Review: 2011 Mini Countryman

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Love at first drive?  Nope.

To be honest, I didn’t love much about this car at first.  I was excited to check it out, and by the time I got it home from the first drive, I was disappointed.  I’m happy to say much of that changed over the course of a week.

This was the new Mini Countryman.  Aside from having a ridiculous name, this vehicle has also put up with endless drubbing from Mini purists.  It’s not considered a Mini by them.  Let’s find out why, shall we?

The Countryman has been termed a crossover.  It’s a cross between a car and a sport-utility vehicle.  Compared to what we normally consider a crossover, that seems a bit rich.  But, if you look under the surface, this little thing could certainly qualify.  It’s just not what we’d think of first, but if you’re willing to think outside of the box, you might just find what you’re looking for here.

Clearly, the Countryman is what some folks ARE looking for, if you have a look at October 2011’s stats for US Mini sales.  The regular Cooper was down 25%, the convertible Cooper was down 20%, the strange but cool Clubman was down 24%, and yet….. Mini was up 37%.  The Countryman is the gent you can thank for this.

The Countryman starts at CDN $27,850 and as described here, will cost you CDN $32,150.

This Mini Countryman was a fairly optioned-up one, albeit with the base drivetrain.  And therein lay one of its weaknesses.  The base engine motivates the regular Mini with a little more aplomb and vigour, but in this bigger and heavier model, it left something to be desired.  In the clean and simple engine bay, you’ll find Mini’s ubiquitous 1.6 Litre inline-4.  It’s rated at 121 HP @ 6000 RPM, and a paltry 114 lb.ft of torque at 4250 RPM.  The Countryman does the 0-60 sprint (and I use that term very loosely here) in a luxurious 10.5 seconds with the manual transmission.  Zing! The Cooper S drivetrain would do this portly Mini a bit of good (0-60 drops to a much less painful 7 seconds), and if I had my way, I’d have them offer the John Cooper Works in the Countryman, which takes things to over 200 HP.  Take note that, in Cooper S trim, this car is also available with Mini’s first all-wheel drive system, the All4.

Mileage is pretty good – the ratings are 7.4 L/100 km (32 mpg) in the city, 5.5 L/100 km (43 mpg) on the highway and 6.5 L/100 km (36 mpg) for the combined cycle.  I observed a reasonable 7.7 L/100 km (30.5 mpg) during my time with it, driving fairly conservatively in almost exclusively city/commute driving.  The Mini has a small 47 Litre tank, which is fine for city use, and considering its highway fuel economy, shouldn’t limit the car too much.

 

Exterior

The exterior of this car is unmistakably Mini.  The short boxy shape couldn’t be mistaken for anything else on the market.  But it is noticeably bigger, taller, longer and higher off the ground.

This example came in Surf Blue – at first I didn’t like the color, and I thought “That would be great, if I was Malibu Ken!”.  But the color grew on me, as did the rest of the car.  I liked the big, upright grille.  I liked the power bulge on the hood, although nobody will be fooled by it once they put it in gear.  I liked the wheels – the best I can do to describe them is a dark, 5-pointed Iron Cross. They’re different, and there are many options available if they don’t suit you.  Speaking of options, the white roof and sideview mirrors are a no-cost option, which this car had – and I like.  There’s a nice roof spoiler on that white roof.

You’ll find a lot of chrome trim on this car.  It ends up giving the car a jewel-like quality – it’s shiny!  Chrome can be found in the headlight surrounds, the tail-light surrounds, the grille, the air intake/dam surround, the door handles, the Mini logos, and around the whole beltline of the car, from the back of the hood around the bottom of all the windows and the rear window.  Another huge swath of chrome covers the non-functional side vent – an angled piece, mimicking the angle of the A-pillar.

Grey plastic trim covers the bottom of the vehicle all the way around, and the sad solitary exhaust outlet signals all comers to just leave it alone, as this is the slower kind of Mini.  The roof has lovely brushed finish rails and a combination shark-fin and whip antenna.

Obviously the four doors are what sets this apart from the other Minis more than anything else, and to accommodate things, you’ll find stubby little back windows behind the back doors.

Oh, right!  One little detail I enjoyed was the headlight cut-outs in the hood.  Pop the hood and you’ve got some cool bug-eyes floating up in the sky above you.

It’s a big Mini, but not a big car.  It should be called a Mini Maxi.  It maintains Mini’s short overhangs and trademark styling.  Overall, the look of this car grew on me, and I quite like it.  For the record, this car got a lot of looks on the road.  I often got the impression that people were trying to figure out why this Mini seemed different.

 

Interior

Open the door, step over the brushed stainless sill plates, and drop into the firm seat.  Or more like drop onto it.  This car had the leatherette upholstery, which is BMW/Mini’s way of saying vinyl.  It IS a lovely vinyl, but leather would be nicer.  The seats were comfortable, firm, decently bolstered for typical driving and manually adjustable – and both front seats are heated.  Of note, the amount of headroom in the front of this car is incredible.

Materials around the cabin are dark, and hard.  No soft plastics here.  The textures on some of the plastics are interesting, but they don’t feel nice and soft to the touch.  The interior abounds with round shapes.  Every single thing is round or at least rounded, it seems and it becomes a bit tiring.   When I said the interior was dark, I mean almost harsh.  The materials look fine, but certainly not rich.

I liked the glossy black trim ellipses going from front door panels to the back ones, and also down the sides of the center stack.

In front of you, you’ll find a great steering wheel, manually adjustable for height and reach.  Note that the tach sitting on the steering column moves with it.

The biggest styling cue in your line of sight is the massive round speedometer sitting front and center.  It contains a screen and some warning lights.  The dash has a number of bullet-shaped air vents/pods.

Overhead and at the bottom of the center stack, you’ll find Mini’s toggle switches controlling interior lighting, sunroof(s), windows, etc.  They are separated by metal half-circle hoops.

There isn’t really a center console – it’s more of a pod, which I’ll describe more – but you do have a shift lever with a boot, and an L-shaped parking brake there.

A little detail I liked was the green backlighting glowing in the inside door latches.

 

Tech/Convenience

The Countryman has a keyless FOB and a push-start ignition.

The screen in the middle of the giant speedometer is not a touch screen, but rather controlled by a directional, rotating, button joystick and a home button which takes you to the main icon menu.  It allows you to access a set of icons, and when one is selected, you can move through a series of menus underneath it.  This set-up takes a while to get used to, but eventually makes sense.  Ironically, my incredibly not-tech-savvy wife figured it out right away and liked it.  Go figure.

The stereo system is basic, but sounds alright.  It feeds from AM, FM, CD, auxiliary or USB sources.  The auxiliary and USB plugs are behind the shifter, sitting in front of the Center Rail.

Available on the information screen are phone options, Mini Connected (which apparently allows you access to your iDevice via USB), quick access to your phone book (awesome!), the stereo system input options (which can also be switched with redundant hard buttons) and system information.  The Mini made connecting to my phone a simple task, and using the Bluetooth phone connection was easy and I loved it.

This Center Rail business is a bit strange.  It’s a rail that goes from the back of the shifter pod, and all the way back through the car to the back seats.  Between the two metal rails is a rubberized tray (going back the whole length of the rail).  I guess the theory is you can put stuff in there, and hope the rubberized bottom keeps it in place.  It’s very shallow, and narrow.  And useless, in my opinion.   It also blocks access to the rear seat’s 12V plug.  I did like the green backlighting inside the rail though.  So there’s that.

Overhead, there are two sunroofs.  You can pop them both open with a tilt option, which is very cool.  If you choose to slide it, the rear sunroof closes, and the front one slides back over it.  Both can be covered with manual sunshades, but not true covers.

The steering wheel has very basic media controls, as well as cruise control buttons.  The climate control system is very simple, but it is automatic and worked well.  The power window switches and power door lock switch are all on the bottom of the center stack – the power mirror controls are on the driver’s door.

The tach, on the steering column, has a small but excellent driver information screen, which, using one simple line of text, can display average fuel consumption, fuel range, instant mileage, average speed or outside temperature.  Above the screen is a small square digital speed read-out.

 

Storage

Inside, there are little nooks and crannies, but honestly, nothing really works well for storage.

First of all, I have to talk about the Center Rail again.  The Rail travels between the rear seat leg spaces, and on it were three adjustable, and moveable, pods.  Two of them were cupholders (one with a lidded ashtray insert!) and one was an oblong, lidded container – I thought at first it was for sunglasses, but I believe it’s intended for cell phones.  It seems like more of a novelty than something really useful.

Up at the front, you have two cupholders inconveniently placed in front of the shifter.  In front of those, and practically under the center stack, is an almost completely inaccessible and unusable tiny tray.

There is a lidded armrest/console bin, which is small but very useful – and comfortable!  It can be swung up and out of the way.

Door bins front and rear are OK but small – access is hampered by the sculted trim around them.  Form lost out to function here.  There is also a small glove compartment and two rear-seat map pockets.

The bulk of the storage sits behind the rear seats.  Push in the top of the huge Mini logo on the hatch, and it flips up to unlatch the trunk and become a handle, like a VW Golf.  The trunk is small but very usable, and the load height is ideal and very comfortable.  There’s a tonneau cover at the base of the rear window to keep out prying eyes, which is funny because there is a huge gap between the rear seats and you can see right into the trunk space.

One thing I loved was that the floor panel in the trunk flips up (and can be snapped up out of the way) and exposes a nice deep storage bin in the trunk floor – perhaps this makes up for the lack of visual security between the seats.

The rear seats fold down, but not flat.  When they’re down, you’re left with significantly increased cargo space.  There are also 4 nice tie-down hooks back there.

 

 

Rear Seat

Now here’s the real story.  The rear seat area is why someone would buy the Countryman over its stablemates, and it had some good stuff going for it.

Considering the size of this car, the leg and foot room in the back is just fine.  You’ll find two bucket seats back there, and they’re quite adjustable.  They slide forward and back, and the seatbacks also tilt.

As adjustable as they are, I just found the back seats terrible.  They are quite flat, top and bottom, and offer virtually no bolstering.  During “active” driving, rear passengers could literally slide off their seats.  The seat cushions were also quite firm, and coupled with that pretty vinyl, I mean leatherette, it made for a slippery experience.

Now, if you were to put kids’ seats back there, you’ll be happier.  There’s plenty of room for them, and two LATCH connectors, as well as anchors.

The visibility from the back is very good, and it felt nice and airy back there with the second sunroof overhead.  The power windows are controlled with toggle switches on the doors.  You’ll find a dome light back there in case you want to read something about how to stay on those flat seats.

I found the rear headroom to be middling, at best.  It was fine for me, but I’m not tall.  It’s not bad, but it might be a little snug for someone over 6 feet tall.  It’s significantly less than in the front, but that’s because the rear seats are set higher than the front ones so you can see out.  Which is hard to do when you’ve slid off those terrible back seats.  Did I mention how I felt about them?

 

The Drive

Here’s another way this car grew on me.  My first drive immediately highlighted the notchy transmission, which I wasn’t fond of.  On that note, and with some brand irony, I drove a 5 year old BMW while I had this car – yes, I realize the initial cost is twice that of the Mini, but the slickness and almost predictive nature of the shifting action is such a different story, that it’s hard to believe the same company puts its name on both products.  But I digress…

The manual transmission and I did start making friends after a while.  I did appreciate the nice throws and the positive, if not a bit clunky, action.

This brings me to the power.  Or lack thereof.  I felt this car was horribly underpowered on my first drive.  I still feel that.  But it’s not as bad as it seems at first.  You get used to the powerband, and you learn how the car likes to be driven.  It turns out to be adequate for everyday, average driving.  Keeping up with traffic isn’t a problem, and commuting is just fine.

Getting up to speed, especially higher speeds, is a different story.  Merging onto a quick moving street is a bit frightening, and merging onto a freeway was cause for some serious heart palpitations.  “Am I going to get up to 80 km/h in time?  Um, nope!”  I never took the Countryman on the highway, but I’m guessing that passing maneuvers are best left to those who are strongly medicated and relaxed, and don’t care so much about oncoming traffic and such annoyances.  I kid, but definitely budget enough time and space for these things, y’hear?

I absolutely loved the handling of this car.  Full disclosure – I’ve never driven another Mini.  I’ve heard the handling is sub-par to the regular Mini Cooper.  That may be, but compared to a typical vehicle, the size, weight and short wheelbase of the Countryman allow it to feel go-kart like.  Touch the steering wheel, and the car reacts and you are changing directions.  Turns are tight and controlled, and road manners are fantastic.  The handling has an immediacy to it, and I really enjoyed it.  Mini Canada provided this vehicle with great winter tires, and the handling remained as described – I was impressed.

The ride is firm but supple enough to be comfortable, and tiny bit bouncy – it’s great considering the handling you get and the short wheelbase.  Turning circle, and just general low-speed moves, are a joy – parking this car is easy as pie.

Outward visibility is fantastic from every seat.  The view out of the back window is a bit restricted, but it’s fine for driving.

I really enjoyed the sounds this little 4-banger makes.  It snorts with an attitude when you fire it up, and it likes to growl when you step on it.  Which is great, because you need to step on it.  It’s throaty throughout the rev range, and sounds lovely.

The brakes are very good.  They’re not hauling a lot of car down to speed, so it’s not surprising, but I felt it was worth commenting on – they do a great job.

Two final notes on driving this car – I’m a dead pedal Nazi, and I thought this one was perfect.  And lastly, the horn sounds great – not a wimpy little nasal toot that we’ve had to come to expect from smaller cars.

 

 

Nitpicks

Yep, I’ve got ’em.

The first one is a pretty broad, sweeping statement.  The ergonomics in this car just suck.  I’m going to give you examples, but overall, it feels like most things inside the Mini Countryman fall between function giving way to form, or just being an afterthought.

That huge speedo.  Ugh.  It looks dumb.  I know it’s a nod to history, but maybe it’s time to let that icon go.  It wasn’t that great in the first place.  It’s hard to read, because it doesn’t angle toward the driver, and the indicator is a little sled that skates around the rim instead of a needle.  Laughably, this monstrosity goes up to 260 km/h.  Right.  I wasn’t fond of the many-orange-blips fuel gauge on the bottom of it.

Further ergo:  the climate control system.  Brutal jumble of buttons.  Luckily it’s automatic and you don’t have to adjust things very often.

Further ergo:  front cupholders – in FRONT of the shift knob.  Really?  Also, they were impossibly tight on a standard Starbucks travel mug.  And then a lighter/12V plug in front of that?  And then a bin in FRONT of THAT still?  C’mon!  You need a Smurf to even reach that little bin.

Those toggle switches also qualify as an ergo fail for me.  Sure, they’re different.  I give marks for being different.  But why?  They seem clumsy and they don’t fall to hand as more typical switchgear would.  I never got used to using them.  Maybe it’s a British thing.

I was a bit taken aback that the Mini doesn’t include satellite radio, and that it’s an a la carte option bundled with a Harman Kardon sound system – for $890!  This is the first car I’ve sat in in a long time, including some much less expensive, that didn’t include satellite radio as standard equipment.

The keyless fob – hey, so what I didn’t mention earlier about the push-button ignition, is that the KEYLESS fob has to be inserted into a slot on the dash.  WHY?  Why not just use a key then?  And the push-start button is tiny – about 1/3 of the size of a typical one – and kind of stuck behind the steering wheel.

I have big feet, so this became an issue for me – the pedals are quite closely spaced, and on more than one occasion, I caught myself grabbing an extra pedal – unfortunately, it was the brake, while I was shifting.  And the brakes are quite good.  Read: screech!

The sun visors are tiny, and woefully inadequate.  They are much smaller than any other visor I’ve seen, and coupled with the complete lack of sun tinting at the top of the windshield, caused me to bop my head around many times, trying to find respite from the sun.

I’m not sure if this is typical, but I felt that the driver’s floor mat always pushed up under the gas pedal, making the driving experience weird.  Removing the mat relieved that issue, but it left the floor exposed, which isn’t great in our 11-1/2 months of winter climate.

 

The Verdict

I didn’t like the Mini Countryman.  And then I liked the Mini Countryman.  I definitely appreciated the handling, and I’m guessing the Cooper S version would have the power I was missing here.  I liked the styling, but disliked a lot of the interior, mainly due to ergonomics quibbles.  I suppose a lot of that is personal, but hey, this is my opinion.

This car makes more sense after a week than it did at first glance.  You get four doors, reasonable back seat space, decent cargo space, and it would make sense for a small family.  Putting a stroller in the trunk would be a hassle, but otherwise, it would work well if you have kids.  No more than two of them, of course.  You could consider this vehicle a competitor to a car as practical as a VW Golf, in my opinion.  But then there’s the issue of the price difference….

I give the Countryman a 6 out of 10.  There’s a possibility that score would go up if this had been a Cooper S version, and maybe the all-wheel drive version.  With satellite radio.  But I’d also need to buy the automatic for $1490 because my wife won’t drive a manual transmission.  Add that to the higher cost of the S drivetrain, and the all wheel drive, the satellite, and oh let’s throw in leather too because, seriously, who wants leatherette/vinyl seats? – and all of a sudden the value factor is down the toilet.  This car can get expensive pretty quickly, and then the argument that it’s competitive price-wise is gone too.  So maybe it would still stay at a 6 out of 10.  I’d love to try a Mini Cooper S to compare it to.

You’re definitely paying for the brand, and even though it’s a great little car that makes sense for a lot of people, it’s not cheap.  It’s not crazy expensive either, and I’m guessing that’s why people are buying them in droves.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was a weird combination of good and bad.  Aimie loved the look, and she loved how it felt sitting in it.  She even liked the tech, and how it worked – quite the opposite to my first impressions.  Aimie didn’t like that our whole family won’t fit in it, and she doesn’t drive manuals, so she’d have to check out an automatic.  But overall, she was quite taken with the ‘Man.

In the end, I can honestly say I enjoyed my time with the Countryman.  I’ll try to forget our first drive together, and focus on the good times we had.  Which were not spent trying to merge into traffic.  For the most part, the Countryman was a pretty cool dude.

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by Mini Canada.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.

 

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