2011 Mini Countryman: Pushing the Mini limit

Review of the 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4

VIENNA—How much larger can a Mini get before it stops being a Mini?

That’s the question parent BMW will be asking new-car buyers less than a year from now when the Cooper Countryman — the largest Mini to date since the modern version was introduced in 2002 and the first to offer five doors and available all-wheel-drive — goes on sale in Canada.

Following its conceptual predecessors (2008 Mini Crossover Concept and this year’s Beachcomber concept), the introduction of the five-door hatchback Countryman now brings the Mini body count to four, including the original three-door hatchback, two-door convertible and four-door Clubman.

And that doesn’t include the two-seat Mini Coupe and Roadster coming in the next 24 months as well.

Almost a year out, BMW Canada isn’t committing to Countryman pricing. But with more room, traction and overall capability than the current largest Mini (the front-wheel-drive $31,500 Cooper S Clubman), expect the three-model Countryman lineup — FWD Cooper, Cooper S and AWD Cooper S ALL4 — to cost somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000.

Mini head designer Gert Hilldebrand said the idea of a larger Mini was something the automaker struggled with.

“But Mini customers — those with children or extra stuff to carry around or who can only afford one car — demanded we build this car,” admitted Hilldebrand.

By chasing a different type of customer than the existing models — which are essentially two-plus-a-couple-of-yoga-mats-hatchbacks — the newest Mini has become a bit of a whopper.

Although it’s minimal overhangs means it’s still shorter than a typical compact five-door hatchback, the Mini Countryman is almost 150 mm longer than the stretched Clubman and 400 mm longer than the original hatchback.

More significantly, the Countryman’s wheelbase has been stretched and the cabin is noticeably wider. And that extra cabin room has been put to good use.

Even with the driver’s seat adjusted to my liking, I could easily “sit behind myself” in the back of one of the camouflaged preproduction Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4 models the automaker brought to a first drive event held at a private racetrack just north of Vienna.

Although there is a three-across bench seat version available in other markets that makes the Countryman a five-passenger Mini, government seatbelt regulations will only allow the two-rear-seat model to be sold in Canada and the U.S. To add flexibility, the pair of rear buckets recline and slide back and forth.

Press the huge Mini logo on the hatch, open it up, and you’ll find up to 440 litres of cargo space, seats up. When folded flat, rear cargo space expands to 1,170 litres — considerably more than the 928 the Clubman offers and about twice that of the base Cooper hatchback.

The new AWD system, which allows the Cooper S Countryman ALL4 to be the first Mini to deliver traction to all four wheels, is relatively sophisticated.

A rear-mounted electromagnetic differential doles out the torque to each of the four wheels dependent on wheel speed, car speed and yaw angles. ALL4 can allow for an up-to-50 per cent split of engine power to the front and rear wheels when the road is slippery or when accelerating. Under normal road conditions, though, it acts like other Minis, with 100 per cent of the power driving the front wheels.

Dynamic stability control is standard, and dynamic traction control is an option that also features an electronic limited-slip function for the front wheels.

Mini says the Countryman weighs about 150 kg more than a 1,165 kg, base $22,800 Cooper Classic. While the ALL4 system only adds a nominal 70 kgs. Yet the time the Countryman takes to trot from zero to 100 km/h ranges between 10.5 and 7.6 seconds depending on the model — only slighter slower than more slender Minis.

With a good dose of technology from BMW’s engine department, the Countryman is also introducing heavily revised versions of the current gasoline four-cylinders that will appear in the existing 2011 Minis arriving in Canada this Fall.

Both 1.6-litre units are now equipped with BMW’s Valvetronic full variable engine valve control that the company says optimizes throttle response and fuel consumption.

All 2011 base Mini Coopers will come with a 120 hp and 118 lb.-ft. of torque naturally aspirated version. We weren’t given Transport Canada numbers yet. But where a 2010 Clubman S (using the older engine) scores a combined 6.9 L/100 km (41 miles per U.K. gallon), on the EU cycle, the FWD Countryman gets a combined 6.0 L/100 km (47 mpg).

The higher performing Cooper S engine for 2011 adds even more high-tech engine goodies.

Trademarked as TVDI (Twin scroll turbocharger, Valvetronic, Direct Injection), the Cooper S’s more powerful 180 hp and 177 lb.-ft. engine shares similar hardware with BMW 335i’s new 3.0-litre six, a combination that Mini says improves low-end torque response and fuel economy.

The automaker is hoping for it to achieve “best in class,” or around 34 miles per U.S. gallon (6.9 L/100 km or 41 miles per U.K. gallon) on the highway with the Cooper S Countryman.

Our drive time in the Cooper S Countryman ALL4s was limited to lapping a tight road course that organizers artificially wetted to highlight the new car’s AWD system.

Despite its obvious gains in size and weight, Mini officials are adamant that the Countryman delivers the same so-called “go-kart handling” that the other smaller, lower and lighter Minis achieve.

For the most part it does.

Although it was hard to gauge the difference caused by the extra weight of the biggest Mini during some brief acceleration runs, the Countryman’s steering was still very direct, meaty and accurate. And even with AWD and the optional front electronic differential lock activated, I felt confident enough with the car’s balanced handling to drift the biggest Mini ever through the some of the track’s longer turns.

The biggest difference is in the ride height.

Between the Countryman’s taller body shell, raised seating and taller wheels and tires, you lose the go-kart seating position found in a regular Cooper. Instead, you get an appropriately improved ride quality and overall robustness not found in the more agile, yet firmer riding Minis.

There will be an optional sport suspension that lowers the Countryman by 10 mm when it goes on sale.

BMW is marketing the new 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman ALL4 as a “genuine Crossover.” But in reality the mucho Mini — and like most of its small crossover competition such as the forthcoming Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Nissan Juke — will never see an unplowed city winter street or attempt any part of the Rubicon Trail.

More likely, the most voluminous Mini to date will find a home with urban buyers looking for a small, fun-to-drive, five-door hatchback with the brand cachet, good residual values and luxury features that are part and parcel with the Mini badge.

Has Mini pushed the boundaries of the Mini concept? BMW will start finding out next February.

Travel was provided to freelance auto writer John LeBlanc by the auto maker.

2011 Mini Countryman

PRICE: $30,000 – $40,000

ENGINE: 1.6 L turbo I4

TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual or optional automatic

POWER/TORQUE: 180 hp/177 lb-ft

COMPETIITION: Audi A3 Quattro, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Nissan Juke, Subaru Impreza WRX, Suzuki SX4

WHAT’S GOOD: Real seating for four; flexible cargo space, near go-kart handling

WHAT WORST: Four on board will be happier than five; less well-equipped rivals cost less

WHAT’S INTERESTING: Countryman is largest Mini ever, and first with seating for five, five doors and AWD.

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