First drive: AWD Mini Countryman

The official launch of the Mini Countryman took place here in Hamburg, which is famous for its urban wildlife, especially during Schlagermove, the city’s so-called Love Parade recalling the psychedelic 1960s — which, coincidentally, was in full swing. Hamburg is also where the Beatles really took off in the early ’60s, so it is fitting this newest version of another British icon took to the stage in Germany’s second-largest city. As with the Beatles, the number four is key in getting to the essence of the Countryman. It is the first Mini to be four metres long, the first with four doors and four seats and also the first to be available with all-wheel drive.

It may be longer, wider and taller than the Cooper or the Clubman, but the look of the Countryman is pure Mini, and the car itself is still shorter than a Volkswagen Golf, so think of it as larger but not supersized. While interior space and cargo room are in short supply in the Cooper, the Countryman has enough room for four adults to be comfortable while also offering 12.4 cubic feet of luggage space. The rear seats can move fore and aft in a 130-millimetre range and can be folded down to significantly increase cargo room to 41.3 cu. ft. The Countryman also features an innovative centre rail system that runs between the front and rear seats and on which a number of accessories such as an iPod docking station or sunglasses case can be secured. Also available are high-end audio and navigation systems as well as mobile telephone interfaces including the option to completely integrate an iPhone and other smartphones in the car.

So much for the look and feel; what’s it like to drive? Only all-wheel-drive S models were available, so my driving impression is limited to that specific model. The S gets its power from a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with output boosted to 180 horsepower thanks to the TwinScroll turbocharger. On takeoff, the Countryman’s performance is strong and enthusiastic, the run to 100 kilometres an hour taking only 7.6 seconds. But the car does not exactly qualify as a pocket rocket, owing to its substantial 1,380-kilogram weight, some 250 kg more than the base Cooper. The performance of the all-wheel-drive system effectively prevents wheelspin during hard acceleration by shifting torque to the rear wheel, so there is more stability but a bit less fun on takeoff than at the wheel of a front-wheeldrive Cooper S. In corners, the Countryman rolls a little bit more and feels like it’s softer sprung than the Cooper S. The steering also feels a bit slower than on the other Mini models, so the overall sensation is that the car is a bit less of a go-kart than the Cooper S. Conversely, it is a more stable performer and the fun-to-drive factor is still very much present. During some off-roading on loose terrain, the AWD Countryman S could even be drifted sideways under power, provided the Dynamic Stability Control system was deactivated.

The Countryman will be available in Canada in the spring of 2011 in three variants– front-wheel-drive base, front-wheel-drive drive S and the all-wheel-drive S ALL4. No pricing information is available, but expect the Countryman to be more expensive than the Clubman S– which currently carries a $31,500 base price. One can also expect a long list of costly options for the Countryman, as well as almost limitless possibilities in adding accessories or trim options.

With four-door functionality and available all-wheeldrive, there is no doubt the Countryman extends the Mini’s appeal beyond its current clientele. It will also be a more adequate daily driver, but pricing will be a key issue in assessing whether or not the Countryman will contribute to a significant increase in the brand’s sales.