Mini reaches beyond niche market

| Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011

For Mini purists who feel the only vehicle Mini should build is the diminutive Cooper, the new Mini Cooper S Countryman is an anathema. Brand loyalists are dismayed to see Mini entering the hottest part of the SUV market: compact SUVs.

Stick this in your bangers and mash: When British Motor Corp. produced Minis in the 1960s, there were many variants, including a pickup, a van and the Mini Moke, a vaguely Jeep-like vehicle.

Of course, maybe these Mini lovers would like the Countryman better if it were just as cute as the original Mini. It isn't. Designers have tried to develop the Mini look by endowing the Countryman with a frowning grille and amorphous headlights that give it a grumpy countenance. And it's sized like a Mini that you'd buy at the big-and-tall men's shop.

But climb inside, and you'll find the Countryman's roomy cabin easily fits four corn-fed Americans, something that can't be said for other Minis. The seats are firm and provide good support. Rear passengers sit a little low, but legroom and headroom are generous. When you're not carrying people, the rear seats slide forward as much as 5 inches to enlarge cargo space. In addition, the seats are split down the middle by rails that can hold various clip-on accessories.

There are three levels of Countryman: Cooper, Cooper S and Cooper S ALL4 -- or all-wheel drive in Mini speak.

Cooper models get a 121-horsepower four-cylinder engine that takes 9.8 seconds to reach 60 mph, according to BMW. By contrast, the Cooper S gets a turbo version of the same engine, with 181 hp and a 0-to-60-mph time of 7 seconds. Given the people and stuff you'll be carrying, opt for the Cooper S.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard. A six-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters is optional.

Being an SUV, it would be hard to believe that the Countryman would possess the same tight, crisp feeling of its smaller brethren. It doesn't, despite the quick steering.

Being a taller vehicle, and given its greater weight, you'll give up some agility. Clearly, other Minis are more fun to drive. Big bumps cause the Countryman's rear to come unglued, and you can induce body lean, something Mini drivers aren't accustomed to. The flip side is that the Countryman's ride quality will no longer jar your molars loose. Sizable impacts are noticed, but not felt.

I found it fun to drive, just not as much fun as the Countryman's countrymen.

Still, the extra space makes it more practical for many buyers. Combined with Mini's stylish elan, the Countryman takes Mini beyond being merely a niche brand.

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