One of us has an ongoing infatuation with the MINI. Lyra bought an Electric Blue MINI Cooper S in 2002 and it was love at first sight. Then her family grew and she had to upsize. She misses her MINI and its go-kart handling. Well, now, the MINI has upsized with the Countryman — too late for Lyra, but not for the rest of us.
Appearance: Don't like the color? Like all MINIs, it has plenty of customization options, including bonnet stripes and roof color. The Countryman looks more rugged with more sheet metal "muscles" than the regular Cooper hardtop. There's also a center bulge on the bonnet (the hood). The rear is a hatch, which lifts when you flip up the large emblem. (Neat!) The look up front strays from the traditional MINI with angled, less-rounded headlights and a stern grille, which is more prominent than on its siblings. Think of this as a slightly bigger, brawny four-door MINI.
Performance: It doesn't quite have the go-kart handling of the smaller Coopers, but does have a solid feel and full-time AWD. There's some body roll, given the Countryman's taller stance. Our tester had a 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that puts out 181 horsepower. We found some turbo lag. We had the optional six-speed automatic with paddle shifters, and in sport mode, there are higher shift points. We found the ride a bit stiff with the run-flat tires. The steering feel is firm but responsive.
Interior: The Countryman may be a crossover, but it seats only four. It sits higher than a standard MINI, so you get a better view of the road. The cockpit has the same curvaceous design with swooping trim and the prominent pie-plate speedometer in the center console. Although there was a lot of plastic, the interior finish is solid. The main attraction is the rail that runs down the center of the cabin. It is customizable and comes standard with two cup holders and a case for sunglasses. It's an interesting and original concept. There is good head- and legroom, even in the rear seats, for adults. Peter found the Countryman comfortable on a weekend trip to Tallahassee, even though the seats are a bit on the firm side and there's noticeable road noise. We had a few other nits, such as the location of the rear seatback release. We both had to reach to the center to release it. The rear seats don't fold completely flat. There's 41.3 cubic feet of cargo space, a lot for a MINI but modest for a crossover. Lyra found the rear hatch to be quite a reach for her to close. The front door handle is angled so it's difficult to close with enough force from the inside. Lyra had to reclose the door a few times. The audio controls can be frustrating, such as when switching radio bands from FM to satellite and searching for stations.
Our 3 favorites
Rail: The adjustable system to hold cups and gadgets is unique.
Look: The Countryman has a look-at-me rugged vibe.
Gauges: Some may find them too over the top, but not me.
Ambient lighting: Choose from more than 10 colors.
Personalize: From body and roof colors to bonnet stripes, there are a lot of options to make it your own.
Cargo space: Grocery run? No problem. Much better than its siblings.
The bottom line: If you've always wanted a MINI but couldn't justify the lack of space, this car is for you. Of course, you first must ask yourself if the style justifies the price tag. Just don't expect that go-kart handling.