Distinctive-looking, grown-up manners, much practicality, usefully classless
Lots of newer small-ish SUVs to choose from, JCW is rapid but hard-riding
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 nicely filled by the 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 the car that went before it. There are five seats for grown-ups. The boot's a good size too - plenty for a medium-sized labrador*.
*Other dog breeds are available.
So does it have that Mini driving sparkle, or is it all styling?
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 and the JCW with 300+bhp).
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 in the latest generation, 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.
So what do we get?
The range consists of the Cooper with a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine with 136bhp, with the Cooper S and Cooper S ALL4 (four-wheel drive) getting a 178bhp 2.0-litre four-pot. The John Cooper Works gets over 300bhp from a similar 2.0-litre four, plus an eight-speed auto and ALL4 as standard. That’s the fast one, and does a pretty good interpretation of a weird little automatic rally car when things get busy. Then there’s the plug-in hybrid (PHEV), which gets a 125bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder, plus a small battery and a plug.
That sounds reasonable - what about kit?
You get extra kit as standard versus the old car, LED lights all-round (and yes, the cringey Union Jack rears) including navigation with 8.8-inch screen, Bluetooth, DAB, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, emergency call and park sensors.
Upgrades include a bigger touch-screen nav with high-definition traffic, various posher seats, a HUD, and driver aids - though some of that gets bundled into packs, so watch out if you want something specific. Obviously it also depends on the model and trim, so a Classic Cooper or PHEV gets standard seats, a Cooper S or JCW more racy chairs - that sort of thing.
Is the hardware any good though?
The platform is BMW's transverse-engined hardware, in the bigger of its two sizes. That means it shares a lot with the outgoing 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. In the Cooper S that just means traction when you need it - in the JCW, it makes for a very rapid wet/dry hauler.
Our choice from the range
What's the 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) short of the JCW, where it tasks itself with a major jump towards the horizon. 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 with a traditional lift up, one-piece rear hatch. It’s not the biggest of the crossover crowd, but it’ll do well with an average-sized family.
Because of the extra weight of ALL4 we'd think hard before speccing it, although it is standard on the JCW. 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. So there’s a lot to be said for just keeping it simple and sticking to the Cooper S petrol manual. The JCW is worth a look if you really need pace, but otherwise, mid-spec is best.