugged terrain regularly.
While of course MINI prioritizes driver engagement, the Countryman is the most passenger-centered model the BMW sub-brand sells, with the second row seats sliding rearward to offer more leg room, and the backrests can also be reclined. All vehicles also get a panoramic glass sunroof, so rear-seaters won’t feel as claustrophobic. Standard features also include Bluetooth, keyless entry/ignition, automatic headlights, backup camera and parking sensors as well as rain sensing wipers. Also key, for snowboarders and skiers, is that the second row splits 40/20/40, so you can still pass long loads through while leaving enough room for two rear seat passengers.
MINI is also offering a smart and clever flip-down bumper protector with a built-in cushion that folds out of the hatch and then stows discretely in a sub-floor cubby. That’s designed for tailgating, but given that MINI, like so many other brands, paints its bumpers, owners will likely use this as much to prevent scratches when loading/unloading heavier groceries as for impromptu picnics or tailgating.
Truly setting the Countryman apart is the arrival this June of the Cooper S E ALL4 plug-in hybrid. It’s also ultra-rare in this or any other price range because, as the name suggests, it’s going to offer all-wheel drive as well as plug-in EV-only drivability. The Countryman’s 14 miles of range as an EV is limited, but that’s a fair bit of Brooklyn, PDX, or Seattle stop-and-go crawl you could chew through without ever burning fossil fuel.
Another appealing factor is far less altruistic: torque. The bigger, more adult Countryman is getting heavier, with the Cooper S ALL4 gaining about 400 pounds vs. the outgoing version. MINI has squeezed more power from the four-cylinder and three-cylinder engines, but even as torque has increased, you feel that extra weight holding back acceleration. So the E Countryman augers a good alternative, with 221hp and a 284 ft lbs of torque, and a 0-60mph time of 6.8 seconds that’s a few fractions of a second slower than the JCW, but that torque figure dwarfs the 207 ft. lbs figure for the Cooper S, so mid-range acceleration should feel substantially more robust, and because the E Countryman uses the smaller three-cylinder engine as well, it should achieve excellent fuel economy. That data, and the additional cost markup, are not yet available.
From some angles the newest MINI looks exceptionally maxi. The tall taillights only further the impression of brawny boxiness. The graduated greenhouse that falls off toward the rear of the car helps relieve some of that utilitarian vibe, but this is no longer the cute MINI Hardtop that captured so many buyers’ imaginations about the idea of small cars being premium. This MINI isn’t that small, it isn’t that cute, but it’s more pragmatic than a lot of options in the same space—and still great fun to drive.
Interior images courtesy of MINI, all others by Michael Frank