First Drive: 2017 Mini Countryman

The completely redesigned 2017 Mini Countryman is the brand’s biggest model ever. I’ve been an avowed purist when it came to Mini, not wanting the fun wee cars to get any bigger. By lengthening the Countryman SUV by 205.7 mm (8.1") over the previous generation and making it 35.5 mm wider (1.3") the designers threatened to sacrifice the very driving experience that makes Mini unique.

So... ich bin ein Londoner?

That was my thinking. Then I drove the new Countryman through the mountainous but fog-covered primeval rainforest just outside of Portland, Oregon, during a launch event attended by North, Central and South Americans.

Does it still feel like a Mini? Yes and no – a wishy-washy answer but, to be fair, it was an insanely wet day, and I can explain.

Though the 2017 Countryman was redesigned from scratch – the only component it shares with the previous generation is the centre cap on the wheel featuring the logo – it shares the architecture of the BMW X1. The mother company’s egghead engineers were consulted closely over Countryman’s driving dynamics throughout the redesign.

Consequently, driving the 2017 Countryman feels as much like a BMW as a Mini, especially on long stretches of highway. Hence, the yes and no answer. Frankly, there are worse insults to bestow on a car’s performance than likening it to a BMW. So... ich bin ein Londoner?

Where the new Countryman definitely does not feel like a Mini is in the 40/20/40 split backseat.

The space is so well used in this car, it almost beggars description. Suffice to say: sit there. Everyone in the new Countryman, front or back, has ample legroom, headroom and shoulder room.

And before we get hysterical over the girth of this largest Mini ever, some perspective: the Audi Q3 is still 76mm longer than new Countryman, and the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 104.1 mm longer. Yet the Countryman boasts more legroom, headroom and shoulder room, front and back, than both those competitors.

“One of our customers’ biggest demands was to be able to take another couple out to dinner in comfort,” explained one of our American hosts, Justin Berkowitz, Mini Product Specialist, about the product’s upsizing. Not unreasonable. “Our buyers live in the denser inner suburbs and city centres. They don’t have outlined parking spots,” and have to invent parking space. So they want a single vehicle that’s parkable in the city but versatile enough for jaunts to the country. Berkowitz added that many of these buyers previously owned a luxury crossover or SUV, and don’t want to feel like they’re settling or compromising by choosing something smaller.

The increased cargo space in the Countryman is Oregonian origami: folding, shifting and unveiling every which way. The front and back seats slide forward and aft, the back ones fold almost flat and the removable trunk floor drops. That’s how the Countryman delivers more space than competitors with a smaller footprint.

Where the new Countryman definitely does feel like a Mini is on twisty, hilly roads and tight city streets.

The day’s drive took us through a weather system that was so low and wet, it was like being trapped in an Ingmar Bergman funeral dream. The allegedly stunning views may have been blocked but the roads remained a stimulating and dynamic spaghetti of twists, drops and climbs. And the two Countryman variants we tested proved themselves pure Mini.

We spent the morning tearing about in a Cooper S ALL4 and the afternoon in the less enthusiastic Cooper ALL4. Let’s decode their internal jargon: Cooper is the base model with the regular engine; Cooper S is for Sport and has a gutsier engine; ALL4 if you hadn’t solved it already means all-wheel drive. There are other models coming to the market soon and we’ll talk about them a little later.

The Cooper S that we drove had a standard transmission. There were also S’s available with Automatic and Sport Automatic but a large minority of Mini buyers, especially of the S models, want to drive stick. Berkowitz estimates as many as 25 percent of US 2017 Countryman S buyers will choose it.

It’s easy to see why so many buyers want the standard transmission.

The engineers got it right. Despite being the biggest Mini ever, the new Countryman still looks like a Mini, performs like a Mini and drives like a Mini – all in weather fit for a duck.

The S trim boasts a 2.0L inline four-cylinder TwinPower Turbo engine that kicks out 189 hp at 5,000 rpm and 207 lb-ft of torque at 1,250. All Countrymans come standard with three drive modes, Eco, Mid and Sport. Shifting into each is immediately noticeable, from the difference in stiffness of the car to the changing growl of the engine.

Even in hydroplane-prone conditions, the Countryman S gripped well. Its computer is so sensitive in the application of all-wheel drive, that lowering the traction control (it doesn’t simply switch on or off but is graduated, offering degrees of intervention) didn’t feel edgy. Moreover, this drive was on all-season radials, not winter tires. I pushed the S hard in corners and took hills aggressively. An hour later at lunch, the two passengers who drove with me were surprised to learn that I had taken off the nanny controls at all.

The afternoon was spent driving the only slightly less well appointed Countryman Cooper. The standard cloth seats in the Mini Cooper ALL4 lack the luxuriance of the leather ones that come standard in the S, but otherwise it was about as much fun.

The Cooper is available with manual or automatic transmission and with ALL4 or front-wheel drive, though only the ALL4 was available during this drive event. The Cooper features a less powerful engine, 1.5L inline with three cylinders instead of four, but also TwinPower turbocharged. It attains 134 hp at 4,400 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque at 1,250 rpm.

Less impressive than the S, but thrilling enough to get you to the grocery store and campground.

We took the Cooper over a mountain pass and into the forest!

Which all sounds edgier than it proved. Towards the end of lunch our American hosts warned us of the coming adventure, making it sound like we were disappearing into some wintery Heart of Darkness. Any worried drivers from southern climes who’d never seen snow were welcome to avoid the course programmed into the GPS if they were afraid. It was so cute.

The forested off-piste adventure zone that was supposed to feature overwhelmingly challenging winter conditions was a slushy byway for ski chalet owners. It was narrow, bendy and slippery, but nothing any Canadian weekender doesn’t look forward to facing for three months every year.

Anyway, the Cooper also handles like a Mini. I threw off traction control again and ripped it along this woodsy trail for about two miles before we were back on the highway.

This base model is pretty sweetly priced too. Taking a page from Asian and American manufacturers, Mini is offering some tantalizing treats at the base price: the aforementioned three drive modes, heads-up interactive display, 6.5-inch high-res touch-sensitive display (it came in handy, displaying topographical 3-D views of what we should’ve seen rather than the cold steam bath we were surrounded by), rearview parking camera and sensor, automatic headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers (they came in handy while we were plowing through this dark, wet territory of the Twilight series) and 17-inch alloy wheels.

As with the feel of the ride, there’s been an evolution in the look of the Countryman.

For instance, the vents inside are no longer circular but more rhomboid. Traditionally, the round huggable design ethic of Mini was almost mammalian. The new Countryman looks and feels like the feisty little kid you loved has grown up and returned from college to responsibly take over the family business. Same kid but a bit different.

Here’s an analogy: the grownup Michael was still pure Corleone and the 2017 Countryman is still pure Mini.

And just like when your kid returning from college calls first with “some exciting news”, it turns out that the 2017 Countryman has someone he’d like you to meet: coming soon there’ll be a plug-in electric hybrid Countryman. The Mini Cooper S E Countryman ALL4 will be powered by both the three-cylinder turbo engine and an electric hybrid synchronous motor.

Think about that: Bringing home a greener, ecological message is the mature thing for the grownup Countryman to do. But delivering the massive instant torque that only an electric drive can achieve is a Mini purist’s dream. I for one can’t wait to make its acquaintance.

Pricing: 2017 Mini Cooper Countryman

Countryman: $26,900
Countryman ALL4: $28,990
S Countryman ALL4: $31,990

Biggest. Mini. Ever. 3/13/2017 6:28:00 AM