Is a new BMW Mini news, or is it just another variation on a hackneyed theme?
A limited edition run of just 325 units, spread across four models, has joined the Mini Countryman line-up as of this month, states Iain Robertson, who feels that the present four-year-old design looks increasingly cliched and is ultimately boring.
Although the original and iconic Issigonis-designed Mini was available in Countryman trim, complete with timber exoskeleton for its rear quarters, customers benefited from a more practical load capacity than was on offer from the regular 10-foot long two-door. The Countryman tag was a popular estate car descript that had been used on various BMC models, although the Morris Minor 1000 preferred to use the more job-specific Traveller.
In its day, Countryman was as market apposite as Discovery is to Land Rover today, during the current era of SUV. Of course, when BMW snaffled-up the former Austin-Rover brands, led by Bernd Pischetsrieder, who brayed about his tenuous familial connection to the British marque, despite being staunchly Teutonic by birth and attitude, the Bavarian carmaker wanted to protect the Mini label as much as possible. The brand was accompanied by a bulging portfolio of Mini trim levels that BMW was almost too uber-keen to exploit.
What first appeared from the Oxford plant in 2001 was a nifty Germanic hatchback caricature of the previously British Mini, albeit stymied by modern vehicle safety standards (few of which were applied to the 1959 Ur-Mini). It was around 50% larger overall, while managing to retain a cramped cockpit, although, rather ingeniously, BMW’s chassis engineering team also delivered a reasonably conventional metal spring and damper, ride and handling compromise that mirrored Alex Moulton’s rubber cone alternative.
The BMW Mini is 20 years old. Hard to believe. Yet, in that two decades, via several body types and upgrades, apart from the signature central ‘instrument’ (no longer a speedometer dial) on the dashboard and a row of nail-busting ‘rockers’ below it, the largely comic book representation of the original Mini has been subsumed into a creepingly bigger and almost distinctively German compact-ish model range. Do not get me wrong, in terms of build quality alone, the BMW Mini verges on being a work of art. From its fluent controls and tight panel shut lines, the manner in which its doors open and close and even the air-tightness of its cabin (almost as good as the original VW Beetle, where cracking open a window was virtually the only way to shut a door successfully, without tearing off an interior door strap), suggest levels of attention-to-detail that are predominantly Germanic.
However, to me and a diminishing legion of British Mini fans, hijacking the ever-so-English Countryman badge took internationalism onto another unsatisfactory plain. Still, it is what it is, so I shall try hard to be positive. Dimensionally, the new Countryman is no longer a Mini and comparing it with an Austin Maxi only serves to highlight the misnomer (Maxi figures in brackets): length 4.29m (4.01m); width 2.00m (1.62m); height 1.57m (1.38m); and weight 1,385kgs (979kgs). It is not cynical to suggest that perhaps it is about time that BMW came clean with the model nomenclature, even though it is just a brand name.
Exterior measurements are one aspect but, when you compare the Doctor Who’s ‘Tardis’ interior of the original Mini (larger inside than its outside suggested), with that of the latest Countryman, there isn’t one. Thankfully, the BMW Mini has grown up, even if the proportions are not as brilliant as they should be. Ever since my first drive of a BMW Mini, I have been able to obtain a moderately good driving position, with the seat on its lowest, rearmost position and the seat back almost upright, with the steering column adjusted up and in, as far as it could go. The compromise for a two-metre-tall driver is that Mini’s rear legroom is zilch. The Countryman does release a few extra useful inches, thanks to its 3.1-inch longer wheelbase, although the front seat runners do not go back as far as they used to.
BMW is exceptionally hopeful for the people-carrying capacity of its back seats, split into three as they are. However, the 10-inch-wide middle seat is of little more use than a wide centre armrest, when two adults are carried in the rear. At least access to the cabin is vastly improved by the five-door layout. The hatchback rear door (again, significantly better than the space-robbing, twin ‘barn-doors’ of the equally lengthy Clubman variant) opens to reveal a moderate 450-litres capacity, expandable to a generous 1,390-litres, when the back seats are folded. A natty rear bumper padded seat option broadens the car’s potential.
Now let me explain the limited-in-number Boardwalk Edition. It is powered by a choice of two engines, both of which feature in the BMW 1-Series: the Cooper 1.5-litre 3-cylinder turbo-petrol engine that produces a zesty 136bhp, or the 2.0-litre Cooper S unit developing 178bhp. Both can be specified with either 6-speed manual, or 8-speed automatic transmissions, which means 325 models with two trim levels, two motors and two gearboxes.
Finished in Deep Laguna Blue Metallic, with a contrasting black roof, roof rails and other exterior detailing, it rides on 19.0-inch diameter alloy wheels, has an automatic (foot waggle) tailgate and LED head and taillights. Its interior can be personalised from Mini’s extensive catalogue (costly!) but benefits from a digital dashboard, with the sat-nav predominating the centre dial. Unsurprisingly, a full range of ADAS driver assist and connectivity programs are incorporated. Additionally, the model has a fully digital instrument panel, leather trim on the heated front seats, climate control, automatic headlight activation, rain sensors and cruise control with auto-braking function.
Naturally, there is a price to pay for its apparently generous specification, which starts at £31,600 for a manual Cooper, rising to £35,025 for a Cooper S automatic, which is conspicuously expensive. Its on-road performance is blunted by its lardy kerbweight, although the 1.5 Cooper will crack the 0-60mph dash in 9.4s, with a maximum speed of 124mph, while returning 42.8mpg and emitting around 160g/km CO2.
Conclusion: Despite its solid build quality, the Mini Countryman is, subjectively, not a good looker. Fortunately, it drives well enough, albeit riding jiggly on its big alloys, even though it carries one hell of a hefty price tag. Yet, it is just another Mini.