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.
The Countryman's all-wheel-drive system is more about handling than off-road performance.
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 Countryman gets a direct-injection four-cylinder using a twin-scroll turbocharger.
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.
The Countryman's big shift lever gets in the way of the cell phone holder.
The lever may look cool, but the ergonomic design is extremely poor. The optional center armrest makes it impossible to pull the brake lever all the way up. One of the accessories for the rail mentioned above is a cell phone holder, but it sits underneath the brake lever, making it very inconvenient to use.
Mini sets the ports for iPod integration at the front of the center rail, with a cable trailing back to the inconveniently placed cell phone holder. But most people will find it easier to drop an iPod into one of the cup holders in front of the rail.
Beyond iPod integration, Mini includes satellite and HD radio. Bluetooth audio streaming is not available.
With the Mini Connected option and an iPhone, drivers can also listen to Pandora and a set of Web radio channels. Along with music, Mini Connected adds apps that bring Facebook and Twitter feeds into the car, and integrates Google Local Search when the navigation option is present. Currently, Mini Connected only works with an iPhone.
The Countryman sent to CNET was not equipped with Mini Connected or the available navigation system, both of which would inset an LCD into the speedometer faceplate. In previous experience with Mini's navigation system, its DVD-stored maps make it a bit clunky, but it does include traffic information. Mini has updated its navigation system for the 2011 model year, moving to a flash-based navigation system, which should operate more smoothly than the former DVD system.
CNET's Mini did come with the optional Harman Kardon audio system, which includes 10 speakers and an upgraded amp. The sound quality from this system is not bad, but it lacks a strong bass punch. Midranges come through muddily, which makes vocals sound uninspired.
Controls mounted below the speedometer follow the standard radio paradigm, with volume on the left and tuning on the right.
Mini changed up its cabin tech interface for the Countryman, putting a small module with two knobs and plastic buttons at the bottom of the speedometer, below the wide, two-line radio display. These knobs follow the standard radio paradigm, with volume on the left and tuning on the right. The right-hand knob also works for selecting items from a list, such as phone numbers or music from a connected iPod.
Mini makes the most of the radio display, a limited space for showing iPod music libraries and phone contact lists. Although you can see only two items at a time from a list, scrolling through a list is quick. Buttons across the bottom of the display access different menus and options.
The Countryman's Bluetooth phone system, another option, offers useful features, such as making a paired phone's contact list available on the radio display. A voice command system also gives control over the phone system, and allows dialing by name.
Even as it upscales its models, Mini maintains its style and excellent handling character with the new 2011 Cooper S Countryman. As is typical for Minis, the Countryman shows off cool retro styling and can be configured with attractive colors and details, such as stripes and patterned mirror covers. Although the aesthetics hold up with this larger Mini, the cabin suffers from some bad ergonomic design, mostly where the armrest conflicts with the brake lever and cell phone mount.
Performance tech is the Countryman's high point, benefiting as it does from BMW engine innovations. It uses an advanced electric power-steering unit with a sport mode, set using the Sport button. The suspension may not employ high-tech features, but it is well engineered, contributing to the Countryman's handling. The all-wheel-drive system is icing on the cake.
The available navigation system for the Countryman is saved from mediocrity by its integrated traffic data. Phone and audio systems are good, but don't reach for technical nirvana. The real high point in the cabin is the available Mini Connected app integration, but that feature is limited to iPhones.
|Model||2011 Mini Cooper Countryman|
|Power train||Direct-injection turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||25 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||28.1 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 480-watt 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Sonar object detection|
|Price as tested||$35,400|