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New 2017 MINI Countryman Improves as a Family Hauler

I’ll be the first to admit it; when I first caught wind that MINI would essentially be entering the crossover fray with the Countryman in 2010, I was more than a little skeptical. Skeptical because I knew that this was a white-hot market, and for all its strengths, there was no way anyone was going to associate something named “MINI” with an SUV or CUV of any stripe. This was MINI! Their cars were all about being cute around-town runabouts with a slight performance bent, especially if you upgraded to the “S” or “John Cooper Works (JCW)” models. 

Here’s the thing, though…
When the original “new” MINI debuted, you could make the argument that it wasn’t “mini” at all considering its size, not to mention the German influence exerted by parent company BMW. In any event, it had the styling, it had the brand identity and it sold in droves. Same went for the numerous models that appeared after the original hatch. 

With the ongoing popularization of platform sharing in the industry today, it made sense, then, for MINI to develop a crossover of sorts. So what if it was big? So what if it was available with AWD, as opposed to just being FWD as MINIs had always been? As long as it looked like a MINI, chances were it would do just fine and people would continue to make the right associations. 

New look—if you squint
When you think about it, there’s really only so much you can do to the MINI styling package since it’s such an iconic shape: MINIs should be two-box, have round(ish) headlights and an archway grille. Look to the now-defunct Coupe and Roadster models to see what happens if you stray too far from the rule.

In that light, when the MINI Countryman was redesigned for this year, not all that much changed on the styling front: slightly different headlights and taillights are pretty much the extent of the tweaking. Put the two cars nose-to-nose, however, and you’ll see the new car is longer by 216 mm and its wheelbase has grown by 74 mm. That means more room inside, which we’ll get to in a minute.

The fact that the styling—right down to the plastic cladding over the wheel wells—has remained pretty much unchanged is both a blessing and a curse; you get to keep that MINI profile, but now that the two-door Paceman is dead, there’s no denying that the Countryman remains the butchiest of all MINIs. That may not be a bad thing if MINI is trying to grow its audience. A good friend of mine—a hard-core mountain biker who drives a lifted Toyota Tacoma pickup—actually liked the look of the Countryman. It has its admirers, that’s for sure. 

Our particular car was made to look even butchier thanks to the winter tires it was still sporting, but the effect was offset somewhat by the wicked-cool two-tone John Cooper Works wheels. I’ll take those on my Countryman S ALL4, thank you very much.

You won’t mind riding in back… or packing heavy
As we mentioned before, the added wheelbase and overall length means more room inside, and it’s no joke; the 2017 MINI Countryman is remarkably comfortable both front and back. The squared-off form provides a high roof even with the full-length moonroof I had in my tester, and same goes for the back seats. Even the legroom is serviceable, and you just don’t always get that in the subcompact CUV class. 

Want more proof? We were able to fit three adults, two of whom were packed for a two-week trip and brought along three suitcases and two duffel bags full of camping gear. Thank you fold-flat rear seating. That’s impressive, and it speaks to MINI really wanting to show people that this is the year-round MINI. 

The high greenhouse, meanwhile, provides a great view outwards, which is further complemented by the short overhangs and short hood. The Countryman S is still very “MINI” in that way. 
The interior styling is going to be divisive, however. It’s incredibly busy, with its toggle switches separated by metal brackets all over the place, that enormous infotainment screen that looks like a floating head right there in the middle of the centre stack, the floating gauge cluster—there is so much going on here. And why does the centre armrest have to be separate from the centre-console storage area? On pretty much every other car, it’s a one-piece unit. It adds up to a lot of clutter, which clashes with the very traditional—and gorgeous—gingerbread brown seating with diamond print inserts. These look the business, and they feel the business, too, with great padding and support. Top-notch luxury additions, they are, although they do set you back $2,250. That’s a major jump.

It’s also a funky car, probably the funkiest in the game, and MINI people obviously like it because they keep building them this way. It’s very unique, which has always been a big part of the MINI ethos.

The infotainment system will be familiar… if you know BMW iDrive, that is. It’s not called that here—it’s “MINI Connected” instead—but the system makes use of the same main control wheel and nested menus that iDrive does. The latter is a whole heck of a lot flashier, that’s for sure, but the bones are the same. 

I do like the system; it took some time to get used to, but like the Tucker Torpedo and its seatbelts, iDrive was ahead of its time and people just weren’t sure what to think. Good for MINI/BMW, though, for sticking with it because the concept has aged well and makes sense to use.

That said, it wasn’t without its foibles. The biggest issue I had was a difficulty in streaming Bluetooth audio. Bluetooth paired, proper media selected, volume up on both phone and in-car system - nothing. Eventually it did start working after a few disconnects, reconnects and media input changes, but delays persisted and we never quite figured it out. A split hair? Perhaps, but not in a car aimed at young families that love their mobile media. This will frustrate them.

Country drivin’ in your Countryman
The drive, however, will not frustrate millennials, bicentennials or whatever comes in between. Not for the most part, anyway. 

For starters, there’s that motor. For 2017, a three-cylinder TwinPower Turbo engine (there’s that BMW influence again) is available with ALL4 all-wheel drive, which is a first.

Our car didn’t have that, though. Being an “S” model, we had the more powerful TwinPower Turbo four-cylinder, good for 192 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. It deploys all that power in a satisfying manner, thanks to a wonderful bark through the surprisingly large twin tailpipes. MINI has done a good job of somehow making the sound more natural, a feat considering turbocharged powertrains don’t tend to be the most vocal.

The engine’s “TwinPower” designation, meanwhile, allows the turbocharger to spin up more quickly, reducing lag time between throttle tip-in and actual power delivery. The new Countryman’s 1,740 kg does make it the heaviest of the MINI lineup, but with the clever power distribution of the AWD system and pokey engine, it hardly feels slow at the outset. Yes, as speeds start to increase and you climb higher through the 8-speed Aisin automatic (that’s a $1,500 option; a 6-speed manual is standard), forward progress does suffer from a notable drop-off, but you’ll have all the power you need for your average on-road situations. 

A hallmark of any MINI—Countryman or not—should be its handling, and our tester was, for the most part, very good. The steering is fantastically direct and the short wheelbase allows for very quick left-right transitions, and while you’ll find more body roll here than other MINIs due to a higher ride height, most of what I felt I attributed to the fact we were riding on squishy winter tires. Switch to stiff-walled summer rubber, and a lot of that somewhat disconcerting movement should be dissipated. 

Select “Sport” mode, and not only is the power delivery more intense, the handling sharpens up as well. Coupled with that quick steering rack, turn-in is immediate, the Countryman seemingly rotating around a central axis. It’s great fun, really, and impressive that MINI has been able to essentially take a subcompact crossover and give it proper fast hatch digs.

Problems arise, however, when you’re not giving it your all and just want to get home comfortably. The ride is firm to the point of being crashy at certain spots, an issue that isn’t alleviated by the fact the short wheelbase will have you pogo-ing if the bumps get repetitive. Hopefully, the available Dynamic Damper Control system ($500) will change that a bit, but we didn’t get a chance to see it for ourselves. 

Having said that, you do get a fair amount. The styling is still MINI—a MINI enlarged, anyway—but the added interior space is welcome and means that the Countryman is a MINI that can actually be used by a small family of three. Would I opt for the “S” in spite of the firmer ride? I like sporty cars, so I likely would. On the other hand, I’d have to give some serious thought to the softer, more fuel-efficient base models.

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