Review: 2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman

By Kevin Miller

The MINI franchise started with just one retro-styled small hatchback, and proved to be a success. But how to build on that success? MINI’s parents at BMW decided that the best way was to expand was by building bigger MINIs, first in the form of the extended-length Clubman, and now in the form of the Countryman crossover, which is MINI’s first four-door vehicle.

Available in either front- or all-wheel drive, with the same engines and transmissions used in other MINI vehicles, the Countryman (or, officially, “MINI Cooper Countryman”) loses a little something in the translation from size M to size L. Exterior styling loses some of the original MINI Cooper’s cuteness, opting instead for bulging forms and outsized lamps in an attempt to look rugged while maintaining its identity as a MINI.

Inside, amidst the strong aroma of leatherette, the cabin features front and rear bucket seats, bisected by an extruded aluminum track which extends from the base of the dashboard to the forward part of the boot. Onto this track are mounted cupholders and an eyeglasses holder which can be repositioned along the track’s length, though they cannot be positioned too far forward due to interference with the parking brake handle. The fact that the track extends between the two rear bucket seats mandates that the Countryman is strictly a four-passenger vehicle. The presence of this track between the front seats precludes an armrest or storage compartment from being located below the driver’s left right elbow.

Upholstery is a utilitarian-looking black leatherette, which seems well matched to the black colored hard plastic used on most interior panels. Combined with a very-low-pile floor covering, the Countryman’s interior has a rugged, spare, hose-washable appearance, although I’m sure that’s neither the intent nor the case. All of those hard surfaces allow significant road noise to resonate throughout the cabin when underway, even when not traveling particularly quickly.

Despite the inexpensive upholstery, I found the driver’s seat to be comfortable and nicely adjustable, though the leatherette does not breathe, causing a sweaty backside after a long afternoon at the wheel. The steering wheel is adjustable for rake and reach, which help in finding a comfortable driving position. The column-mounted tachometer (with redundant digital speedometer) is readily visible between the steering wheel’s spokes.

On the dash, the instruments and controls are an ergonomic mish-mash of form-over-function design. As in other MINI vehicles, a large, centrally-mounted round speedometer takes up a lot of real estate at the top of the center stack. The bottom quarter of that instrument contains a small display for audio system, as well as two knobs and several same-shaped rectangular buttons. Below that are the fairly-straightforward automatic climate control, and at the bottom of the center stack are retro-styled toggle switches for the windows and the door locks. Front cupholders are too low and too far forward (at the front edge of the aluminum track), and they are too small for regular-sized commuter mugs. When drinks (even standard soda cans) are in those cup holders, the beverage containers totally block the window switches.

When driving at night, the centrally-mounted speedometer becomes distracting due to its illumination. The interior features a color-changing ambient lighting which is controlled by a confusingly-labeled toggle switch near the sunroof controls. Auto-dimming exterior and interior mirrors on my test car (included with the $1250 Convenience Package) were appreciated.

The audio system in the Countryman I reviewed had Sirius satellite radio, but the system only has 12 audio pre-sets for the Satellite band, which is too few given the number of choices on the Sirius station list. Too, the radio display disappeared behind my polarized sunglasses when I tilted my head to the side. The control buttons are incredibly small, enough so that fat-fingered drivers may have a difficult time using them. Gloved drivers shouldn’t even attempt to do so.

The Countryman tested for this review was equipped with a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, as part of the $1750 Premium Package. The sunroof, whose front pane slides open completely over the rear pane, is operated by toggle switches mounted on the headliner. The awkward controls lack an auto-open or auto-close feature, meaning that the driver (or front passenger) has to hold the switch for the entire duration of the opening or closing process. Whether closed or open, opaque front and rear shades can be deployed to lessen the amount of light shining in through the sunroof.

All of the glass area of the sunroof and windows, combined with the black polymeric interior panels and seats, made the Countryman’s interior susceptible to rapid heat buildup on sunny afternoons. With temperatures just in the low 70s, after a couple of hours in a sunny parking lot the Countryman’s seats and steering wheel were scorching hot. Even with the HVAC system noisily pumping out cool air once underway, the interior panels continued to radiate heat for a relatively long time, which lent the impression that the cooling system had a hard time keeping up even in mild Northwest temperatures.

Rear-seat legroom was adequate, though not more; my two-year-old daughter was easily able to reach the driver’s seatback (when adjusted for my 6’4” frame) and kick it during a frustrating traffic jam as we tried to escape from Seattle to Washington’s San Juan Islands on a sunny Friday afternoon. That same two-year-old had a difficult time opening the Countryman’s doors from the outside, due to the shape of the door handles.

Around back, the cargo area is accessed by a large tailgate, which opened up tall enough for my 6’4” self to stand under for loading and unloading. During rainy weather, water dripped from the tailgate into the boot upon opening. The cargo floor, which has carpeting far more h than that the passenger compartment, lifts up to reveal a relatively deep under-floor storage area. That floor can be latched up against the rear seatbacks to create a taller luggage compartment, though the angle of the seatbacks and the propped-up floor actually reduces the usable height of the luggage compartment. Our family of four took the Countryman on a weekend camping trip, and made everything fit in the Countryman, though not easily. The back seats can fold forward to expand the cargo area.

The Mini Coopers S Countryman I drove was powered by MINI’s 181 HP, 1.6 liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which drove only the front wheels through a six-speed manual transaxle. That is plenty of power for a small crossover weighing close to 3000 lbs, and made the Countryman a lot of fun to drive. Predictably, the front-wheel-drive, turbocharged Countryman delivers torque steer, wheelspin at speed on wet pavement shifts, and spinning of the inside front tire when tearing around cloverleafs at high speed and high boost. It was incredibly entertaining to drive. A hill-holder feature prevents the car from rolling backward when setting off on an incline.

The Countryman has a firm ride from the suspension which communicates well to the driver. That being said, the ride is firm enough to skitter over expansion joints (with a noisy thump from the suspension). The firm ride combined with the firm seats grow tiresome after a couple of hours on the road.

The steering wheel provides an impressive amount of feedback to the driver, but could almost be faulted for almost being too responsive. At speed, just a small amount of steering input provides a significant amount of steering angle, which takes some getting used to; it’s just too touchy. A button labeled “SPORT” on the bottom row of the center stack enhanced throttle response and steering response. The Sport steering mode made the steering effort heavier, but also less sensitive, making the Countryman easier to drive.

The front-wheel drive Mini Cooper S Countryman with manual transmission has an EPA rating of 26/32 MPG (29 combined) using premium unleaded fuel. During my week with the crossover, I saw 26.4 MPG over 235 miles at an average speed of 33.6 mph according to the MINI’s trip computer. About half of those miles were on the freeway and the other half around the suburbs. I will admit to taking full advantage of the turbocharged engine’s power quite often, which helps explain my relatively low fuel economy.

The 2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman has an MSRP of $25,250. The vehicle I tested included $500 Royal Gray Metallic paint; $1250 Convenience Package (universal garage door opener, Comfort Access keyless entry, auto-dimming exterior and rearview mirrors, Bluetooth and USB/iPod adapter); $750 Cold Weather Package (power folding mirrors, heated mirrors and washer jets, heated front seats); $1750 Premium Package (dual-pane panoramic moonroof, automatic climate control, Harman-Kardon sound system); $1000 Sport Package (black bonnet stripes, xenon headlights); $500 18” Anthracite alloy wheels (with Sport Package); $250 Chrome-Line exterior trim; $500 Park Distance control (rear); and $700 Destination charge, for a total suggested retail price of $32,450.

At that price (or less), you can certainly buy a more useful small crossover, but not one that is more enjoyable to drive. The powertrain and suspension make the MINI Cooper S Countryman fun to drive, but the rest of the car makes it not particularly endearing to live with. Still, with more usable space and better fuel economy than the similar-sized Nissan Juke, people looking for a small crossover with an emphasis on style will likely be quite happy with the Countryman’s blend of space, features, and driving characteristics.

MINI provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Techshake’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Techshake, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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