It may not look new, but Mini has made some big changes to the Countryman. We sent An­drew Evans to in­ves­ti­gate...

Belfast Telegraph - NI Carfinder - - Front Page - FIRST DRIVE BY AN­DREW EVANS MINI COUNTRYMAN

WHAT’S NEW? De­spite look­ing sim­i­lar to its pre­de­ces­sor, the 2017 Mini Countryman is an all-new ve­hi­cle. It’s based on the BMW ‘UKL’ plat­form un­der­pin­ning the BMW X1 and 2 Series Ac­tive Tourer, which Mini al­ready uses on its new­est-gen­er­a­tion Club­man es­tate.

This does mean that the Countryman is dra­mat­i­cally larger than its pre­de­ces­sor, pack­ing in an ex­tra 20cm of length – 7.5cm of it be­tween the wheels – and 3cm of width. It’s a sig­nif­i­cant increase, be­cause it moves the Countryman up into the C-seg­ment, which is the broad­est and most com­pet­i­tive mar­ket sec­tor in the UK.

LOOKS AND IM­AGE There are very few badges with as long a his­tory and as broad an ap­peal as Mini, and if there’s one brand that at­tracts peo­ple from all walks of life evenly, this is it.

A sig­nif­i­cant part of that ap­peal is the way the cars drive – which Mini some­what chintzily refers to as ‘max­i­mum go-kart feel’ – and de­spite the fact the Countryman is the largest Mini ever, it seems to trans­late pretty well to the big cross­over. The chunky steer­ing wheel of­fers a pre­cise and well-con­trolled ac­tion and the size of the car means that some of the fid­gety na­ture of the smaller hatches is re­moved.

On the Cooper S model we tested, the in­te­rior was a pretty high-qual­ity en­vi­ron­ment, with back­lit sur­faces, leather up­hol­stery and suede on the door pan­els. Mini is aim­ing for a lux­ury feel to what is ul­ti­mately its flag­ship ve­hi­cle.

SPACE AND PRACTICALITY The ex­tra length in the wheel­base lib­er­ates a huge amount of in­te­rior room and, as such, the Countryman is now no less prac­ti­cal than any other C-seg­ment ve­hi­cle, whether hatch­back or cross­over, mak­ing it an ideal fam­ily car.

Wher­ever you look, there’s more space, with sig­nif­i­cantly more legroom in the rear and more than 100 litres of ad­di­tional load space in the boot too, which can be im­proved fur­ther by slid­ing the rear seats for­wards. Any mid­dle-seat pas­sen­gers in the rear will be grate­ful for the car’s ex­tra width too. The rear doors in par­tic­u­lar are much larger for eas­ier ac­cess and a hands-free boot open­ing oper­a­tion is avail­able.

BE­HIND THE WHEEL Our test car was equipped with the 192bhp, 2.0-litre petrol en­gine. Fit­ted with the eight-speed Step­tronic

au­to­matic and All4 four-wheel drive, this pro­pels the Countryman to 60mph in seven sec­onds, al­though it doesn’t feel any­where near as quick as that even with the ve­hi­cle set to sport mode. On pa­per, Mini cites a 44.1mpg fuel econ­omy fig­ure, but even in mixed use and with Green mode se­lected as of­ten as pos­si­ble, we didn’t see much over 30mpg.

The car can also be spec­i­fied with a lower out­put 1.5-litre, which with 136bhp sac­ri­fices 2-2.5 sec­onds for the 60mph sprint de­pend­ing on gear­box op­tions, for around a 10% gain in fuel econ­omy. A pair of 2.0-litre diesel en­gines is avail­able, with 150bhp and 190bhp, the lat­ter of which ri­vals the Cooper S for pace, but has up to 61.4mpg on pa­per. A hot Cooper JCW model is to fol­low, with a plug-in hy­brid Cooper S E com­ing later in 2017.

The Countryman proves a good steer on coun­try roads, what­ever the drive mode se­lected. While un­de­ni­ably a much larger car than be­fore, it doesn’t feel like a par­tic­u­larly big ve­hi­cle when you get it on en­joy­able roads.

The steer­ing is well weighted and rea­son­ably com­mu­nica­tive, and with­out the fid­get­ing of the smaller mod­els, it’s not as tir­ing to drive ei­ther. It’s also pretty solid on the mo­tor­way, al­though there is a fair amount of road noise at higher speeds. With park dis­tance con­trol as stan­dard on all Countryman mod­els, it’s an easy ve­hi­cle to ma­noeu­vre too.

VALUE FOR MONEY The start­ing price for the Countryman is a rea­son­able £22,465. How­ever, the au­to­matic gear­box and the All4 four-wheel-drive sys­tems are op­tions that will both set you back around £1,600 and soon start to make the Countryman look a lit­tle pricey – to say noth­ing of the other op­tional ex­tras.

In this Cooper S trim too, it’s not an in­ex­pen­sive car to run – 44mpg on pa­per isn’t ter­rific and real-world econ­omy will likely be lower still. Nev­er­the­less, if you stick to a more fru­gal model, it should prove de­cent value for money. All cars come with Mini Con­nected in­fo­tain­ment, satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion as well as Mini Vis­ual Boost Radio with a 6.5-inch colour dis­play and Blue­tooth con­nec­tiv­ity.

WHO WOULD BUY ONE? The Countryman is very much a car for some­one who’s sold on the whole idea of Mi­nis, but needs the space for all the trap­pings of mod­ern fam­ily life.

Mini’s Countryman is big­ger than be­fore and that puts it into some hard-fought ter­ri­tory, but it’s a tal­ented car that has enough ap­peal to pull it off. It’s enough fun to drive to de­serve be­ing part of the Mini range, but adds some more gen­uine fam­ily-friendly abil­i­ties than its pre­de­ces­sor thanks to the new, larger plat­form.

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