Mini is big, but it needs to grow. Despite building 200,000 cars a year, the BMW sub-brand doesn’t quite boast the volume required for true sustainability. What’s more, it’s also losing customers; owners, quite literally, outgrow the Mini.
So now, Mini is bigger. Enter the new Countryman, the world’s first Mini five-door, and a Mini all about the number four: metres in length, passengers doors, wheels driven (if you go for the posh ones). It’s also the vital fourth body-line in the range, and the first genuine variation from the ‘BMW Mini’ reinvention.
Mini is sure being bold. It reckons the Countryman, which already offers a full line-up of diesel and petrol engines (including a 184bhp Cooper S), is a Nissan Qashqai rival. The VW Golf is also mentioned. Here’s Mini not being so Mini.
You’ll appreciate this the moment you get inside. Try the back: don’t be scared, there’s now proper space there. Mini lets you choose between five-seat bench or four-seat alternative, both being fully adjustable and surprising showroom-goers with their VW Golf-matching head and legroom. Fear not, families.
There’s even boot space; the massive tailgate reveals 350 litres, which coincidentally matches a Golf. In the front, a high seating position fits the car’s mini-Crossover image, while superb quality features throughout the dash (that looks, well, just like a Mini).
But how does this new family Mini do driving dynamics? Really rather well, actually. Sure, it’s softer and more compliant than a hatch: you feel this in town, with more body lean than the hatch (even in the performance Cooper S we drove). But the steering’s still meaty and super-accurate, and it remains pretty chuckable. Lo and behold, this is a new Mini that rides with plush absorbency, too.
The 1.6 turbo engine sounds bland but, with 184bhp and bags of torque, it certainly performs well. The stats say 7.9secs to 60mph which is decidedly warmish hatch territory. The FWD is a smidgen quicker, and probably more torque-steery.
The posh ‘ALL4’ 4WD versions come with tenacious traction, which the turbo torque allows you to exploit through corners. Mini says nearly all the drive can be sent to the rear wheels if necessary; to feel this on corner exits is pretty satisfying, every time.
You may have noticed something though. The elephant in the corner. Ah yes, the looks. Mini’s not lying; it’s big. No longer a Mini. Just as Porsche did with the Cayenne and 911, those famed Mini styling cues have been stretched out of their comfort zone, and the outcome is controversial.
It’s well rounded, family friendly, beautifully built, eco and great to drive. But is the big Mini going to suffer by being such a big Mini? Initial orders suggest not – it’s sold out already for 2010, despite eye- watering list prices for the test car. How’s it going to fare longer term though? Over to the editor…
by RICHARD AUCOCK
Second Opinion: James Baggott, editor
GREAT car to drive, completely sold out for the whole year… but seriously, did it have to look like this? Make no mistake the Countryman is a great car to drive, it’s built superbly and is extremely practical. But a Mini in my eyes is a Mini – that means SMALL. The clue is in the name. However competent the Countryman is I can’t help but think it’s an exploitation of the brand a bit too far. Mini dealers won’t be complaining though – it only opens up the door to even more buyers.
The Car Dealer team recorded a podcast with new columnist Alex Goy at the Countryman launch. Hear what we had to say about it by typing bit.ly/countryboys into a web browser. Be warned though, we don’t hold back…