Mini su­per­sizes with new Coun­try­man

It may have porked out into an SUV, but it’s still a crisp han­dler

The Star Early Edition - - ROAD TESTS - DE­NIS DROPPA

IT’S BEEN a while since any­one took the brand’s name too lit­er­ally, but with the re­cent launch of the new Coun­try­man things are get­ting se­ri­ously su­per-sized in MINI land - and why nam­ing it with up­per-case let­ters is jus­ti­fied.

This is a MINI that’s been chomp­ing piz­zas and cheese­burg­ers. At 20cm longer than the old Coun­try­man the new car is now 4.3 me­tres from bumper to bumper, putting it in the same size cat­e­gory as SUVs like the Hyundai Creta and Nis­san Qashqai.

To throw yet more num­bers into the de­scrip­tion, at 1535kg the Coun­try­man weighs 220kg more than a reg­u­lar five-door Mini Cooper and its ground clear­ance is raised from 154mm to 165mm.

All that makes this puffed-out, higher-rid­ing SUV ver­sion the big­gest car in the brand’s 57-year history, but also the most ver­sa­tile. The fam­ily-sized cabin has room for the fam­ily, the dogs, their lug­gage, and prob­a­bly the kitchen sink as well.

The five seats pro­vide plenty of per­sonal space in the front and back, and at 6 feet tall I was able to com­fort­ably sit be­hind my­self. The boot’s grown to a handy 450 litres too, and it’s ex­pand­able to a lug­gage-gob­bling 1309 litres with the rear seats flipped down - even though this has been partly achieved by leav­ing out a spare wheel (for de­fla­tion mishaps you get run­flat tyres and a punc­ture re­pair kit).

The rear seats can slide fore and aft and the back­rests tilted to var­i­ous an­gles to cater for vary­ing pas­sen­ger/cargo/pet re­quire­ments.

Ac­cess­ing that en­larged boot is through a tail­gate that can op­tion­ally be elec­tri­cally powered, and if you can’t bear the thought of leav­ing your car alone in the pic­nic car park you can use the Pic­nic Bench fea­ture: a lug­gage com­part­ment lid with a fold-out sill cush­ion that acts as a comfy seat.

Con­tin­u­ing the ver­sa­til­ity vibe are stor­age nooks and cran­nies ga­lore inside the cabin, in­clud­ing door pock­ets big enough for one-litre bot­tles.

So it’s the automotive equiv­a­lent of a Tup­per­ware set, but how does all this af­fect the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence? Af­ter all, MINIs are sup­posed to be, at their core, fun to drive. On this score the news is good. Size it may have in abun­dance, but the Coun­try­man hasn’t swelled out so much that it’s to­tally lost the defin­ing nim­ble-han­dling MINI char­ac­ter­is­tics.

It’s harder to park than its smaller sta­ble­mates, sure, and you can feel the ex­tra weight and ride height in the way it doesn’t change di­rec­tion with the Pac­man-like na­ture of the stan­dard MINI. But on the whole it still de­liv­ers much of the MINI-typ­i­cal crisp han­dling and quick steer­ing, stuff that makes it easy to thread through busy traf­fic, and turns it into an en­joy­able out­ing on a twisty road.

The added 220kg weight over a five-door Cooper S does blunt the per­for­mance of that 141kW/300Nm 2-litre turbo en­gine some­what. The Coun­try­man S still ac­cel­er­ates off the mark quite briskly and has easy cruiseabil­ity, but it lacks the smaller MINI’s in­stant gusto as con­firmed by the fig­ures: the Coun­try­man S sprints to 100km/h in 7.4 sec­onds com­pared to 6.8 sec­onds for the five­door Cooper S, while top speeds are re­spec­tively 230km/h and 235km/h.

The cheese­burg­ers haven’t too neg­a­tively af­fected fuel econ­omy, and our Coun­try­man S test car av­er­aged a re­spectable 10.3 litres per 100km.

The 2-litre ver­sion is the more pow­er­ful of two en­gines avail­able in the new Coun­try­man range, the other be­ing a three-cylin­der 1.5 turbo petrol with 100kW and 220Nm. A 110kW/330Nm diesel de­riv­a­tive will join the line up later this year.

In terms of sus­pen­sion com­fort this is prob­a­bly the most bumpfriendly MINI I’ve driven, and even on its op­tional low pro­file 18” tyres it has a com­fort­able real-world ride that doesn’t threaten your spine or teeth fill­ings.

The slightly el­e­vated ride height gives some pro­tec­tion on rough gravel but this front wheel drive car is no of­froader.

Inside is all the lat­est in­fo­tain­ment and con­nec­tiv­ity, all con­tained in a giant round screen in the dash, with an iDrive-style knob to flit through var­i­ous menus. If you’re fairly tech-savvy it’s all rea­son­ably in­tu­itive to use, ex­cept that stor­ing your favourite ra­dio sta­tions is a bit of a mis­sion.

It’s all pre­sented with a mod­ern and funky look that suits the car’s ex­tro­vert per­son­al­ity. Play­fully styled it may be but fit and fin­ish inside the cabin is all ex­em­plary, to suit the pre­mium pric­etag.

The op­tions list is ex­ten­sive and our Coun­try­man S test ve­hi­cle, priced stan­dard at R512 806, was specced up to R683 006 with items like a pa­narama sun­roof, elec­tri­cally ad­justable and heated front seats, sports sus­pen­sion, John Cooper Works Aero kit, rear view cam­era, nav­i­ga­tion, and a head-up dis­play to men­tion just a few. VER­DICT I have a bit of a prob­lem with this car be­ing called a MINI, given that it’s prob­a­bly heavy enough to be used as a cruise ship’s an­chor.

But the Coun­try­man has grown into the largest and most prac­ti­cal MINI to date with­out com­pletely sell­ing its soul or shed­ding its charm. It’s still nim­ble and fun-to­drive even though it doesn’t scurry up drain­pipes quite like a reg­u­lar MINI.

The brand’s big­gest car yet has space for the whole fam­ily, their pets, and pos­si­bly the kitchen sink too.

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