It might not delight MINI purists, but the the Countryman is going down well with UK buyers and the Cooper SD versions are the pick of the bunch. Jonathan Crouch tries one.
Ten Second Review
If by choosing the Countryman, you prefer a MINI with a more practical bent, why not go for an engine that mixes verve with solid common sense? The Cooper SD models feature a 143bhp 1.6-litre diesel that mixes low emissions, high economy and punchy, if not concussive, acceleration. If you're yet to be convinced by the Countryman concept, the Cooper SD may sway your opinion.
It was inevitable wasn't it? Sooner or later, MINI's German paymasters would realise that its market reach would be limited by the brand's very raison d'etre, namely its compactness. There is a certain chutzpah to launching a MINI that isn't small and while the Countryman has old-school Mini lovers frothing at the mouth in apoplexy, sales prove that there's a ready market of takers for this five-door hatch.
With 90bhp One D and 112bhp Cooper D versions already available, it wasn't exactly a huge industry secret that a hotter diesel version would appear and the Cooper SD uses the same engine found plumbed into the nose of BMW's 118d. It's a belter of an engine and instantly becomes the most appealing Countryman models. If you felt the Countryman was a slightly unresolved concept, try it in Cooper SD guise.
Although MINI makes great play of the car's efficiency, there's no getting away from the fact that this is a vehicle that could benefit from a calorie controlled diet. With the ALL4 version weighing in at 1,470kg (or 70kg more than a Volvo V50 estate), the Countryman needs an engine with a decent amount of muscle and the Cooper SD gets just that. There's plenty of torque available, with 225lb/ft on tap at just 1,750rpm and although the car's weight blunts the performance compared to that of same unit in a MINI hatch, it still manages to get to 60mph from rest in 9.0 seconds in front-wheel drive form and 9.1 seconds in ALL4 guise. Put some rain into the equation and the ALL4 model will be comfortably the quicker of the two away from the line.
Although the interior style and the quick steering are typical MINI, the Countryman is never a car that shrinks around you and it lacks the sheer 'puntability' of a MINI hatch. Despite feeling a fair bit bulkier, it's enormously reassuring as it settles into a corner and the torque of the diesel engine allows you to carry speed with the minimum of effort. The six-speed manual gearbox needs a considered touch and responds well to fancy footwork on the pedals. If you're not so light on your feet, the paddle shift auto versions may appeal.
Design and Build
Okay, so it's obviously a MINI, with its round headlamps and wheel at each corner stance, but there's clearly a generous wheelbase and, when parked next to a 1960s original, the Countryman looks gigantic. Step inside and there's a decent amount of space, the 350 litre boot offering more than the Clubman estate's. It's still a long chalk short of what you'd get in something like a Volkswagen Golf or a Ford Focus, but that's the inevitable price of the style statement.
The Countryman's rear seats deserve special mention. In standard guise, customers get a sliding rear bench with seat squabs that split 60/40 and backrests that split 40/20/40, allowing you to slot long items in while still keeping some seating capacity. There's plenty of headroom and the rear doors open wide enough to allow easy access. Should you so wish, you can specify your Countryman with four seats based around a novel Centre Rail running down the middle which lets various storage receptacles be clipped to and slid along it.
Market and Model
There are other prices to be paid for the Countryman Cooper SD's fashion statement. You'll need at least £22,000 for the front-wheel drive version and most are fitted with around £3,000 worth of extras. This means that few ALL4 models will leave dealerships at less than £26,000 and some will knock on the door of £30,000. By any stretch that is a serious sum to pay for a modestly powered family hatch and will act as a deterrent to many.
Cooper SD models do come reasonably specified though, with 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, electric windows, rear parking sensors, roof rails, Bluetooth compatibility and a DAB digital radio with a USB input. Safety-wise, stability control and the usual braking and traction aids are standard, along with six airbags and a tyre pressure monitoring system. Then the decisions really start. It isn't just having to decide between two and four-wheel drive, manual or automatic transmission. There's a simply endless options list, but many desirable extras such as satellite navigation that customers may want as stand alone selections are bundled as part of options packs that bump the prices up still further.
Cost of Ownership
Cost of ownership is a mixed proposition. The impressive residual figures should be taken with a dose of salt as they rarely factor in the option packs that most buyers choose. On any vehicle of this price, depreciation is always the big ticket item and the Countryman Cooper SD is no exception, but it does fare better than the class norm.
MINI has worked at improving the car's efficiency with a comprehensive raft of measures dubbed MINIMALISM and which include Brake Energy Generation, Auto Start/Stop, Shift Point Display, Electric Power Steering and demand-based ancillaries such as the alternator.
The result is a fuel economy figure of 61.4mpg for the front-wheel drive version and 57.6mpg for the ALL4 model. Emissions are also kept impressively in check for such a big car, with 122g/km and 130g/km respectively. Be aware that opting for a manual gearbox dents these figures quite markedly.
Were you able to ditch the historical baggage and view the MINI Countryman Cooper SD in isolation, it would emerge as a very capable, well finished and stylish premium hatch. It is undeniably expensive and you'll need to ask yourself some tough questions about whether the price you pay for the fashion statement is justifiable. The Countryman seems to make more sense in all-weather four-wheel drive ALL4 guise, where it can go head to head with compact SUVs that cost a comparable sum but offer more space inside.
However you feel about the marketing proposition, it's hard to pick fault with the engine, which delivers enough performance to keep you on your toes and makes some impressive economy and emissions numbers. If you always wanted a MINI but couldn't fit your lifestyle into one, the Countryman answers the call. The Cooper SD model might be pricey but to many customers, this unorthodox car operates in a class of one.