The BRITISH right of way
We drive the newest Mini in its spiritual home and the land of Top Gear
in my 13 years of writing, I’ve had the opportunity to drive in various countries and experience different conditions all over the world—Asia, Africa, close to the Arctic, Europe, the Americas. Sand, snow, mud, dirt. Flowing A-roads, broken B-roads, smooth superhighways, crowded city streets. But one destination and one particular type of climate has always eluded me, until now: Merrie Olde England, home of Top Gear.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain, as the islands are collectively called, is home to pale people, incessant rain, punk rock, tongue-incheek humor, funky fashion, and, of course, amazing cars. London is the original melting pot of culture. I have never seen a city where Caucasians, Africans, and Asians all mingle seamlessly. The food here is awesome, too, from Gordon Ramsay’s best, to Jamie Oliver’s chic casual dining, to the best Indian food this side of the continent, to arguably the best Chinese roast duck in the world!
What’s more, Great Britain is the global capital of motorsports. It’s home to a vast number of racetracks (formerly airfields used during World War II), racing series (from amateur grassroots competitions to top-tier professional events), and R&D, engineering, and manufacturing facilities. Many of the world’s leading Formula 1, Le Mans, World Endurance Championship, and World Rally Championship teams are based here.
So, now that I’m here, what’s the most
quintessentially British vehicle to drive on the Queen’s carriageways? Without a doubt, it should be a Mini!
I find myself sampling England’s most typical winter driving conditions in and around Oxfordshire. It’s dark, dreary, and incessantly rainy. An odd gray light seemed to cast a foreboding shadow over everything, and the cold is literally seeping the life out of my bones. But the Mini Countryman doesn’t care. Nope, it’s going along its way confidently, excitedly.
The latest model should be a huge success. China and the US will scoop it up as fast as the VDL Nedcar facility in the Netherlands can make it. The BMW Group’s UKL2 platform, shared with the BMW X3, provides for a Countryman that is 20cm longer, 3cm wider, and 1cm taller than its predecessor. Despite a 7.5cm increase in wheelbase, you only need 11m to make a full-circle turn. The crossover is rather portly at 1,545kg, but you don’t really notice it because it’s a very versatile package inside and out.
Power is good, courtesy of the new B48 in-line four-cylinder engine that features twin-scroll turbocharging, direct-injection, variable valve timing, and variable cam phasing. Output for this Countryman S is rated at 181hp, but more important, there’s 290Nm from 1,350-4,250rpm. With an eight-speed automatic transmission and an All4 all-wheel drivetrain, the Mini is surefooted, composed, and absolutely confident.
As part of our route, we go through a short rally-style forest stage with very thick mud—far thicker than what the event organizers were expecting. Considering the crossover’s highwayterrain tires and soft-roader stance, it doesn’t look good, but the All4 system and the electronic aids make mincemeat of the thick mud. I make it out alive, with a fair bit of slow-motion,
‘it’s the most quintessentially British vehicle to drive here’
tail-sliding, four-wheel-drifting antics thrown in for good measure.
Typical British country roads could well be our provincial highways in the Philippines— they’re very narrow, and the tarmac is almost nonexistent. Worse, rain and fog compromise visibility. Add to this the slight difficulty of driving on the wrong side of the road, plus careening British motorists who trail-brake around every corner, and you get a daunting journey, to say the least. It’s only when I swap duties with my driving buddy that I get to finally examine the Countryman’s interior.
Mini is trying to grow up without losing its humor. The cabin architecture is still shockingly fresh, hip, and modern, but now with a tad more restraint as well as chic sophistication. You can go crazy ticking boxes on the options list: There’s a wide range of leather, alcantara, and fabric combinations, contrast stitching and piping on the seats and steering wheel, and choices of faux aluminum, wood, or carbon fiber for the surface inlays. For the exterior, you have a wealth of paint schemes, decals, wheel-andtire combinations, bodykit, big brake options, and so on. There are 15,000,000,000,000,000 possible permutations of interior and exterior customizations for any Mini. Yes, 15 zeroes after 15—that’s not a typo.
Seating is excellent; there’s great visibility and comfortable alignment between the steering column and your shoulders. The driving position feels ready but not restless, alert but not anxious, responsive but not overly sensitive. As mileage piles on, the Countryman and I bond better even as we navigate the most confusing British roundabouts.
For some people, the Mini brand is but a
novelty. But English marque wants to change that. Its core target market is getting older, so it is creating more niche products. The Cooper five-door, the Countryman, and the Clubman are all aimed at Mini fans who want a slice of the Mini lifestyle while still fulfilling their serious adulting needs.
Much like the melting pot that is Great Britain, the carmaker is finding ways to cater to everyone by creating very specialized models, then injecting these with just enough Mini DNA so that they still feel related to each other and that neither the traditional Mini nor the first-time customers will feel alienated. Even better, individuality and personalization are still hallmarks of the brand, because in the Mini universe, being different and unique is the very definition of fun.
No wonder it continues to thrive, in a society that is slowly veering away from the freedom of driving. Mini remains to be that two-finger salute to the boring establishment—and we expect it will continue to be for many more years to come.
MINI COOPER S COUNTRYMAN engine: 2.0-liter turbopetrol i4 Performance: 181hp @ 5,000rpm 290nm @ 1,350-4,250rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic
hard to find an interior with this level of funkiness Not small like they used to be, which is a good thing