Preview: 2011 Mini Countryman

By Steven J. Ewing

February 19, 1999

That’s right, folks—it’s a modern-day Mini Crossover. An homage to the original go-anywhere Mini Moke from the 1960s, the new, BMW-engineered CUV uses all of the fun bits that we love about the Mini line, wrapped in a package with four real doors, a raised ride height, and optional all-wheel drive. The Countryman is the first of several vehicles that Mini will be unveiling over the next couple of years, including production versions of the Mini Coupe and Roadster concepts shown last year. Die-hard Mini driving enthusiasts might not be thrilled with this niche automaker expanding beyond its core products, but for parent company BMW, increasing the number of Mini models will give it a shot at a larger market share, while attempting to appeal to customers who like the style and cheekiness of the Mini, but need more space.

If you like all things Mini, you’ll really want to familiarize yourself with the Countryman’s design, as it foreshadows the sort of language that will be used on the third-generation Cooper and Clubman in the coming years. It’s more aggressive than bubbly, but the standard Mini characteristics—short overhangs, high window line, etc.—are all intact. The new front end is a bit brash upon first glance, but it’s definitely growing on us. We find it best to view the Countryman from a direct side profile, as it really shows off the raised stance, larger fender flares, and generally more capable, rugged design. It’s not overly cute, and that’s fine with us. Moving to the rear, Mini has decided to use a conventional rear tailgate rather than a version of the Clubman’s two side-hinged “barn doors,” and the new, larger taillamps look modern and sophisticated—masking the wholly larger rear proportions of the Mini CUV. We can’t say we fell in love with this one at first sight, but it’s growing on us.

The Countryman’s styling might prove to be its biggest hurdle, because underneath all of that sheetmetal, it’s more of the same Mini goodness. Abroad, three gasoline and two diesel engines will be available, though it’s probably a safe bet to assume that the two mills we’ll see in America are new versions of the 1.6-liter four, in both turbocharged and naturally aspirated formats. The top engine, only available in the Cooper S Countryman, produces 184 horsepower and uses fully variable valve management, combined with direct injection and a twin-scroll turbo. For reference, this new unit only produces twelve more horsepower than the current 1.6 in the Cooper S, but we still expect the Countryman to be quick on its toes. Another first is the inclusion of Mini’s new all-wheel drive system, dubbed ALL4, which splits the torque thrust evenly between the front and rear wheels, and has the capability to deliver a full 100 percent of torque just to the rear. It’s the closest we’ll see to a fully rear-drive Mini, and we’re pretty excited by this new prospect. ALL4 will be available as an option only for Cooper S Countryman models in America (other markets can have this on their oil-burning Cooper D Countryman), and while it seems like a relatively good system, we still expect the majority of sales to be front-drive models. Don’t worry—in addition to a six-speed automatic transmission with Steptronic, a proper six-cog manual box will be available on the full Countryman range. (Plural of Countryman—Countrymen? Countrymans? Countrymenz? We await formal decisions from both Mini and pop culture.)

So while the powertrain isn’t drastically different from other Mini offerings, the interior—specifically the rear—is something totally new. The Countryman comes standard with a four-seat arrangement, though a full, three-person rear bench is available as a no-cost option. In either case, the rear seatbacks are adjustable, and can completely fold flat, allowing overall cargo capacity to swell from 12.2 cubic feet to a cavernous 41.0 (for the record, the standard Mini offers 24 cubic feet with the seats down, while the Clubman manages 32.8). Up front, the cockpit is more of the same, though the two forward chairs have been raised slightly, giving the driver and passenger a more upright seating position. Most interesting, though, is the center rail, which extends the entire length of the passenger compartment, offering up unique storage ideas as well as places to integrate portable audio devices and mobile phones. Mini says that there is a generous amount of legroom in the rear cabin, but we’ll wait until we shoehorn six-foot-five, Editor-In-Chief Seyth Miersma back there before making any final judgments.

Pricing and model availability will be announced around the car’s official debut at this March’s Geneva Motor Show, but it’s safe to assume that the Countryman will be a bit pricy. It isn’t hard to equip a Cooper S past the $30,000 mark, so adding more features and all-wheel drive only means that the Countryman will probably have a base MSRP in the high-$20K range, maybe even hitting $30K. Seems like a hefty price to pay for something with a Mini badge, and we still can’t say with certainty that the Countryman will sell like hotcakes. Still, it’s a unique package, and as a further expansion of the Mini brand, we think it’ll be well received in time. Remember, it has to grow on you.