BMW’s Mini brand is now maxing out possibilities unheard of a decade or so ago. Shocking.
Not even Professor Dumbledore could have envisioned a spell so powerful that here in 2013 we have not just a Mini Cooper hatchback and convertible, but a three-door Mini (Clubman), a roadster Mini, a cargo van Mini (Clubvan), a two-seat coupe Mini, a two-door SUV-like Mini (Paceman) and a four-door SUV Mini (Countryman).
Minis come in all shapes and sizes, with different powertrains and available all-wheel drive. There’s a John Cooper Works version of almost every Mini. Minis roll off production lines in Oxford, England; Graz, Austria and Chennai, India (formerly Madras). Last year, Mini delivered a record 301,526 vehicles to customers worldwide. Sales were up 5.8 per cent over 2011 and 2013 will likely carry on down the same road.
No one can be sure why and how a Bavarian car company like BMW has conjured up Mini magic, but it’s happened. Back in the early 2000s, everyone at BMW swore up and down that Mini sales of 150,000 a year would be brilliant. But double that in 2012? Breathtaking.
What is it about Mini that works so well, then? It might have something to do with the fact that normally stuffy and orderly BMW lets the people working the Mini brand act majorly strange. Case in point: two years ago at the New York auto show, three members of the glam rock band Kiss pranced about kicking off a new test-drive program. The U.S. head of Mini, Jim McDowell, did his best Gene Simmons with them, right down to the black and white makeup.
Mini has managed success where others have failed. Remember Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. Boom, and then a big bust. The New Beetle? Just another niche car in the VW lineup. Toyota’s Scion “youth” brand also had a good start, but has since fizzled in the U.S. and Canada. The Chrysler Group in North America is hoping Fiat becomes the new Mini, but…
“They [PT Cruiser, New Beetle, Scion] each had a peak and dropped off,” McDowell recently told trade journal Automotive News. But Mini, year after year, has grown. “We never have had a huge burst of sales – but sustainable growth.” That’s what comes of a 30 per cent loyalty rate and industry-leading resale values.
Take the Mini Countryman I just tested. ALG, the former Automotive Lease Guide, says it’s No. 1 in resale value for in its class – subcompact utilities. (The regular old Mini Cooper is No. 1 for resale among premium compact cars, too.) Part of the reason for this is that Mini is a strong, emotional brand. At the same time, the Countryman is certainly safe: a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The bad news is that the Mini brand consistently ranks below average in quality studies from J.D. Power and Associates. Consumer Reports, too, has big issues with Mini quality. In fact, the Countryman has joined CR’s Not Recommended list because of declining reliability in owner surveys.
Obviously, the quality data is not putting a hurt on sales. I can understand why, too. There is just something emotionally satisfying about the Countryman that just isn’t found in similar-sized wagons with all-wheel-drive. Would I spend the $49,285 it would take to buy the as-tested version of the Countryman John Cooper Works I just sampled? To be sure, a stretch. On the other hand, the base version lists for a more modest $38,500.
The point here is, if you like this Mini or any other, take care with loading up the options. The Premium Package (glass sunroof, fog lights, automatic climate control and more) is a healthy $1,990. The Wired Package ($1,850) gives you voice recognition, a navigation system, Bluetooth, USB audio and a few other odds and end; the six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters adds $1,300 and a killer Harmon Kardon sound system is $990.
Still, the base package includes a very quick 208-hp four-banger that gets its guts from turbocharging and direct injection. This is a very nice little engine, though it does want premium fuel. Fuel economy is a respectable but hardly brilliant 8.1 litres/100 km in the city, 6.4 on the highway.
The Countryman certainly looks right. This smallish SUV sits well, with balanced proportions and big standard 18-inch run-flat performance tires. They deliver a firm, but not punishing, ride and they have quite decent stick.
The steering is tight and the steering wheel is meaty. It feels great in your hands. The front seats are certainly roomy enough for big adults, but the backs will get tight for oversized adults. It would be nice if some of the seat controls were not tucked along the sides, where they are almost inaccessible, however. And while the rear seatback lays flat, cargo room is not great.
Ah, but there is just something about the Countryman that I fully enjoy. The logic of it all escapes me, but I like the car nonetheless.
2014 Mini Cooper Countryman John Cooper Works All4
Type: Compact SUV
Base Price: $38,500 (freight $860); as tested, $49,285
Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 208 hp/192 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/6.4 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi A4 Allroad, Infiniti EX37
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