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car review

What shall we make of the Mini Cooper Countryman, the biggest Mini yet (4,110 mm and a wheelbase of 2,595 mm)? How do we take the first Mini with four real doors, proper seating for four and optional all-wheel drive? Why is BMW AG's Mini extending its range with an offering designed to appeal to Mini owners who have grown up and now have children?

The short answer to everything: business.

Mini is expanding to four models (standard, convertible, Clubman and Countryman) using a tried-and-true formula. That is, BMW has long been creative at spinning off multiple models from the same basic mechanical platform and sharing parts all across lines. The Countryman essentially is a beefed-up, all-wheel-drive version of the Mini Cooper with rugged, outdoorsy looks and real utility.

Ian Robertson, BMW AG board member for sales and marketing, says it makes complete sense to add a big Mini that will bring to the brand "a lot of different customers because this car has a lot more flexibility. The Mini Countryman is our answer to the needs of customers who were looking for a bit more Mini. …"

How much? The base front-drive Countryman lists for $27,850, while the starter all-wheel-version is $34,400. Mini Canada is not offering a stripped-down Mini One version, nor will Canadians be able to buy the diesel variant, either.

In Canada, the base car has a 121-horsepower, 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine, while the S gets a twin-scroll, turbocharged version of that motor making 181 hp. Both engines are new and have direct fuel injection and very fancy valve management technology (BMW calls it Valvetronic) to enhance engine breathing.

For a Mini, the Countryman is huge. It's some 130 mm longer than the three-door version on which it is based. The big, shovel-nosed front end also gives the Countryman a bulldog look about it. A big bulldog is surely the antithesis of what the Mini brand has stood for all these years, but there you go.

A big plus for the maxi Mini is how easy it is to slide behind the higher-set steering wheel. You don't drop into the driver's seat, but rather you ease in comfortably, in sharp contrast to the low-riding hatch. The extra ride height enhances outward visibility, too.

The cabin is all standard Mini fare, just a little nicer all around. There is the over-large speedometer in the centre of the dash and the bulbous air vent outlets spread across it. This Mini is wide enough so that the two up front won't clash elbows when locking seatbelts. But why does Mini continue to ignore the need for small-item storage in the cabin?

Yes, there is this nifty centre aluminum rail that runs from the gearshift housing to the back seats. Buyers can choose to buy clip-on storage devices (cup holders, sunglass holders, storage box, armrest, iPod holder ...) for managing odds and ends. This is gimmicky and the whole device seems flimsy.

At the back, Canadians will find two rear buckets that slide fore and aft up to 130 mm. Rear legroom is exceptional and it's aided by the scalloped backs of the front seats. The rear seats adjust for rake and fold almost flat, too. A child seat tether is recessed into the base of them.

As for cargo room, the boot has 350 litres of space and, with the rear seats folded down, this expands to 1,170 litres - "enough for two mountain bikes with their front wheels removed," says Mini. A hidden recess in the boot space has a flip-up lid that covers valuables while also preventing loose items from flying around the cabin. Access to the cargo area is via a clever door latch hidden away by the Mini logo on the rear door. A roof rail system is an option for carrying more stuff.

My turbocharged S had plenty of power and the ride quality was first rate. Long trips are a pleasure because the suspension guys have used the extra 154 mm of height to refine ride comfort.

For the driver, however, this is no Mini go-kart, but a beefy Mini and it shows in the handling. That is, the Countryman drives like a big Mini. The transverse engine keeps the weight well behind the front wheels and that helps to keep the handling responses lively. However, nothing happens as quickly here as in a regular, old Cooper S.

The all-wheel-drive system is similar to that used by Saab and Volvo - an on-demand arrangement housed in the Mini's rear differential. ALL4 can push 100 per cent of the power to the rear wheels when needed, but the default mode is a 50-50 split between the front and rear wheels. The all-wheel-drive system also gets a stability control setting, which eliminates under-steer (the tendency for the front wheels to push or plow as you dial into a sharp corner).

This Mini of swollen measurements is for the family. It makes business sense for Mini to stretch its lineup, and this Countryman is nicely executed and surprisingly affordable.

But much as I like the actual vehicle, I gotta ask the question: A Mini SUV? Isn't that an oxymoron?

Tech specs

2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4

Type: Compact crossover SUV

Price: $34,400 ($800 freight)

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque: 181 hp/177 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/6.3 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Mitsubishi RVR, Nissan Juke