The Countryman was the first five-door, family-sized MINI. This bigger second generation version gives that recipe a more sophisticated spin. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
The second generation MINI Countryman is the biggest and most versatile model in the brand's 57-year history. With its large external dimensions and versatile space throughout the cabin and luggage area, it offers a credible premium alternative to Qashqai-sized family Crossover segment rivals. There's a bit of interior innovation - and the option of Plug-in hybrid tech too.
Back in the late Sixties, Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the original British Mini, was faced with a rather difficult task. His little city runabout was a huge success, driven and loved by everyone from Peter Sellers to the Beatles, but beyond it, there was little for family owners to move on to. What was needed was a five-door, four-metre-long sister model that still kept much of the Mini's cleverness. And the result was the Austin Maxi. Forty years on in 2010, BMW were faced with a similar issue. Their new MINI was a hit but it couldn't offer five proper doors or decent space for rear passengers or luggage. That time round, the issue was solved by the first generation version of the car we look at here, the MINI Countryman.
That model did well for MINI, but it was never quite large enough to properly compete with family-sized Crossover models in the Qashqai class. Nor was it quite sophisticated enough to tempt users of premium-badged compact Crossovers, cars like Audi's Q3 and Mercedes' GLA. This larger, cleverer second generation Countryman, launched in 2017, addressed both these issues.
The MINI Countryman is available with a choice of various engines. The most popular option is the 3 cylinder 1.5-litre 136hp petrol unit in the base 'Cooper' model. There's also still a 'Cooper D' diesel option too, a 2.0-litre engine developing 150hp. The brand also offers a 'Cooper S' performance variant, which uses a 192hp 2.0-litre petrol unit and is able to complete the sprint to 62mph from rest in just 7.5 seconds. All three of these core derivatives can be had with manual or auto transmission and either front or ALL4 four wheel drive. MINI also offers an electrified model, the Countryman Plug-in Hybrid, which features ALL4 4WD and auto transmission and uses the 1.5-litre petrol unit from the Cooper, boosted by an 88hp electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery. At the top of the range is the John Cooper Works high performance variant, which has ALL4 traction and borrows the 2.0-litre petrol unit from the Cooper S and tunes it out to 306hp, making 62mph achievable in only 5.1s.
Given this car's size and price, you'd expect it to be a more grown-up thing than smaller MINI models, safer, more spacious and able to cover longer distances. But, as any teenager will tell you, being grown-up can also mean being boring. So, does driving a Countryman feel like driving a MINI? Well, set off down the road and first impressions are that to some extent it does. The ride is very firm - possibly too firm for some buyers - and you get this remarkably quick steering which immediately gives the car a keener feeling than you'd get in most Crossover rivals.
Design and Build
The problem with the original Countryman was that in size, it sat rather awkwardly between the compact 'Juke'-shaped part of the compact Crossover segment and the larger 'Qashqai'-shaped family section of this class. With this larger MK2 model, the target market for this car can be much more clearly defined and high-ish pricing can much more easily be justified. It's 20cms longer than before with 7.5cms of extra wheelbase length, enlarged dimensions that make it the largest MINI ever made.
You certainly feel that inside, where both driver and front passenger benefit from extended head and shoulder space. The second row of seating now contains three fully-fledged seats, and the rear door openings have been enlarged, enabling easier entry and exit. In addition to overall interior width, leg space is now significantly more generous too, with an extra five centimetres of knee room over the previous model. The rear seats can be shifted back and forth by up to 13cm, prioritising either passenger legroom or boot capacity depending on the situation. The folding rear backrest offers a 40:20:40 split and also provides a variable tilt angle so as to also offer either increased seating comfort or additional storage space for the bigger 450-litre boot at the rear.
Market and Model
Prices have risen significantly: it's no longer possible to buy any sort of Countryman for well under £20,000. Still, given that this car is now large enough to compete in a larger section of the Crossover market, you could argue that this is fully justified. The asking figures start at around £23,500 for the least expensive Cooper model and rise to around £33,500 for the plug-in version and around £36,500 for the John Cooper Works model. Throughout the range, there's the option of finding around £1,500 more for Steptronic automatic transmission.
Reflecting customer demand for high-end features, equipment levels on this MK2 model have been increased: there's a choice of 'Classic', 'Sport' or 'Exclusive' trim levels. All variants get a Navigation System, Bluetooth, Cruise Control an Emergency E-call set-up and 'Active Guard' autonomous braking. Naturally, being a MINI, there's broad scope for personalisation, with extensive colour and trim options and advanced technology including a 8.8" inch touchscreen display as part of the MINI Navigation System XL. The luggage area can be accessed via an optional electric tailgate that can be opened with a wave of your foot beneath the bumper. One unique option is the Picnic Bench - a flexible surface that folds out of the luggage compartment and provides seating for two people.
Cost of Ownership
The Countryman has certainly cleaned up its act when it comes to WLTP-rated stats. The 2.0-litre diesel unit returns up to 56.5mpg on the combined cycle and 111g/km in front-driven 'Cooper D' guise - or 51.4mpg and 129g/km on 'Cooper D ALL4' form. Petrol people get a 1.5-litre motor in the 'Cooper' that returns up to 42.8mpg and up to 128g/km in a front-driven manual model. Or a 2.0-litre unit in the 'Cooper S' that manages 40.9mpg and 143g/km in manual front-driven form.
The efficiency headline with this MK2 model range is the addition of MINI's first Plug-in hybrid engine, a unit you'll find in the Plug-in Hybrid variant. Here, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are very low, with up to 156.9mpg and 43g/km claimed respectively. Plus this model can travel up to 25 miles on electric power alone. Via a wallbox, the 7.6kWh battery can be recharged in two and a quarter hours: use a regular household socket and it'll take an hour longer. As you drive, there's an 'eDrive' toggle switch that gives you three operating modes. In 'Auto', the car will run on electric power alone at speeds of up to 50mph or in 'MAX' at up to 78mph. Finally, there's a 'SAVE Battery' option that allows you to 'freeze' your all-electric charge capability so you can activate it later in your trip - say in urban driving you'll reach at the end of a long motorway haul.
The Countryman is a MINI - but not as many will know it. But then if it was, this Countryman wouldn't be able to continually keep existing MINI people loyal when they out-grew their city runabouts and shopping rockets. Nor would 80% of its sales tempt in buyers new to the brand. Customers liking the vibrant SUV-inspired Crossover concept, but wanting it with a little more tarmac sparkle.
This larger, more sophisticated second generation Countryman model has achieved both these things, though arguably at the cost of British style and charisma. Still, now cleaner under the bonnet and smarter inside and out, it's as suited to the urban jungle as a Land Rover is to the Amazon, a car created for the times we live in. And a Country you could be proud of.