First Drive – Mini Countryman in SA

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MINI purists will remember when the original MINI got a little bit bigger.  The brand grew the tiny commuter into the likes of the Clubman, and the original Austin Mini Countryman – affectionately known as ‘Woody’.  But when new Minis, no longer as tiny as they once were, got bigger still, the world got a bit upset.  “They should change the name to MAXI,” they said… but seeing as the MINI Countryman makes up a ¼ of all Minis sold, it’s one model you can bet is going to stick around…

 

And so, the Mini Countryman is here to stay, and it’s now in its second generation having freshly landed on South African soil.  But those lamenting the bloat of the Mini best look away now – the Countryman is now 20cm longer with a 7.5cm longer wheelbase than the previous generation.  The larger Mini Countryman has also put on around 150kg worth of extra lard.

 

But, this Mini Countryman, and its extra weight, is not entirely unknown to us – this same chassis, and even the engines powering the Countryman also sit at the heart of the FWD BMW X1, a car we’ve known to prove itself as rather good.  How would these underpinnings fair in the more stylish cousin’s guise?

 

Available in two derivatives from launch and with front-wheel drive the only available choice of driven wheels, the Cooper and Cooper S variants feature 1.5-litre 3 cylinder and 2.0-litre 4 cylinder engines respectively, both benefitting from turbocharging.  The entry level Cooper boasts 100kW and 220Nm channelled through either a 6-speed manual or automatic gearbox.  The S on the other hand, gets an additional 41kW and 60Nm of torque, but has 3 gearbox options – a 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic or 8-speed sports auto.

 

It would be the 2 automatic variants we’d be sampling on launch, starting off with the entry level 6-speed auto in the Mini Countryman Cooper variant followed by the Cooper S.

 

I’ll gloss over the Cooper variant and get to the more exciting model – as the 1.5-litre motor feels a bit under-endowed for the Mini Countryman’s heft, and the 6-speed automatic is perhaps less crisp and intuitive than the 8-speed you’ll find in the S-badged sibling.

 

The Mini Countryman Cooper S, then – currently the most exciting variant you can get until the JCW version arrives later this year along with a diesel (a first for South Africa).

 

Under its shell, Mini has reworked the suspension to cope with the additional power from the 2.0-litre turbo mill.  Despite its size and the decidedly top-heavy weight distribution, the Mini Countryman handles surprisingly well.  Over changing surfaces and changes of direction there’s mild lean, but good support too and great bump absorption despite the presence of runflat tyres.  There are good levels of grip, and a good balance that leans towards the side of understeer – to be expected due to the FWD configuration.

 

The 2.0-litre engine, although more potent than the Cooper’s, still sounds and feels somewhat laboured with the 1.5-ton weight it has to haul.  Despite that feeling, the 8-speed auto will still enable a 0-100km/h sprint of 7.4 seconds, before the Mini Countryman Cooper S ploughs on to a 224km/h top speed.

 

The 8-speed auto ‘box is lovely – quick shifts and ideally spaced ratios, with good pre-emption of required shifts based on driving modes and engine speed.

 

It’s highly accomplished all round and far sportier than the ‘Compact SAV’ tag would suggest.  But it’s also comfortable and relatively spacious (450-litres of luggage space), with decent levels of standard kit.  The Cooper S gets a touch screen system (the Cooper’s requires controls via the rotary controller on the centre console), automatic air conditioning (manual in the Cooper), LED head- and fog-lamps, and Sports seats.

The Mini Countryman sees itself take on the likes of the Audi Q2, Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA, and even to an extent the Opel Mokka and Volkswagen Tiguan.  It’s priced as such too, from R422 000 for the 6-speed manual Mini Countryman Cooper, and R490 000 for the Cooper S with the manual ‘box.

 

The age of miniscule Minis is long gone – get used to it – but the bigger-than-ever Countryman has shaped up to be a strong competitor in the style-driven SUV segment.  This new one is better than what’s come before, aside from the weight.  As for which one to choose – it might be best to wait for the JCW or the diesel variant which ought to be brilliant.  However, if you want one now, the Cooper S is the one to have.  Better engine, better gearbox, better suspension, and better all round.

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