Comparison Test: Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 vs. Nissan Juke AWD

By Seyth Miersma

August 24, 2011

(photo credit: Chris Amos)

—Ann Arbor, Michigan

 
Too often our characterizations of the cars we drive are heavily influenced by the way those cars look. My use of “our” here is fairly inclusive, with auto writers, enthusiasts, and run-of-the-mill drivers all included. As reviewers, we obviously try to take a step back from our initial, uninformed first feelings about a vehicle in an effort to make an objective appraisal. But the truth is that sometimes it can be hard to look at something that you are instinctively drawn to, and then find fault with it. We want to like the cars that we like the looks of—simple truth.
 
So, when the Mini Countryman Cooper S and the Nissan Juke first pulled into our parking lot, and knowing that a comparison test between the two new-think crossovers was in the works, we sensed trouble early. The Mini is, as are most of its breed, an awfully good looking small car. Pumped up and stretched out the Countryman may be, but the Mini-ness of the car’s visage still shines through. Big alloy wheels (eighteen inches) completely fill out the wheel wells, and are aggressively pushed out to the corners of the vehicle for a sporting stance. Designers have clothed the pillars and roof in black, which helps to disguise a lot of the mass and tallness of the CUV. Trickier still are touches like the over-sized Mini logo on the tailgate—a badge that’s likely 50 percent larger than the one found on a standard Mini Cooper—which helps to keep the tailgate/badge proportion the same, and lets you believe you’re looking at something roughly the same size as a “normal” Mini.
 
Meanwhile the Juke is, from a design standpoint, a bit more divisive. Your author actually quite likes the strongly individual looks of the small Nissan, though the rank-and-file car observers seems to put it down as “weird.” As it did with its launch of the Cube for North America, Nissan has decided that it will offer no quarter with the styling of its Juke—you must love its alien visage or hate it. There is precious little middle ground to be found.
 
So we’ll encourage you to move away from the exterior visuals, and move with us to what is actually a fairly compelling match-up of two interesting, small crossovers. Both Mini and Juke have highly spiced design to attract a young buyer; each has been touted as being quite fun to drive (another big selling point for the target); both cars propose a modest boost in functionality versus a traditional hatchback. And, while the Nissan is significantly cheaper than the Mini (you can make the two similar, through high/low options manipulating), both cars do require you spend a bit more cash than you would on your bread-and-butter hatchback, too.
 
One of the main hatchback differentiators for the Countryman and the Juke are their available all-wheel-drive systems. While both cars can be had, and for cheaper, in front-drive-only configuration, it’s probably safe to assume that one big draw of the small CUVs is their all-weather ability. We don’t anticipate that either one of these cars will be much used by the true off-roading set, but the extra AWD grip and slight bump in ground clearance will no doubt help in snowy driving. For our test, the best we could suss out was a bit more lateral grip versus the front-drive siblings, and, for the Juke, a big improvement in initial acceleration.
 
We should clarify: the front-drive Juke may actually be quicker to 60 mph than the heavier all-wheel car (there are no manufacturer sanctioned times listed). But in actuality, the jumpy torque steer of the FWD car virtually mitigates any accelerative advantage it may have.
 
Meanwhile, if you’ve driven a standard Mini Cooper S before your first go round with the Countryman, it’ll be easy for you to feel the extra 540 pounds that the larger car carries. With the same 181-horsepower, 1.6-liter turbo four pushing around all that extra mass, adding “Countryman” after “Cooper S” means taking a serious hit in the speed department. The Juke is within pounds of the Countryman All4, and boasts only seven extra horsepower from its blown 1.6 liters (torque figures for both cars are identical at 177 pound-feet), but the feeling of initial acceleration in the Juke is decidedly stronger.
 
A bit of that feeling, in a strange twist, is down to usually bellyache-inducing Nissan CVT. For all of its downside, the CVT does a great job of launching the car from a stop to low speeds. Sure, with the Mini’s manual trans we had the option to do as hard a high-rev start as we’d like, but in the more realistic scenario—you know, not hooking up at the drag strip—the Juke offered the edge in initial kick.
 
The CVT isn’t the ideal enthusiast transmission—far from it. We’d love to be able to have the AWD Juke with the manual box, but this instantiation of the CVT isn’t as bad as many we’ve used. Paddle shifters would help us get into the driving mood a bit better, but Nissan does give the option of shifting around via the central gear lever. We found this an entertaining option when cutting through traffic or looking for extra shove on the highway, but everyday driving will see most people leaving the trans alone and letting the Juke’s fine turbo torque do its thing. The Countryman’s six-speed transmission isn’t world-beating in smoothness, accuracy, or solidity of feel, but it is vastly superior in this comparison, nevertheless.
 
We have become so accustomed to Mini’s offering truly fine handling, that, given our relative lack of familiarity with the Juke’s prowess, we sort of expected the Countryman to take the handling match-up in a walk. Nope. Mini may list “Go-Kart-Like Handling” as a feature on the Countryman’s spec sheet (we didn’t make that up), but it would be well-served to take the Juke out for a spin if it intends to continue that boast. Some combination of added weight, a lengthened wheelbase, and suspension tuning has effected what we’re calling the “Countryman Effect” on the Mini ethos. If you can imagine a Cooper S swathed in thick cotton—so that every response is a bit slower, every piece of feedback is a bit fuzzier—you’ll understand what the effect entails. Now, because the Mini DNA is so robust, the Countryman is still good fun to drive pretty hard, but the increased understeer, body roll, and lack of steering response is disappointing compared with our expectations of the brand.
 
The Juke, unburdened with such expectations, does a lot more to simply delight its pilot. Turn-in is very fast, and is complemented both by its shorter-than-Countryman wheelbase (by about three inches) and its grippy AWD. There’s understeer in evidence with the Juke as well, it’s just not as ponderous as in the Mini, and it never truly stopped us from messing around in the car on tight roads. The Nissan’s steering was quite a bit lighter than the Mini’s, but as both were fairly low in terms of road feel, neither really stood out for involvement.
 
Civilized drivers will prefer the Mini’s more compliant suspension tuning to the Juke’s slightly juttery ride. Those same folks will also be quick to point out that Mini kills it as far as interior polish goes—the Countryman is simply in another league in terms of interior design and quality. We love the Juke’s intuitively changeable controls that offer split function for HVAC and drive-mode controls, but the rest of the cabin is leans too heavily on the visual bombast from high-gloss plastic finishes. Mini, meanwhile, has applied just enough leather, textured plastic, cool stitching, and occasional shiny bits to make us believe we’re driving a premium small car. The view from the Countryman cockpit makes the extra $2500 or so you’ll need to buy it over the Juke seem worthwhile.
 
And, lest we forget, the crossover class of vehicle, even in this small formulation, demands a bit of functionality. From the standpoint of passengers, the Countryman will feel downright palatial versus the rear quarters of the Juke. The Mini has a lot more space for those who forget to call shotgun, and nicer seats, too. The Juke also loses out in terms of cargo space—by about six cubic feet of volume with the seats down. With that said, the Countryman’s rear buckets fold down to create a forward load floor that seems a bit hard to use, as the seats won’t go very flat and there’s a whopping big space between them. Nissan offers a much more conventional all-seats-down space, that may be a bit more usable despite its smaller dimensions.
 
In the end, this turns out to be a remarkably close contest. And, as usual, your take on the comparison would depend largely on your values and desires as a car shopper. We say that Mini wins in terms of powertrain (just barely, and only because of its available manual) but the Juke wins for handling, giving the dynamic portion of the comparison solidly to the Nissan. Meanwhile the Juke gives up ground for utility (smaller backseat really hurts it) and overall refinement, but is still significantly less expensive than the Countryman. So, if you’re feeling lavish and want to live well, the Mini is the mini-crossover for you.
 
Now, given that we’re Winding Road, and we care about the driving experience most of all, it’s easy for us to give the enthusiast nod to the more fun, cheaper, and admittedly strange looking Nissan. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, for sure, but the wooly Countryman Effect is a bridge too far, for drivers.
 
2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 1.6 liters, 16v
Output: 181 hp/177 lb-ft
Weight: 3208 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 25/31 mpg
Base Price: $26,950
On Sale: Now
 
2011 Nissan Juke SL AWD
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 1.6 liters, 16v
Output: 188 hp/177 lb-ft
Weight: 3221 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 25/30 mpg
Base Price: $24,570
On Sale: Now