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Apparently, when a Mini resides in the country, it gets fat. The new 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman looks positively portly, a puffed-up version of the little car that so many people know and love. But in its Countryman guise, the Mini Cooper S gains all-wheel drive, a higher seating position for the driver, and a little extra ground clearance.
Although larger and weighing approximately 500 pounds more than the standard Cooper S, the Countryman uses the same engine as its smaller sibling, leading to a reduction in performance. Similarly, its fuel economy is not quite as good. And in a major design flaw, what is intended to be an innovative rail system down the center of the cabin, convenient for attaching cup holders and other accessories, divides the rear seats, making the car strictly a four-seater.
Mini manages to keep the Countryman surprisingly nimble despite its greater size. The Mini Cooper has enjoyed a reputation for go-kart handling, and the Countryman doesn't lose much cornering ability. That excellent handling is partly due to the new all-wheel-drive system.
By default, Mini's All4 all-wheel-drive system splits torque equally between front and rear wheels, but can shift 100 percent to the front or rear as needed. Taking the car through tight turns on a mountain road, it performed very well, a solid connection between steering wheel and front wheels leading to precise turn-in. The electric power steering unit does not interfere significantly with road feel.
Midturn, where you would expect the higher center of gravity to pull the car over, the Countryman stays refreshingly flat thanks to an optional sport-tuned suspension. The All4 drive system runs torque primarily to the front wheels on the turn exit, letting the back end rotate out a bit as the Countryman scrabbles for forward grip, pulling itself through the exit.
Because of the Countryman's different physical characteristics from the standard Cooper, it is less forgiving in the corners. At times, too much speed into a corner or the wrong amount of initial turn-in led to awkward handling, as the car's many electronic road-holding systems took over to preserve balance.
As a Cooper S Countryman, this car came with a turbocharged, direct-injection 1.6-liter four-cylinder, an efficient little engine using BMW's (Mini's owner) latest power-train tech to churn out 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. The Countryman can also be had as the standard Cooper, with a non-turbocharged engine, which would not be nearly as fun.
The engine for the Cooper S Countryman not only gets BMW's Valvetronic technology, which uses valve lift to control acceleration, but also a twin-scroll turbocharger. This turbo tech minimizes lag by separating cylinder exhaust streams, keeping the turbo spinning at constant speed.
In the heavier Countryman, this engine required extra pressure on the gas pedal from start or at slow speeds to keep it from stalling, which happened an embarrassing number of times. Pushing the Sport button, thereby increasing throttle sensitivity, made it easier to deal with slow city speeds, and was certainly more fun on the mountain roads. Freeway cruising was the only time to disengage the Sport mode, in order to increase fuel economy.
CNET's car came equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, the choice for anyone who really enjoys driving. With that transmission, the Cooper S Countryman is rated at 25 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. It loses 1 mpg city when equipped with the optional six-speed automatic. Over a week of city, freeway, and mountain driving the Cooper S Countryman turned in a respectable 28.5 mpg.
Oversize brake lever
Lacking controls for locking the center differential, the Countryman isn't designed for serious off-roading, a point made even clearer by the low hang of the front air dam below the bumper. But Mini's style sense is undeterred, expressing the car's supposed ruggedness with a big brake lever between the seats that looks like it could be used to shut down a nuclear reactor.