IAIN ROBERTSON 

Mini Countryman

Mini Countryman

Any vestiges of original Mini-ness are now totally removed with the largest version of BMW’s comic-book replica of the once-British stalwart, reports Iain Robertson, as a comprehensively updated Countryman estate car goes on sale from £23,500.

When BMW acquired the remnants of the butchered Austin-Rover Group from its errant bunch of British asset-strippers, the Munich-based gross-profiteer recognised what it had on its hands. There existed a tenuous connection between BMW’s Herr Bernd Pischetsrieder and Alex Issigonis, the originator of Mini, which was bandied about as a means of softening the blow of the German giant now owning former British assets.

While some British buyers railed against the business manoeuvre, BMW went headlong into attempting to re-gauge the car, in order to accommodate safety and build standards that had remained unaltered for more than forty years. To build a new Mini faithfully, based on the original format, would be impossible today, which made the 2001 BMW version somewhat more palatable. For some buyers, notably those of taller stature, the ‘new’ BMW attempt at replication resulted in two-seat, cramped, cabin accommodation. However, worse was to come.

Mini Countryman

Mini Countryman

Although the hatchback was a great idea, the car’s overall impracticality appeared even more joke-like, when contrasted with the original, with its flop-down boot-lid that was sturdy enough to carry a few suitcases. However, as talented as BMW’s engineering team is, replicating the ride, handling and roadholding of the original resulted in sorely compromised chassis dynamics. Gone was the kart-like responsiveness and sheer wieldiness of the original, replaced by unforgiving suspension and damper rates designed to remove dental fillings.

Fortunately, the first BMW derivatives were Mini-like, in many respects, even down to the homage paid by the large central speedometer dial. Wind on the clock nearly a couple of decades and the BMW Mini family has grown through several whimsical models, including coupes and odd-door wagons, to its latest iteration of the five-door Countryman, which is simply enormous. So enormous that I cannot bring myself to apply the Mini soubriquet to almost any element of my reportage, so I shall now refer to it as MAXI and sod the consequences…not that there will be any.

The new MAXI range consists of seven models in Cooper, Cooper S and Cooper D trims, each with All4 four-wheel drive variants, and a plug-in hybrid version of the Cooper All4. The engines start with the 1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbo-petrol in 136bhp form (0-60mph in 9.4s; top speed 126mph; CO2 around 135g/km) for Cooper models. The S designation gains the front-driven version of BMW’s proven 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit in 178bhp form (7.3s; 138mph; 148g/km), while the turbo-diesel is the 150bhp version of the BMW 2.0-litre unit (8.8s; 130mph; 116g/km).

Mini Countryman

Mini Countryman

The standout model is the Cooper-based 1.5-litre hybrid, with a whopping 220bhp, capable of blitzing the 0-60mph dash in around 6.5s, topping out at a restricted 120mph, while emitting CO2 at a rate of 40g/km. Its 9.6kWh lithium-ion battery pack can provide in excess of 30-miles of electric-only travel and can be recharged via a plug-in port built into the nearside front ‘airvent’. The usual recharge times apply, whether recharging the pack domestically, or at any of the charging posts dotted around the UK (cables are supplied).

Interestingly, this latter model drives through a 6-speed Steptronic gearbox, while the other models feature either a standard 6-speed manual, or a choice of seven-speed twin-clutch automated, or the 8-speed automatic gearboxes, which are optimised for more efficient operation. The four-wheel drive transmission works via a rear-mounted synchronous electric motor, which obviates a need for a weighty and space-consuming prop-shaft. Designated as All4, it is standard on the hybrid. Without driver intervention, the 4×4 system detects slippage on any wheel and engages drive as needs dictate, thereby improving stability and roadholding regardless of conditions geographical, or climatic.

Dependent on version, the new MAXI is fitted as standard with alloy wheels in either 16.0, or 17.0-inch diameters. However, they are available up to 19.0-inch diameter at extra cost in different spoke styles and paint finishes. Opt for the black wheels and other elements of the exterior design can be finished similarly in piano-black, thus removing the standard chrome highlights. It is a good idea to view the wildly confusing and immense array of customisation options available from BMW but do take caution, as the entry-level price mentioned above can soon be whisked into £30k-plus territory, even on the base trim version. You can expect a modestly personalised Hybrid variant to tip into the £36,000 arena, which is hellishly expensive for a MAXI, especially as the car is only marginally more practical than the base Mini!

Mini Countryman

Mini Countryman

Bear in mind, the Austrian-built Countryman is clearly designed by some gnomes from Zurich, as BMW considers that its three individual, folding and adjustable back seats now qualify as spacious enough for three occupants. Ahem…not quite. There is enough room for two adults…just. However, the MAXI’s boot is now significantly more accommodating at 450-litres, which can be extended to a good 1,380-litres, when the back seats are flipped forwards.

All exterior lamps are now LEDs, which include the ‘starburst’ tail-lamp structures. The wider front radiator grille is a mere nod to Mini, while the adaptive headlamp units are now almost rectangular in form. Just returning to the cockpit for a moment, it is worth noting that the instrumentation is now a digital flat-panel ahead of the driver, with the option of a head-up display, and the former central dial providing a sat-nav screen, rearwards view, or visual base for other functions. The usual rocker panel of switches sits in the lower section of the much larger dashboard, with a twist controller for the screen just behind the gearlever.

The benefit of Mini acquisition to BMW has meant that it can improve the space utilisation of its 1-Series line-up, front-wheel drive now being standard on that range, rather than the space-robbing rear-driven set-up.

Conclusion:      It is now comfortably two generations that separate Mini from MAXI and almost one generation since the Mini’s demise. There will never be another Mini, even though some innovative EVs and the Mercedes-Benz smart may vie for similar road and market space. Despite the price tag, the new MAXI is sure to find willing buyers.

Mini Countryman

Mini Countryman