MINI CLUBMAN 4WD
British marques, it would seem, are somewhat cursed by the weight of history behind them.
Certain subsets of fans of “classic” British marques manage to get themselves all worked up and bent out of shape when something happens that reminds them that their favourite car maker ISN’T stuck in a time bubble back around 1967 or so. Something like the release of a new, modern vehicle wearing the name of said manufacturer.
Land Rover ( now owned by the Indians) can’t make anything modern without “purists” crying that it “isn’t a proper Land Rover!” even though it very much IS a Land Rover simply because it is made by the company called Land Rover. And Mini ( now owned by the Germans) suffers from a similar frothing, indignant rage from the “purists” whenever it releases something that is NOT a cramped, impractical death-trap on wheels.
So just imagine the outrage when Mini decided to release an SUV crossover in 2010 in the form of the Countryman.
But despite the outrage of the “purists” the biggest Mini of them all proved remarkably popular among those who simply don’t care if it is a “proper” Mini, simply because it was a good one instead.
But while the Countryman was undoubtedly popular, it did have its flaws. Rear seat legroom wasn’t as good as it probably should have been, interior quality was patchy in places and it did look a bit crook – slightly oddly proportioned and, well, a bit dorky.
But now there is a new Countryman and it has tackled all of those complaints and then some by drastically improving the quality of the interior and – wait for it – becoming even bigger…
The new Countryman has an extra 200mm in length over the old Countryman, with 75mm of that in the wheelbase, meaning that the rear legroom problem is no longer a problem at all – I am 1.85m tall and managed to happily sit in the back of a Cooper S All4 with no complaints whatsoever.
As well as improving the interior space, the size increase has helped with the Countryman’s external appearance as well, the extra length bringing far better proportions to the small crossover, making
it more like a tall Mini five-door, albeit with a tougher, squarer edge to it.
As always, looks are a very subjective thing, but the new Countryman is now a far more successfully resolved design, with a more convincingly SUV-esque shape, while still retaining its distinct Mini-ness. Personally, I rather like it now, although the chrome rings around the headlights remain questionable.
The Countryman will come to New Zealand in two guises to start with – Cooper and Cooper S, with the latter having the option of Mini’s All4 4WD system.
While the Cooper S is powered by the 2.0litre engine, the Cooper gets the excellent little 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine that produces 100kW of power and 220Nm of torque.
Diesel variants are being considered for New Zealand, with nothing decided on at this stage.
What we will be getting later on this year, however, is the slightly improbable 170kW/ 350Nm John Cooper Works version of the Countryman, as well as the Cooper S E plug-in hybrid that shares its drivetrain with the BMW 225xe Active Tourer.
On all fours
Now while a Mini and an SUV may seem two concepts completely at odds with each other, the Countryman IS sold as a small SUV/crossover, so can it actually go off-road? Yes, it actually can, in All4 guise at least.
While the Countryman lacks anything in the way of a low ratio transmission or even electronic off-road modes, it was still more than capable of tackling the seriously muddy off-road track set up for us in the grounds of the historic Hedsor House, on the outskirts of London where the launch was held.
The historic manor is now used as a posh events venue, as well as a regular venue for filming TV shows and movies, a fact proudly displayed in – of all places – the men’s toilets, with a gallery of framed posters of movies filmed there.
The track was nothing particularly challenging in a true off-roading sense, however, but a 2WD car certainly would not have got through it.
The track itself had been carved out of the immaculately maintained grounds of Hedsor House specifically for the Mini launch and the huge amount of rain that had pummelled the Oxford area in the few days prior to our drive there had ensured it was deep and slushy enough to give the Mini’s AWD system a decent workout.
While BMW hasn’t included any off-road goodies in the Countryman’s arsenal of electronics, it has popped in a little gimmick along the lines of the Mini convertible’s timer that records how many hours the roof has been down for.
In the Countryman this is a cutesy little screen that shows how many hours your Countryman has spent off the beaten track, with a cartoon Countryman that grows ever-more monster truck like as your hours increase.
Yes, it is silly. Yes, it is utterly pointless, but it does sum up the sense of silly fun that Mini embodies. No, it is not going to appeal in any way to a serious off-roader, but then it was never intended to.
As a stylish, distinctive suburban runabout, the Countryman is perfect, but the fact that it actually does have some ability to play in the mud makes it even more enjoyable.
Of course, like all other vehicles in this segment, the most limiting factors to the Countryman’s ability to head off-road are its ride height and the tyres fitted.
Though the Countryman’s ground clearance has also been increased for the new model (going from 150mm in the previous model up to 165mm for the new model) it’s still not exactly going to trouble a Land Rover, but it does make the Countryman usefully able in muddy environs.
So while the idea of a Mini SUV may seem, well, pointless, the Countryman overcomes this by being fun on the road and usefully capable off it. Forget the miserable mud and rain we drove it in on the launch – belting it out a winding New Zealand back road to a beach and then being able to head out onto the sand is what the Countryman is all about.
Proportions more balanced than before.
Launch in wet, cold, wintry UK included off-road component.