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Not So Small After All – Mini Countryman

Not So Small After All – Mini Countryman

Think ‘Mini’ and you think of Sir Alec Issigonis’ 1959 masterpiece – tiny, timeless and innovative.

Words by Stephen Smith

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Its dimensions lived up to its name – I had a 6-foot-8 friend who removed the driver’s seat of his 1967 Mini and sat on the back seat. I remember him arriving at parties in his little Mini, red with one yellow door, and him gradually unfolding himself from its cramped interior – a conversation-stopping feat of yoga. I also know of an occasion when the Mini belonging to a friend of a friend was somehow picked up by a group of young men and rotated 90° in it’s parking space – it wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

But nobody’s going to be picking up your new Countryman for a lark – it’s a family SUV that can actually cope with four people and their luggage. Many decry the growth of the Mini, and while it may not be a ‘true’ Mini, the Countryman is an example of genius in its own right. Mini has made a car that has kept the proportions of the Mini, upscaled them to be practical for a family, but somehow made the resultant vehicle feel small to drive. That’s clever design work.

This, the second-generation Countryman, is the biggest Mini ever, measuring 4.299m long, 1.822m wide and 1.557m high – not much smaller than the BMW X1 that it’s based on. That means it now has space for five full-sized seats, a boot that can handle up to 450-litres of lifestyle/weekend-away/baby paraphernalia, and a more airy feel than any Mini before it. The boot can also be adjusted in size by sliding the rear seats forward or backwards. Split rear seats add further practicality, as does an optional electric tailgate that you can sit on (to drink champagne at the polo, you know). And my tall friend would be able to fit on the actual driver’s seat.

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You’d think by the name that the Countryman is an outdoorsy car, but with a ground clearance of 165mm this is more a country road kind of car, happiest in the suburbs and perhaps venturing into the city for thrills. There are even all-wheel-drive versions, but these are intended to offer more traction for road driving than green-laning, as the Poms call tackling dirt roads.
Mini’s are all about driving pleasure, which makes the Countryman the driver’s compact SUV. With that you can expect firm suspension, incredible cornering ability, peppy engines and cracking gearboxes. Steering is precise and predictable, and it really is a fun car to drive, not just when compared to other SUVs.

Something that helps with this is the toggle switch at the base of the gearlever – leave it in the default setting and the car is comfortable and competent. Turn it to the right and the vehicle gets a bit boring, saving fuel and reducing responsiveness. Turn it to the left, though, and the car comes alive – red lights flicker into existence around the cabin, the exhaust note gets gruff and crackly, and the engine lives up to its potential.

Speaking of engines, there are currently three local options: the Cooper (1.5-litre petrol, 100kW and 220Nm), Cooper S (2-litre petrol, 141kW and 280Nm) and John Cooper Works (2-litre petrol, 170kW  and 350Nm). A diesel and a hybrid are also available internationally and might well make their way here in time.

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The 1.5-litre isn’t quite up to the job of lugging around the swollen body of the Countryman, while the John Cooper Works model is positively frenetic – raw power and an edgy persona. The sweetspot, though is the Cooper S, which has more than enough power to light up every camera trap from here to nowhere in particular, but without the harshness of the John Cooper Work’s ride quality. It also has decent fuel consumption, at a claimed 6.5ℓ/100km.

After driving dynamics and a pretty face, the Mini’s strongest attribute is trendy and stylish interiors made of premium materials (which show BMW level of refinement, thanks to family genes), and with lovely little touches that bring a smile to your face and remind you that you’re driving something different and special. The stainless switchgear that wouldn’t be out of place in an attack helicopter, the ambient lighting that changes colour as you change the cars mode.

The Countryman is a lovable vehicle, full of stylish little touches, a cheeky persona and more charisma than any other SUV on the road. The cleverest thing about it is that it somehow retains the Mini essence, despite being big enough to be practical. This is a winning combination that my wife loved (a Countryman is now number two on her list of desired vehicles, after the Range Rover Evoque), but it doesn’t make sense to me. If I wanted to buy a Mini, I would buy a normal, small Mini Cooper S, and if I wanted an SUV, I would cast my eye beyond the brand to an SUV with better ground clearance. Countryman prices start at R428 500, while the Cooper S is priced at R517 000.

Locally, all Minis come with a 5-year/100 000km maintenance plan.

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