First Drives

23 July 2018

Review: 2018 Mini Countryman

Biggest Mini yet is the least fun to drive. But new Countryman has practicality on its side


TopGear.com
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What is it?
The Mini Countryman has always had two jobs. It’s been the Mini for people who want a crossover. But also for people who had a Mini (a real one, a three-door hatch) but who then needed to trade up into more space. Because that extra-space role is now very nicely filled by the new Clubman, this second-generation Countryman has become the Mini with even more extra.

It’s the most XXL Mini ever, a full 20cm longer than before. There are five seats for grown-ups. The boot’s a good size too.

And it’s probably more of a crossover than ever, with the design to match, Being a Mini, the Countryman is clearly meant to be the driver’s car among small crossovers. The suspension is sophisticated, and there are lots of chassis options (a stiffer sports setup, variable damping, the electronically controlled ALL4 all-wheel-drive). But it’s also the crossover for people who’ve bags of cash to blow on personalisation and luxury.

There’s been a lot of effort on ramping up the cabin quality, but then the outgoing Countryman was a sad let-down in that department.

On the outside, plastic wheel-arch extensions, with eyebrow creases in the metalwork above, as well as roof bars and sill protectors all add to the visual crossover-ness. This remains the only Mini with angular rather than oval headlamps, and there’s a load of visual posturing going on in the lower face.

There are eight versions at launch, and they’re exactly what you’d expect. It’s Cooper or Cooper S, each fuelled by petrol or diesel, each of them with front drive or ALL4. Oh and an eight-speed auto, too, if you count that as a separate choice. The Cooper petrol is a three-cylinder, the rest fours.

You get extra kit as standard versus the old car, including navigation, Bluetooth, emergency call and park sensors. Upgrades include a bigger touch-screen nav with high-definition traffic, various posher seats, a HUD, and driver aids. Oh and a cushion thingy that folds out from the boot so you can sit on the rear bumper without getting your clothes mucky.

In June 2017 a Cooper E will launch, which has the Cooper three-cylinder petrol driving the front wheels, and an electric motor for the rears, with a capacity to do a claimed 25 miles of gentle all-electric running. So it has the performance of a Cooper S ALL4 with the tax-busting advantages of a plug-in hybrid. And you wouldn’t use any fuel if you commuted a short distance.

The platform is BMW’s contemporary transverse-engined hardware, in the bigger of its two sizes. That means it shares a lot with the BMW X1. The 4WD system is more sophisticated than the previous Countryman’s. The proportion of drive to the rear is computed by a controller that takes into account parameters including grip, steering angle and throttle position, as well as whether you’ve got the sports mode and sports traction systems selected.

What is it like on the road?
Our first drive is in a Cooper S All4 auto. It’s 1,530kg, which is 165kg more than a three-cylinder FWD manual. And so the 192bhp engine has to work pretty hard, and never manages hot-hatch performance despite the Cooper S badge. It sounds pleasant enough at big revs, but the auto shifts up early and normally you’re assailed by a droning sound that never quite quietens.

The steering, even in non-sport mode, is surprisingly heavy. But it’s geared sensibly and weights up off-centre appropriately. So it tracks well on a motorway, yet goes into corners willingly enough. (That’s an improvement on the old Countryman, which had over-quick initial steering response to simulate ‘Mini go-kart feeling’ but which then got confused by its own body-roll.) Push harder in the new car and you find there’s actually some feel here too.

Our first test was in the wet, and the Countryman would understeer strongly in slow bends, even with the DSC in sport mode. The idea is it sends drive rearwards in those circumstances, but it takes a little while to wake up, so you can get a mixture of understeer and mild oversteer in the same roundabout. On faster corners, and as the roads dry out, it becomes a lot more predictable and actually reasonable fun. Though fun only in the context of crossovers; a Clubman is better, a three-door Mini hatch greatly better again.

The suspension manages to absorb big bumps decently enough, but there’s a lot of lateral rocking, as is standard for crossovers. And it’s busy on easier surfaces that should be more placid. Still, at least the chassis is quiet. That, and the tight flex-free body, helps add to the impression of strength and refinement.

Off road? It’ll do that too. We had a go through some oozing rutted mud. It clawed its way along pluckily. This was on winter tyres. Not an aggressive off-road tread, but neither was it the performance tyre we used for the road test. Mind you, as it was wet and not a lot above freezing, the winter tyres would probably have been ideal for the whole job.

Layout, finish and space
The cabin design couldn’t come from anything other than a Mini, though there are subtle cues to the taller stature. For instance, the air vents are upright oblongs, where they’re square in the Clubman and round in the hatch. A Top Gear spotter’s guide for you there.

As usual for a Mini, the driving position is terrific, setting the pedals and steering wheel in perfect alignment. Seats and wheel adjust plenty, too, with an electric memory option.

The speedo stands above the steering column, adjusting up and down as it goes. It’s just about big enough (and its numbers are replicated in the optional flap-type head-up display). But the rev-counter is stupidly small and the needle has a short arc. Like a fuel gauge really. The fuel gauge itself is worse, a bar of cheap LEDs.

Never mind, the rest of the switchgear is quality stuff, set into high-grade plastics with unfeasible numbers of custom trim options. You can even get stripy trim strips backlit in multi-coloured LEDs. Not as psychedelic as it sounds.

As standard you have a logical iDrive controller, with the option of a touchscreen. But the screen is a distance away and the controller works so well it’s seldom worth besmirching the display with your greasy fingerprints.

In the back, the seats give class-leading room for adults and a good view out. As an option, the seats split 60:40, and slide forward so you can make the boot even bigger while still getting non-grown-up people in the back. The boot has a handy double-position floor even on the ALL4.

Verdict
OK, line up the gags here. The jibes about Minis that are Maxis. About crossovers that never tackle more than a school kerb. About the cartoon infantilism of Mini’s design language. But guess what, they’re all old and threadbare and were actually never very funny in the first place. Let’s move on.

The new Countryman is a sophisticated piece of engineering, with a solid feel and precise driving manners.

It handles decently, and the ride is at least as good as can be expected for a small crossover. Performance is refined, rather than electrifying. You can spec it with a good selection of driver aids, but it stops well short of gimmickry or ill-conceived semi-autonomy.

The interior combines flamboyant design with very sound ergonomics. Crucially, it’s roomy, both in the seats and the boot. And the cabin is versatile too. Oh and it avoids the silly barn-door boot-lids of the Clubman.

Because of the extra weight of ALL4, we’d think hard before speccing it. At least unless we were going to do a lot of towing or hitting really slippery surfaces regularly. Otherwise, all-season tyres, combined with the handy ground clearance, would likely see a front-drive Countryman through most Countryfile-type uses.

And since the petrols, especially the three-cylinder Cooper, are lighter again, as well as smoother, they’re an attractive idea more in keeping with the lithe Mini spirit. An idea that will only get more attractive if city authorities and tax regimes swing further against diesel.

So there you are – stick to the Cooper S petrol manual. And put the saving you’d have spent on a diesel engine, an auto or ALL4 towards some tasty options.


Tags: bmw, audi, mercedes benz, mini, cooper, countryman

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