THERE’S NO DOUBT THE balancing act between the requirement for interior space from a sporty car and lithe road-holding is not always an easy compromise to make; especially for the dedicated sports car owner who has suddenly found themselves with new arrivals of the tiny human variety. A relatively affordable sporty car like the MINI suddenly starts showing certain limitations in hatchback form as more and more family accoutrements require stuffing in the back.
All is not lost for this popular model though thanks to the stretched out Countryman, which now appears as an even larger car thanks to a thorough reworking of exterior and interior dimensions. It is effectively an estate version of the MINI and replaces the first generation MINI Countryman, which was launched in 2010 and comes with an automatically opening and closing tailgate and fold-down rear seats to further increase rear storage space.
As a quick rewind down memory lane with BMW now owning all rights to the original Mini brand: the original ‘classic’ Countryman appeared in 1960, badged initially as the Austin Se7en Countryman, while its identically styled twin – the Morris Mini Traveller – came out at the same time. The Austin Se7en moniker was replaced with Austin Mini Countryman in 1962 and both versions ran through until the end of 1969.
For their time, the Countryman and Traveller were considered very long compact cars at 3,3 metres in length. The new MINI Countryman trumps that of course (we are in the 21st century after all) at 4.3 metres long. An additional metre of storage will go a long way to attracting both the families with kiddie strollers to take care of a well as weekend golfers. In fact Mk II of the latest Countryman is bigger all around than the previous model, with a 20cm increase in length and 3cm wider plus a longer wheel base of 7.5cm.
Rear storage space is 490 litres; a 30 percent Increase on the previous generation Countryman’s 390 litres. It all adds up to more interior space for the five-seat arrangement with the rear seats that can be shifted longitudinally by up to 13cms to provide additional rear storage space without always needing to fold flat the rear seats. Both driver and passenger seats come with electric adjustment and the driver seat gets a memory function as well. Globally, the MINI brand has often been perceived as a secondary fun car or an entry point for singles or young couples. This perception is set to change with the bigger Countryman as exemplified by Julius Schluppkotten, Project Director for this model, who stated, ‘The interior of the MINI Countryman emphasises the car’s suitability for families as a primary vehicle. The sense of quality in the interior has been significantly enhanced too.’
I’d agree with him on both counts. The flight deck of the new model is approaching Audi quality in terms of fit and finish with an especially pleasing series of ambient LED strip lights running around the doors and dashboard as well as around the large circular central eight-inch LCD touch screen infotainment system. Apple Carplay for iPhone compatibility is not currently available here although MINI tells us it will be fitted with models later this year. How that will affect those who buy an early MINI Countryman remains to be seen… The MINI Connected feature links to your smart phone via a MINI app and allows you to automatically plan a route in advance along with times and distances.
The biggest disappointment -at least for my particular voice pattern -was how resolutely stubborn the voice activated satellite navigation system remained in in refusing to reply to my repeated commands for destination inputs. In short, it didn’t seem to know anywhere in Singapore until I keyed them in on the touch screen. My crappy attempts at faux Singlish (just in case) made no difference. I tried speaking like Prince Charles too; all to no avail.
After a relatively short spell of throwing the car into the precious twisty corners we can find in Singapore and revelling in the perfectly balanced steering rack, you pretty soon forget that this is along wheelbase MINI. A glance over your shoulders always con founds your belief that this actually feels just like a three door variant instead. A very easy to access bezel at the base of the automatic gear shift offers three suspension and performance set-ups for the car that can be easily changed on the move: Green (fuel efficient setting), Mid (balanced setting) and Sport (Dynamic setting) that each appear on the centre infotainment console when selected. In Sport you can choose to sharpen up the gearshift or stiffen up the suspension independently or together.
The eight-speed gearbox engages fluidly irrespective of which mode the car is in, although steering wheel-mounted paddles do allow you to maximise shift times in manual mode. The Cooper S model comes with a turbocharged 2.0-litre four pot transversely mounted that turns in a more than respectable performance for a compact family estate, while the entry Countryman Cooper gets a compact three-cylinder turbo plant. Perhaps the only criticism you can lay on the Coopers Countryman’s powerplant is that it sounds rather too civilised for a sports model. With the Coopers, 18-inch alloy wheels come standard and provide a good compromise between grip and comfort although 19-inch items are an option. The Countryman might put practicality as its main selling point but none of its amazing fun has been lost in the process.