by Matthew Wilson
Should anybody be surprised? After Mini launched their Clubman in 2008, it was only a matter of time before they caved to the latest trend: a CUV. While it's far too easy to ridicule Mini for going this route, in the end though, it wouldn't make much sense to do so. The reason is that the Countryman works. More specifically, it works very well and not just as a Mini, but as a capable vehicle for some off-roading as well as daily driving.
Whether it was magic, witchcraft, or just plain solid engineering (I'd bet on the latter, no offense to a certain Senate candidate from Delaware), the all-new Mini Countryman is a winner. When comparing the size of the Countryman to the Clubman, it's not as a big as many have feared. It's six inches longer, 4.1 inches wider, 5.1 inches taller, and has a 1.9 inch longer wheelbase. Visually, it's also a sign of things to come from Mini. It has the brand's latest front and rear-end styling, which is now more aggressive and less cutesy than before.
While there's the typical chrome trim available, the overall look is more reminiscent of a snarling cat. Besides the design evolution, Mini has added other exterior touches that set it apart from the smaller Clubman. There's now a standard liftgate instead of the dual barn doors found on the Clubman, which greatly improves loading and visibility. Speaking of user-friendliness, word is that it'll be available in numerous configurations. It appears Mini is hoping to attract as wide an audience possible, with everyone from stay-at-home moms to extreme adventure adrenaline junkies being targeted buyers.
Style-wise, it's available with contrasting roof colors, several wheel options, and anything else Mini can come up with. The interior is also a familiar Mini site with a few notable differences. The signature big speedometer remains with the navigation and infotainment screens incorporated. Center console design also remains largely unchanged, with some controls now better designed. Overall interior build quality is very good but this time, there's plenty of additional arm and shoulder room. And this is where the Countryman really comes together.
As previously noted, interior space up front is noticeably improved, but rear seating and storage is where the Countryman comes together. The US-spec model will be offered with two buckets seats and a cool armrest/cup holder that folds down between them. Like up front, there's plenty of legroom and headroom, as the seats move forward and back, and recline likewise. For those of us who aren't exactly NBA regulation height, the rear is spacious enough and cargo room is more than adequate - perfectly suited for a weekend trip and daily errands.
When it goes on sale in early 2011, the Countryman will be offered in either familiar Cooper or Cooper S designations. It's powered by a 1.6-liter four-pot with 121 hp and 118 lb-ft of torque while the S model adds a turbocharger, cranking out 181 hp with 177 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is offered (as well as an automatic) and AWD is also available. Like anything in the Mini lineup, the Countryman is quite fuel efficient (final EPA numbers are pending as of now), but expect around 30 mpg. Final pricing hasn't been announced.
Think of the Countryman as an inflated Mini - and that's not an insult. For those needing or wanting a larger Mini for whatever reason, this is your car. Combined with Mini's ability to compile power, quality, fun-to-drive factor into one, and now with increased volume, and you have a winning formula. Just don't call it witchcraft.