I’ve got to hand it to the guys at Mini, the Countryman launch was an experience that rightfully complimented the ethos of the new Countryman brand. Starting off at Constitution Hill for breakfast, we were taken down for a sensory experience that included interactive floor projections, and a box-like 3-screen short film. This all to get into the spirit of ‘getting away’. It all was very impressive, and seemed like no expense had been spared. We headed out in the basic 1.6litre first, all the way out past Lanseria in convoy to a secret destination for a fully catered picnic lunch and massages. In true mini style, everything had been ‘mini-fied’ including the bathrooms (it’s the small touches that really count)
The way back we had the pleasure of the Countryman S All 4 (4 wheel drive) to Randlords in central JHB for afternoon drinks. There was never a moment that we were left unattended or wanting for anything, they even provided an Ultamix CD for each car to enjoy. It truly gave one an indication of what you could do on a day with your Countryman, solidifying the “get away anywhere” nature of the car. Impressive stuff. Enough about the launch day, let’s get down to the cars.
Looks wise – don’t let the pictures fool you, the Countryman is substantially larger than the current Mini, with an aggressive flat front grille (gaping or with slats) and a clean, much larger, bubble rear. Ground clearance has been raised, as this Mini is positioned for the “get out of town” persona, allowing it to easily traverse a gravel road to the lodge or your mountain-biking trail. This said, it isn’t to everyone’s liking. The team in our car commented that it reminded them of a London Taxi cab from behind, and was a clear departure from the ‘cute’ Mini feel of before. You can clearly see this car is aimed at a predominantly male audience, and it comes across in the looks, colour schemes and myriad of options that all give the car a more macho physique
Interior and build quality– I have never been a huge fan of Mini build quality, as the cars seem to rattle a lot more than you’d expect. I must say that’s all been sorted out in the Countryman. The interior is classic Mini. Notable differences however is the optional MiniConnect, which allows you to sync your iPhone (and soon BBerry) with the car’s infotainment system, running a Mini App on your phone, to display all your social media applications, listen to international radio, Google Search via the car, and much more. I only saw a limited demonstration of it, but it’s the best integration of phone to car I’ve seen. Also interesting use of slide-rail technology allows different things to be bolted to the centre-tunnel (in our model a sliding sunglasses holder) which is an interesting design and functional element. Two things that differentiate the interior of the Countryman from any of the others, is the (obvious rear doors) but also rear seating & legroom. I can only compare it to the likes of a Mercedes Benz ML in terms of sheer amount of space. Somehow, they’ve managed to free up a large amount of space in the back, which is great! The other obvious gripe of other Mini’s was boot space, and this Countryman definitely improves on that with a larger boot size. This all very in line with the “getting away” tagline of the car
Engine – basically, unless you’re used to driving a donkey cart in the yellow lane, don’t go for the basic 1.6. The engine strains to get the heavier Mini moving, and takes a full 365 days to 100km/h. Much more to my liking is the 1.6 twin turbo which pushes out 135kW and on overboost delivers 260NM of torque. If you’ve ever driven a Mini, this is the engine you fall in love with. It’s incredibly keen to push through the revs, but requires work from the short –throw gearstick. There’s an auto option too, but the real fun is in the manual. The other drivers (that weren’t Mini drivers) didn’t like the very evident turbo-lag in 1st and 2nd gear, something that Mini drivers get used to. You need to keep the turbo spooling above 2000RPM to really make it hussle.
Handling and brakes – Once again, a myriad of options to improve the handling make every one a different ride.(Sports pack, larger wheels etc) In standard 1.6 guise, the handling was not usual Mini stuff. It was fairly wallowy in the bends, and passengers in the rear found themselves bobbing around. The Countryman S All-4 showed NONE of that. Glued to the ground, with typical Mini poise, it really comes alive in the twisties, and is especially interesting to push with the 4wheel drive models. Interesting fact, the 4wheel drive system used is a very basic adaption of the BMW X-Drive system, allowing power to be sent to front or rear axels (up to 100% in certain driving conditions)
The CountryMan S also comes in standard front wheel drive, however I’d opt for the All-4, in my view, if you’re gonna use it as a ‘go-explore’ car, I’d want the capability to do it. (That said this is NO soft roader, and I suspect this 4wheel drive option was only introduced as a necessity for the European and US markets because of the snowy stuff)
The great thing about the Countryman is the fact that, because of the increased ride height, and some magic dust, they’ve managed to make it handle like a normal Cooper in most situations, but be a LOT more comfortable. It doesn’t crash over bumps, or imperfections in the road, (every road in JHB) but rather coasts right over them, which is the best part of the Countryman in my books.
All the models come standard with ESP, ABS, EBD and I found braking to be on par with what one would come to expect from new vehicles.
Steering – on both models, steering was precise, light enough in the parking lot, yet weighted when the going gets interesting (as it should in a Mini)
Pricing – Well, how long is a piece of string. No really. Mini’s are probably, second to a Bentley, the most customizable cars on order today. This personalization however, does come at a premium. The sad fact is that if you want it to look rough / sporty / outdoorsy / girly / different, you’re gonna pay for it.
At time of posting this review, the cheapest 1.6 Countryman (manual 6-speed) was on offer for R287 500, and the most expensive 1.6S All-4 (manual 6-speed) starting at R393 000. *** Note that this is pre ANY options, so that’s just the base price you can work off of.
I specced one up at a dealership the following day (albeit rather liberally) to around R477 000 (2 Packages, different rims, colours, and Mini Connect included)
Value for money – I’m not so sure, it’s quite a bit of money for a Mini, and honestly there’s just some things that should be standard at this price range that isn’t. It’s hard to compare it to anything like a Rav4 or a Freelander II because it’s not a real off-roader, or even an Quattro Audi A3 sportback … no that doesn’t work either. So the verdict is still out on that one.
What really caught my attention, is that this car is to someone out there, a quirky, head turning city car, with all the amenities… and a dirt road traversing, bike and picnic basket carrying weekend getaway car too. Pretty impressive if you think of it that way.