Somewhere in rural England, while taking photos of the Mini tester near a village green, three women on horses clopped along the road and paused.
“Why are you taking photos of this car?” they asked, curious.
“Because it’s all new – the biggest car Mini’s ever made,” I told them. “It’s the latest generation of the Mini Countryman.”
“Well, it looks smart enough for Chelsea,” said one. “But it’s not a country car unless you can put a bale of hay in it.”
That’s the thing about the new Countryman, though – you can, and probably a couple. Its cargo space is 30 per cent larger than before, and if you fold the 40-20-40 sliding rear seats down flat, it can be expanded from 450 litres to 1,390 litres. That’s a lot of space, with comfortable headroom and legroom for five people when the seats go back up.
Not that you’d want to put any dusty hay back there. It’s a premium interior in the Mini, a little nicer than before. The tester even came with optional Union Jacks embossed in the back of the leather headrests. There are many ways to upgrade – sorry, “individualize” – every Mini and they all cost money, though the prices are not so exorbitant as with some makers (cough, Porsche).
There will be four turbocharged engines available for the new Countryman, but the only testers available here in Britain were the four-cylinder Cooper S versions, which is expected to be the volume seller. It’s a big car – did I mention that? – that weighs in at almost 1,500 kilograms for the manual three-cylinder Cooper and bumps up to 1,665 when you add the extra cylinder, an eight-speed transmission and all-wheel drive.
In fact, the current Countryman hasn’t even been sold before in Canada with the smaller engine, because it really needs the extra power to provide the zippy driving experience that Mini owners love. That’s why you might think the new car is a better deal, starting at $26,990 compared to the 2016 model’s $29,950 list price. But the new basic car is now a two-wheel-drive, 136-horsepower Cooper, while the basic car of the previous generation is a Cooper S with AWD; the 2017 Cooper S AWD starts at $31,990, which is an apples-to-apples increase of more than $2,000.
Is it worth it? It’s built on the same architecture as the BMW X1, though it’s not as large, and it feels as solid as that SUV – perhaps even more so. On the narrow roads of Britain, the firm steering was precise at every corner, and the 192-horsepower Cooper S engine had plenty of power for passing and available torque (207 lb-ft) for pulling out of curves. So the driving experience is just as satisfying. The smaller engine is more of a question mark, however.
There’s a six-speed manual transmission available for both engines, as well as for the high-performance John Cooper Works edition that we’ll get later this year (which starts at $38,500). The FWD Cooper can also be ordered with a six-speed automatic, but the AWD that’s the only option for the Cooper S comes with the eight-speed, and paddle-shifters on the wheel.
This new Countryman is not only longer than before and wider, but it’s also the tallest Mini made. It’s more than 14 centimetres taller than a regular Mini, though slightly lower than the previous generation. This means passengers sit higher, which is one of the appeals of SUVs, both for visibility and ease of access.
The extra height also gives the Countryman more ground clearance than the regular Mini, and the engineers here set up an off-road course to demonstrate its all-wheel-drive chops. In truth, it was just a muddy track with a few bumps on it, and the off-roading cars were equipped with winter tires that had a chewier tread, so I made it around with no surprises.
The AWD is more useful for Canadians in snow and wet weather, anyway, and there was plenty of moisture on the roads here to prove its abilities. The new system on this generation can shift torque between the axles in just a quarter of a second, which means the driver never notices any change in handling.
The real news of the new Countryman, which arrives in Canada next month, is that it will be available in June with a hybrid engine. This is Mini’s first hybrid – there has not really been any point in trying to save fuel (and boosting the cost) with any of its smaller cars. There’s no news on pricing, but it should salve the consciences of sporty drivers who want to do their bit to save the world.
Base price: $26,990; as tested: $31,990
Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder, or 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission/Drive: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic or eight-speed automatic (with AWD)/Front-wheel or all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): n/a
Alternatives: BMW X1, Mini Clubman, Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA
Looks: It might be big, but it still looks like a Mini.
Interior: Definitely a premium car, with all of BMW’s expertise. You’ll pay for the finer touches.
Performance: The Cooper S is zippy and precise and lots of fun to drive, as you’d expect a Mini to be.
Technology: All the standard features you’d expect are available, and then some. You can even get tags for things you shouldn’t forget, like wallet and phone, and the car will warn you if you try to leave without them.
Cargo: More room than ever before. How much space do you want?
Countryman buyers will be pleased. It’s bigger with updated technology, but without losing the Mini charm.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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