It rains in Portland, no news to anyone, and the locals deal with it by riding bicycles and eschewing umbrellas. While in Portland for a Mini-sponsored drive of the new Cooper Countryman, Mini Product Manager Magnus Aspegren proudly proclaimed this Countryman as the biggest car yet from Mini. In the past, I pointed an accusing finger at Mini for belying its name by making its cars bigger, but I need to accept the bloat.
Embrace the rain, embrace the big Mini.
The 2017 Mini Cooper and Cooper S Countryman debuted at last year's Los Angeles auto show, a new generation of this model designed to compete with premium compact crossovers such as the Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class. And despite the new Countryman increasing in size to a length of 14 feet 2 inches, it still comes in shorter than those competitors.
Poking around the four-door Countryman, I was impressed by the ample area in the rear bench seat, which looks like it seats most people comfortably. The covered cargo area in back could easily hold a week's worth of luggage for two, if you're not the sort of person who travels with an entourage. For greater cargo flexibility, the rear seatbacks fold down separately from the middle section, working together for a total of 47.6 cubic feet of space, meaning the Mini Countryman could hold 10 24-roll packs of paper towels.
Plus, you can get cover from the rain in the back of the Countryman, not that a Portlander would care.
As with all Minis, the Cooper Countryman comes with a 134 horsepower turbocharged 1.5-liter three cylinder engine, while the Cooper S version gets 189 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder engine. I drove the latter.
You can get any Countryman model with a six speed manual transmission, with either a six-speed or eight-speed automatic available.
However, the Countryman stakes part of its claim to crossover fame with the Mini All4 all-wheel-drive system, available on both the Cooper and Cooper S versions, giving it extra traction for Portland rain and icy roads. The system puts up to 40 percent of torque to the rear wheels at low speeds, and operates in front-wheel-drive mode at higher speeds, according to a Mini spokesman. It doesn't offer the ability to lock the torque distribution.
Driving the Countryman through pounding rain outside of Portland, the car proved comfortable and handled well. The wipers automatically sped up to deal with the unrelenting downpour and the bright white LED headlights gave it added visibility. Traveling down an icy road, I felt the car's wheels slip a bit, then take hold, likely a combination of all-wheel-drive and traction control.
Beyond this rain-soaked drive around Portland, Mini let me run off with the Cooper S Countryman for my trip back to San Francisco. On the way, I intended to stop at some scenic falls, but faced with a snow covered road heading off into the woods, I balked. While the All4 system gave me some faith, the Countryman's 6.5 inches of ground clearance gave me fears of ending up high-centered, and forced to walk 5 miles to the nearest town.
Switching to Sport mode for engine and transmission when I found a dry, twisty road, the Countryman's driving dynamics impressed me. Oh, it doesn't quite live up to the phrase "go-kart handling," which Mini tends to bandy about, but everything feels tight and responsive. Taking a quick turn, I felt the car rotate under my butt. I derived more driving satisfaction out of the Mini Cooper hardtop, but the Countryman doesn't fall far behind.
I spent most of the 600-plus miles to San Francisco on the freeway, and under these road trip conditions the Countryman really excelled. It kept road noise to a minimum and comfort close to maximum. The soft, cloth-covered seats in my example let me cruise for hours without complaint, while the suspension admirably soaked up freight-truck-chewed asphalt.
I put the Countryman in its Green drive mode for much of the time, although its gains on the freeway proved minimal. This mode works better in urban environments, where its detuned throttle prevents drivers from guzzling all their gas on fast starts. Speaking of urban environments, the Countryman felt nice and nimble in traffic, letting me take quick advantage of lane openings.
The Cooper S Countryman I drove, with all-wheel-drive and eight-speed automatic transmission, earns a fuel economy rating of 22 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. My average came in at 27 mpg, although that included many freeway miles.
After about 2 1/2 hours of drive time, the Countryman helpfully suggested, through a message on its infotainment screen, that I take a break. Being a dedicated road tripper, though, I dismissed the note and went back to the navigation screen.
Navigation, audio and hands-free phone screens showed up on an 8.8-inch LCD, an optional upgrade from the Countryman's standard 6.5-inch screen. As with previous Minis, I could control onscreen content with a dial and buttons on the console, but with Mini's new touchscreen, I could also directly choose options on the LCD. The interface isn't really designed as a touchscreen, so most of the icons are rather small, but I was impressed how well the system responded when I dragged the map around, and pinched to zoom.
Making navigation even easier, I loaded the new Mini Connected app, which let me look up destinations and then shoot them straight over to the car. Mini Connected also records the car's fuel level, so I could plan my road tripping better, and includes integration for such third party apps as Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn and Glympse. That, however, will have to stand in for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, neither of which Mini supports. However, a Mini spokesman said that Apple CarPlay would be coming in the near future, and that the company was looking into support for Android Auto.
Lacking from the Countryman's arsenal of tech was adaptive cruise control, which would have automatically slowed the car when I caught up with traffic ahead. The rear-view camera and park distance sensors were nice, but unlike so many other new models today, the Countryman also did without blind spot monitors or a collision warning system.
This new generation of the Mini Cooper Countryman drives well, while feeling spacious and comfortable for road trips. I didn't find it entirely convincing for offroad exploring due to the ground clearance, but the all-wheel-drive system should help traction in during winter weather.
I like Mini's electronics, which share most capabilities with models from parent company BMW. The Mini Connected app partially makes up for the lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Leaving adaptive cruise control and other driver assistance systems off the menu seems like a poor move, as those features are becoming common on much less expensive cars.
Although the base Countryman model can be had for as low as $26,100, before destination charges, the Cooper S model I drove was optioned up to around $38,000. The Countryman plays in premium compact SUV territory, going up against sleeker looking models such as the Audi Q3 and Infiniti QX30. Against those two, I prefer the Mini for its comfortable but engaged handling and solid cabin electronics, not to mention its unique Mini look.
And for Mini purists who still object to the size, try taking a walk in the rain and enjoy the feeling of getting wet.