Back in 1968, BLMC launched a car that took the Mini concept to a larger size, offering generous space for five and hatchback practicality. History may look back on the Austin Maxi as a commercial and technical failure, but there’s little doubt the concept of a five seat, front wheel drive hatchback was spot on to the emerging and subsequently dominant trends of the 1970s and 1980s, even if the execution wasn’t.
You don’t have to read many of my posts on modern cars to discern that I do not much go for the SUV/CUV/faux off roader type of car, finding often that the difference is limited to sitting up higher with more body roll, so to hear that I enjoyed driving a Mini (sorry MINI) Countryman may be a surprise.
The car was actually a hire car brought in by work to fill a temporary need – the company has a Volvo V60 estate for regular pool car duties, but the MINI was a temporary addition, coming under the definition of compact estate car to the hire company, and against our request for a VW Golf or Ford Focus estate. It arrived with just 300 miles on the clock.
The Countryman has a bit of split pedigree – visually, it is as British as the Queen (OK, the Queen as seen through the bottom of a beer glass) but was designed in Munich, the engines are built in Birmingham with significant sub-processes occurring elsewhere in Europe, and the whole thing is assembled in Holland (Nedcar, the former DAF/Volvo plant) on the same platform as the BMW X1 SUV.
The name may hark to the early 1960s Austin Mini Countryman, but the car and the business processes behind most certainly do not.
In market terms, Mini is a semi-premium brand, sold above Ford, Toyota or Vauxhall/Opel, but below Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. True close rivals in the European context for the Countryman are hard to pigeon hole, but teh alternatives are perhaps the upper end of the Nissan Juke range if you can take the looks, the lower end of the Nissan Qashqai range if you’re not so fashion conscious, the Audi Q2 or possibly the Jeep Rengade, a Golf for the more conservative, or the slightly larger new Peugeot 3008 or Honda CR-V. Maybe, even, a year old Range Rover Evoque.
But what’s it like to actually use? I had to go half way round the London orbital motorway and then into a suburban area for a business appointment in a rail depot. So, 80 or so miles of motorway and 20 miles of suburban feeder roads, high streets and short cuts through residential areas, and back again.
They always tell us initial impressions are important, and my initial impressions of the MINI were not that positive. Aside from the undercoat grey paint (a personal choice I know but …) and the sort of wheels that seem designed to have you looking for a more attractive but costly option, that first impression is dominated by the Mini on steroids styling and arguably overdone details picking up on the Mini theme. From the overall shape, the large bug like lamps, vertical taillamps and upright screen to too many interior details to list, the impression is Mini by Tonka. I guess you either like it, or you don’t. Ambivalence is not really an option.
This car had an unusual, for the UK, specification. It had the 2.0 litre, four cylinder diesel engine, mounted transversely and driving just the front wheels, through an 8 speed automatic gearbox. Most cars sold here will have the 6 speed manual gearbox, and possibly the 1.5 litre petrol engine. Power is around 150bhp with 243lbft of torque, so this is a motor that is fully consistent with modern European turbo-diesel experience – strong mid-range acceleration and fuel economy. Above these cars, sit the Cooper S and SD with around 190bhp and Mini also offer a plug in hybrid version, with a 30 mile electric only range, and a four wheel drive option.
Size wise, the Countryman has grown since 1960. This is a car that almost matches the Focus and Golf footprint size but gains around four inches in height, some of which is lost in the higher ride height. But the seating positions are more upright, so overall the interior is perfectly capable of taking four adults, and the boot is a decent size too, with in this case, under floor storage as there was no spare wheel, just the can of spray sealant.
Inside, leaving aside the styling, it gets a bit better. Interior quality is a big step up from the earlier (2010-2016) Countryman, and while it does not feel, quality wise, like a baby BMW or even always a VW, it is solid enough and the textures and finishes on the contact points are pretty good. But I have a couple of issues.
One is the BMW style automatic transmission selector. I’m not a regular with an automatic but I’m not averse and perfectly happy to drive one, but the combination of the button to release the lever from park, the other button for reverse and the fact the lever does not move but just rocks took some time to get used to, as did the stop-start logic. The car will shut down if you held it on the brake, but put it into neutral and use the electric handbrake it would insist on starting again. That puzzled me – why would I want to hold it on the brake on the level at the traffic lights? Also, to move the gearbox into manual sport mode, you move the lever to the left, away from the driver and counter intuitive in a right hand drive environment. No doubt with more familiarity, I’d have got used to it or, more likely, simply resisted the temptation to use the facility.
The other issue was the rotary BMW style controller. Maybe I need to go on an ambidextrous training course, but operating a rotary controller you cannot really see with your left hand (90% of us are right handed) is not something that comes naturally, especially if it’s hidden by a central armrest.
The functionalities of the central big screen are fairly standard – radio, music, navigation and vehicle set up options, albeit with some rather stylised graphic devices and an almost all green sat-nav display. MINI have missed a trick, in my book, by not opting for a portrait presentation of the map, rather than the landscape format, in the round frame. There remains the standard Mini issue of the lack of cohesive design to the dashboard, as the interior tries hard to mimic something it is never going to be and which always had significant ergonomic issues anyway.
There is a lot of variation in style between, for example, the speedo and rev counter mounted behind the steering wheel, in a rather cheap looking cluster such that reading the speed on the big screen was easier on the aforementioned big screen, the period correct (arguable) toggle switches and the very 2016 dash padding and vents. It’s not a bad interior but it’s trying so hard it becomes a little irritating and wearing quite quickly. Imagine having a conversation with someone in your language, when you know that you speak his language better than he does yours, but he insists.
Equipment levels are pretty good, with the navigation, keyless start, although not entry(?), automatic climate control, reversing camera, cruise control, auto lights and wipers, and good quality trim. Most of what you might reasonably expect is there, as well the rather style over function roof rails. The car also had Bluetooth which resolutely refused to pair with my Windows phone, digital radio but no CD player.
Driving was an interesting event. I hadn’t expected to get much out of an automatic CUV, thinking it would be tall and roll. In fact, it is reasonably well tied down, and handles tidily enough, even if the ride never quite settles except on really smooth roads, for example German ones. The car doesn’t have the typical MINI (never mind Mini) nimbleness and ability to entertain the keen driver easily. It can shrink around the driver reasonably enough, but it isn’t going to be mistaken for anything other than a higher riding vehicle than the norm. Unarguably, it doesn’t live up the Mini Cooper billing, and doesn’t feel any more special than many others.
Economy was solidly impressive, averaging around 58 mpg (Imperial) in mixed use. The initial throttle action was very stiff, such that moving away from rest was either very slow as the car crept away, or sharp as the engine responded to the sharp movement of stiff throttle.
The front seats were perfectly OK, if a bit firm for my tastes and driving position perfectly acceptable, with, as mentioned, quite an upright position being mandated by the seat position. I didn’t test the rear seats other than to try them for size, which seemed reasonable and fully comparable with a Golf. Headroom was fine, and with the extra height and the rear profile there would be no concerns there, something that cannot be said for everything conventionally proportioned hatchback.
Straight line performance was also perfectly acceptable, and mechanical refinement was comparable with, but not necessarily any better than, anything else in the class. There was some wind noise, probably from the large mirrors and that bluff front end, and rear visibility wasn’t great, not helped by a comically short rear wiper. The reversing camera (not actually my preferred option – I’d rather the driver’s active conscious observation was assisted by distance control bleepers rather than supplanted by a screen that cannot see everything) was pretty well vital.
The overall impression I had therefore was that this a perfectly acceptable, in fact quite good car in several ways, if, and it’s a big if, you can live with the style and the interior. Scratch through the Mini style veneer and there’s a competent car trying to get out, assuming you’re willing to pay a premium for the Mini badge and the compact crossover rather than hatchback format. Would I guide you to one over a Focus or a Golf? I very much doubt it. The Mini is, though, much better than the Jeep Renegade I hired a year ago, but I won’t be changing my Alfa just yet.
The Mini’s value for money isn’t spectacular – as tested, this car would have cost £26000. You can get a Golf GT estate for not a lot more, or nicely optioned Golf SE estate. The much more spacious, generally interestingly styled Peugeot 3008 would also be a tempting choice. It seems to be £4000 more than a Golf for another 4 inches of height.
I said the Austin Maxi was commercial and technical failure. The Countryman is just as on-trend as the Maxi, may be even more so and the execution is of course significantly better. The driving and use experience is, once you’ve got past the rather contrived style, on the positive side of satisfactory, but it is not a totally convincing piece for a premium brand
It would be unfair and inaccurate to label the Countryman in the same way as the Maxi, but it is fair to ask if it is as good as it could, and perhaps should, have been given its engineering roots, the price, and the Mini Cooper badge.