By Andy Morgan
I have always secretly loved classic Minis. The pioneering front-wheel drive, wide track and low centre of gravity which John Cooper used as the basis for his 1960s iconic rally cars. However, at 6’5”, I have generally admired them from a distance, as a concept more than an experience of my own.
The opportunity to attend the launch of the new Mini Countryman and finally, the chance to put a man-sized Mini through its paces was too good an opportunity to pass up.
At face value, this is the biggest Mini ever. 20 centimetres longer than the previous generation with a slightly longer wheelbase, the Countryman now boasts 5 fully-fledged seats and 450 litres of luggage space. At full stretch (my stretch) it must be said that there is precious little legroom left for an adult passenger in the back, but the rear seats do slide back for added legroom or fold flat in various configurations for different storage options up to 1309 litres.
There is an option of an electric tailgate, providing touchless opening and closing, especially useful when trying to manoeuvre two small kids and five packets of shopping into the car at once, I’ve found. Also around the back, Mini has introduced a very quirky picnic bench seat that folds up and out of the boot floor. Much has been made of this… horses for courses I suppose.
The interior is much in line with what we’ve come to expect from MINI. Beautifully detailed and finished with great BMW build quality. The iconic central instrument has been upgraded to a touchscreen display housing the navigation and sound systems. A major new development is the MINI Connected in-car infotainment system and MINI Connected App. This allows the driver to integrate their digital life via touchpoints such as the Apple iPhone and Apple Watch. The driver is notified about advised departure times and possible delays due to traffic congestion. The system also automatically transfers destination addresses from the driver’s smartphone based on appointments made in the MINI Connected App without having to update the car’s navigation system. Essential tools for modern living I understand.
The Countryman is currently available in two MINI TwinPower Turbo engine guises. The standard Countryman is fitted with a 3-cylinder 1,5l petrol engine that puts out 100kW and max torque of 220nM. The big brother, the real deal, the MINI Cooper S Countryman, comes with a 4-cylinder 2.0l petrol engine, pushing 141kW and 280nM. Transmission options include a standard 6-speed manual and 6 or 8 speed Steptronic transmissions for the Cooper and Cooper S respectively. A diesel option will be available to the local market in the 3rd quarter of 2017, a 2.0l engine offering 110kW and 330nM of torque. Especially impressive is the diesel’s 4.5l/100km fuel consumption while the petrol engines have a claimed 7.0-2.1l/100km
Yes, yes, but how does she drive? Well, the 1.5l engine proved more than adequate for town driving and on the mix of tar backroads and gravel district roads of the KZN Midlands, she performed very well. Bearing in mind that both currently available versions are 2-wheel drive versions, they handled the dirt incredibly beautifully, however, the 2.0l Cooper S was remarkable. Responsive and quick (0-100 in 7.5 seconds and a max speed of 224km/h) I couldn’t help but feel that finally, I was experiencing for myself what all the fuss around John Cooper’s Monte Carlo Rally cars was all about. The driving experience is dynamic and the Sport Mode firms the suspension up nicely, adjusts transmission and changes the pitch of the engine sound, all contributing to a most satisfying, involved driving experience.
Would I buy one? At R530 000 for the Cooper S Countryman Auto and R490 000 for the lower spec’d manual Countryman, there is a lot to choose from in the class.
BMW’s X1 is an obvious option, and some might think it strange for BMW to have two vehicles competing in the same segment. There is something special about the new MINI though, it has personality, heritage and a very particular style. The previous generation sold 540000 units worldwide and in a slightly bigger, more practical guise with the current upgrades, the MINI Countryman is even more desirable.