The big MINI
The MINI Countryman is the answer to the question nobody asked. It’s a five-door compact crossover that’s small enough to be called a “MINI”, big enough to seat four average-sized people, and tall enough to jump a parking kerb. It’s not quite an SUV, but that retro-Land Cruiser roof cap seems to suggest otherwise. It may have had MINI lovers (including me) crying “sacrilege!” when it was launched, but in person, it actually looks and feels like a true MINI. From the funky design details on the outside, to the chrome toggle switches on the inside, it retains the brand’s identity, through and through.
While the Countryman is small for a crossover, the spacious and well-appointed cabin make it a great way for four people to travel long distances comfortably. Sadly, that trip will have to be an overnighter rather than over-the-weekend, as the boot is on the small side. But at least you’ll get there rested and refreshed. Either that or you’ll get there completely buzzed.
That’s because the Countryman comes in several different flavors. The regular 120 hp 1.6 liter Countryman is your basic, soft-riding, no-frills Nirvana-on-wheels MINI, whereas the turbocharged Cooper S is an animal. While it hits 100 km/h in just over seven and a half seconds, 181 hp is a bit more than the Countryman’s front tires can handle. Thus, if you’re really interested in barreling down by-ways and highways as fast as inhumanly possible, the Cooper S ALL4 is where it’s at.
It’s loud, rowdy, and obnoxious. While it’s a second slower to 100 km/h than the Cooper S, thanks to an extra hundred-odd kilos of drive system, it’s definitely a more capable back-roads companion. The suspension is also stiffer to handle the extra weight and the ALL4 all-wheel-drive system banishes all traces of torque-steer.
Surprisingly, fuel economy is decent for the power... somewhat. Driven normally, the Cooper S ALL4 gave us 10 to 12 km/l in mixed driving and 8 km/l in the city. But that was when we were nice. Most of the time, we were extremely naughty, getting 6 km/l by driving it like we stole it. If Charlie’s boys need to pull off another “Italian Job”, I think I know what car they’ll be using. All that’s missing are the racing stripes.
As a top-of-the-line model, the ALL4 is slathered with black-and-chrome bits. Even the gearshift knob gets a chrome accent with a big red “S” on it. Other goodies include leather seats and MINI’s own version of iDrive. I still think it’s fiddly, but I’m starting to warm up to it. One option I’d happily chuck are the grippy 225/45R18 Pirelli Cinturato run-flat tires. While they’re sharp handling, the sidewalls are unbearably stiff. The regular 17-inchers are infinitely preferable.
On a more positive note, the exhaust is still one of the best I’ve ever heard on a turbocharged four-cylinder. And it gets even better. Activate “Sports mode” and it hardens, going from “10” to... “10.5” (okay, I was expecting a little more). Amusingly, it back-fires when you lift off, which should annoy your neighbors to no end. Steering firms up considerably in Sports mode, fizzling through your fingertips in a way you don’t really expect electric steering to. Gearshifts come faster, and the transmission holds onto lower gears when you lift off, in anticipation that you’ll floor it again once you’ve gone around the next corner. This is a car in which you can dive deep into a corner, trail-brake to tuck ‘er in, and zip right out again. Granted, the tall-riding car still becomes unsettled through quick transition changes, but it’s more fun than you expect a crossover to be.
Needs over Wants
Maybe it’s a bit bizarre throwing a five-door crossover around like a... MINI, but the Cooper S Countryman ALL4 is a bizarre vehicle. It’s so far out there that there’s nothing on Maslow’s scale of Self-Actualization to describe it. It’s like an Electric Buddha on Speed. And it gets even more insane with the P3,150,000 price tag. So a similarly-priced rally-rep would be faster, and a similarly priced SUV would be bigger, but neither would get as many nods of approval as you drive down the street. The Countryman is kitschy, but it’s kitschy-cool. It might not be a car that anyone needs, but it’s a car people definitely want.