A chance meeting between English race-car builder John Cooper and Fiat engineer Aurelio Lampredi at the 1959 Italian Grand Prix is celebrated in Mini folklore.
Having driven an early Mini prototype to the race, Cooper was accosted by Lampredi, who begged him to borrow the tiny front-wheel-drive car. Returning it hours later, the Italian heralded it as the future of automobile design, then added: “If it weren’t so ugly, I’d shoot myself.”
Most modern automobiles owe something to the Mini: unibody construction, transverse engine orientation and four-wheel independent suspension, among other features. Sir Alec Issigonis didn’t devise all of its technology, but he managed to shoehorn it all into one impossibly small package.
That face that only a mother of invention could love was an enduring feature. The Mini was produced largely unaltered for 41 years, although exports to America ended in 1967 and Canadian sales petered out in 1979.
BMW bought the money-losing Rover Group in 1994 and, having failed to stanch its heavy losses, dismantled the British automaker in 2000. However, BMW retained the rights to the Mini brand and made plans to reinvent Mr. Bean’s car.
Arriving for 2002, the all-new Mini was considerably larger than the original – 58 centimetres longer and 400 kg heavier – to meet contemporary crash standards. The subcompact hatchback formed the entry-level product in the BMW lineup, though Mini got its own dealers.
Mini introduced an array of microscopic models to broaden its appeal, which included the 2011 Countryman with its ALL4 all-wheel-drive system. Its enlarged floor pan made room for four doors and adult-sized rear seating, along with the ALL4’s electro-hydraulic differential, which distributed the power variably between the front to rear axles.
The oxymoronic “big Mini” Countryman was a hit, paving the way for a second generation for 2017 that grew even larger. The wheelbase was stretched by 8 cm and overall length expanded by 22 cm, thanks to BMW’s new UKL2 modular platform that underpinned several front- and four-wheel-drive Mini and BMW models, including the X1 and X2 crossovers.
The new-gen Countryman offers a certain roominess unknown to other Minis, with an abundance of headroom and decent legroom in the back seat. Owners noted step-in height is ideal for easy entry and egress, instead of falling down into the seat when you get in. The bigger cabin improved dramatically with better finishes and more premium features.
Buttons and toggles are laid out better – window switches moved from the centre console to the doors where people expect them – and the speedometer rightfully resides in front of the driver (the big centre-mounted dial now frames an 8.8-inch infotainment screen). An instrument panel that adjusts with the steering wheel and a panoramic sunroof are unexpected frills. And the Mini’s quirky style continues to find an appreciative audience.
“My wife drove a Ford Explorer for years. She was tired of the same boring SUV style everyone else has so we got the Mini,” offered one post, by way of explanation.
The base Cooper uses a 134-hp, 1.5-L turbocharged three-cylinder engine that’s mated to a manual gearbox or automatic transmission, both six-speeds. The Cooper S comes with a 189-hp, 2.0-L turbo four-cylinder, available with an optional eight-speed automatic.
The Countryman lineup was expanded in 2018 with the plug-in hybrid Cooper S E that combines the three-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic and an electric motor. Together, the system outputs 221 hp and 284 lb-ft of torque driving all four wheels. Unfortunately, it can only travel a maximum of 20 km solely on electric power. The extra hardware also raises the rear seat, reducing headroom and luggage space, and precipitates a smaller fuel tank holding just 36 litres.
The John Cooper Works (JCW) trim also joined the Countryman party in 2018, featuring a more potent version of the turbo four with 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque working through the six-speed gearbox or optional eight-speed automatic. Oriented for performance, the JCW has a sport-tuned suspension, aggressively bolstered front seats, a rear spoiler and other aero accoutrements.
The 2020 model year brought some major updates, including a more powerful engine in the JCW making 301 hp and 331 lb-ft of torque, paired solely with the eight-speed autobox. It represents a major reworking of the Cooper S engine, incorporating a modified crankshaft, new main bearings, pistons and connecting rods, a larger turbocharger and higher compression ratio. The plug-in hybrid received a larger battery pack that increases the all-electric range to 40 km. There’s also sad news: a manual transmission is no longer available in any Countryman.
Being the victim of unsightly heft, the base Cooper model requires some patience to drive. This big Mini weighs 1,665 kg (3670 lbs), mass that overwhelms the three-cylinder turbo’s modest output. Zero to 97 km/h comes up in a molasses-like 9.3 seconds – unworthy of the racing stripes other Minis wear. The 189-hp Cooper S is speedier, taking 7.1 seconds to reach highway velocity, while the 2020 JCW wrinkles the pavement taking just 4.4 seconds to do the deed.
The new BMW platform brings noticeably more refinement. While the first-gen Countryman had been criticized for its harsh ride, the current model is more comfortable and maintains its composure over rough roads. Quick lane changes are managed with aplomb, though a bit of the characteristic Mini go-kart handling has been lost.
“This car is a huge upgrade in drivability over my 2015 and 2013 models,” reads the post by an owner of a 2018 Countryman. “The ergonomics and quality of the controls inside is much upgraded, as is the ride quality, noise, vibration, harshness and overall livability.”
Countryman owners rave about their cars’ unique style and features, sporty driving characteristics and ability to customize their ride right in the showroom. On the other hand, not everyone was enthralled with the confining optional sport seats, the small cargo hold, excessive tire noise and the fact that Mini’s turbo engines all require premium fuel.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
Assembled in the Netherlands in a third-party plant that used to put together Mitsubishi cars, the Countryman enjoys elevated quality scores of late, along with other Mini models (VDL NedCar also produces the closely related BMW X1 crossover). Newer Minis have climbed above the industry average in recent J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability rankings.
There has not been a lot of online complaints about the second-generation Countryman, in part because it hasn’t sold in large numbers. The most common gripe has to do with dashboard warning lamps lighting up in unison. Dealers can reset the system, but sometimes offer no explanation. A few owners warn about spilling drinks between the front seats, which may seep into the gear shifter mechanism and trip the transmission warning lamp.
One mechanical issue that has been cited relates to the high-pressure fuel pump giving up the ghost at low mileage – not an uncommon problem in European automobiles. Driveability issues such as stalling in traffic is a warning sign worth heeding.
Minis typically come with run-flat tires that are roundly despised by drivers for wearing out quickly, riding roughly and being costly to replace (not to mention they can’t be repaired when punctured). While run-flat tires are improving, it’s wise to have a budget for fresh rubber.
“Summer high-performance tires left me with 2 mm of tread during 8K oil change. E-mailed Mini and they referred me back to dealer which provides no answer, saying that run-flats don’t come with mileage warranty,” reported one owner online.
Used Mini buyers unaccustomed to maintaining a European car may discover parts aren’t always easy to obtain quickly. Some owners have reported waiting weeks for certain components to be delivered overseas – a lengthy inconvenience.
All in all, the Mini Countryman represents a distinct departure from the crowded crossover SUV segment. Just remember that breaking from the herd can come with a toll not known to people driving a run-of-the-mill Hyundai or Toyota. It’s the cost of being different.