2011 Mini Cooper Countryman

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Everyone (well, almost everyone) likes the Mini Cooper – the reincarnated, updated version of the micro-car Brit car of the 1960s. The problem has been that not everyone can use the Mini – which up to now came with just two doors and room for two only (or at least, realistically).

So for 2011, the Mini has grown a pair – of doors. This version of the Mini is called the Countryman. It seats up to five people (with the optional second row three-across bench seat). It also offers all-wheel-drive as an available option, which is another new feature no previous Mini offered.

These two updates ought to make Mini ownership more plausible for buyers who liked the original concept but needed a bit more practicality.

WHAT IT IS

The Countryman is a new, larger, version of the Mini Cooper. It has four full-size doors, seats up to five people and has a larger cargo area with a single-piece, fold-up rear liftgate. Prices start at $21,650 for the standard FWD model with non-turbo 1.6 liter engine and top out at $26,950 for an AWD-equipped version with the turbocharged and intercooled 1.6 liter engine.  

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Countryman is a new model for Mini.

WHAT’S GOOD

More room, more versatility – same Mini cuteness and curb appeal.

Available AWD. Heated windshield (just like a Land Rover).

Lots of factory/dealer-avaliable customization features to choose from.

Very good gas mileage, especially with the standard (non-turbo) engine.  

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

We still don’t get the 64 MPG diesel powertrain that’s available in European Minis.

We do get 419 additional pounds of curb weight – which cuts the mileage and the performance of the Countryman down a notch from the two-door (and lighter) version of the Mini.

UNDER THE HOOD

The Countryman offers the same powertrain lineup as the standard two-door Mini. Base models are fitted with a 1.6 liter, 121 hp four cylinder engine with either a six-speed manual or (optionally) six-speed automatic transmission sending power to the front wheels.

Performance-themed S models (and also the new AWD-equipped Countryman) get the turbocharged 1.6 liter four, rated at 181 hp. It’s also available with either the six-speed manual or the BMW sourced Geartronic six-speed automatic. This engine has the same “overboost” function that was first offered with the two-door Mini Cooper S. Under full-throttle acceleration, the computer temporarily allows extra boost for the turbo, to goose torque and horsepower.

The optional AWD system is capable of routing 100 percent of the engine’s output to the rear wheels and automatically and continuously adjusts the power split to maximize traction.

All the new engines feature AutoStop/Start – just like a hybrid – and for the same reasons (to improve fuel economy). When the car comes to a traffic light or is stationary, the engine automatically turns itself off – and kicks back on again when the driver depressed the clutch (or pushes the accelerator, in automatic-equipped versions).

The standard (non turbo) engine gets the Countryman to 60 mph in about 10 seconds.

Fuel economy is down to 27 city, 35 highway – vs. 29 city, 37 highway for the Mini two-door.

Similar deal for the Countryman S – which is still quick (0-60 in 7.9 seconds) but a step or three behind the two-door Mini Cooper S, as well as less fuel efficient.

The downticked mileage and performance is the result of the Countryman’s much higher curb weight of 2,954 lbs. vs. the 2,535 lb. curb weight of the regular Mini – a difference of 419 pounds.

It’s the price you pay for the Countryman’s upsized people and cargo-carrying capabilities.

What’s sad – for us – is that the high-mileage diesel engine that’s available in Euro-spec Minis isn’t available in the U.S. This engine can deliver a better-than-Prius (and better than most motorcycles) 64 MPGs on the highway.

It’s an outrage that such engines aren’t widely available here – but don’t blame Mini. Blame Uncle. Our government’s screwy regulatory ukase has made it very difficult to sell diesel passenger car engines here. And it’s not because European emissions standards are lax – or that diesel engines “pollute.” Euro emissions standards are at least as strict as ours are. It’s because our regs. are different – which means that for purely lawyerly reasons, Euro-spec diesels don’t conform to our standards, or would be expensive to make conform to our standards. So Mini – and other car companies – just don’t sell them here.

Result? We get $40,000 electric albatrosses like the Chevy Volt that can’t match the mileage of a $25k diesel Mini.

Thanks, Uncle.

ON THE ROAD

The extra weight has its pros and its cons.

On the upside, the extra weight imparts a more substantial and planted feel that the regular Mini doesn’t have. For example when a passing Kenworth blows past on the interstate, the Countryman doesn’t get boxed around like the regular Mini does.

On the downside, the extra weight detracts from the slot car driving feel that’s one of the two-door Mini’s most lovable qualities. The Countryman is close to 3,000 pounds before driver/passenger get on board. It’s entirely possible that a fully loaded Countryman with four people on board could hit or even exceed 4,000 pounds – which is about the same as a V-8 Ford Explorer SUV. Yes, it’ll haul more people – but it doesn’t haul as much ass. And even with just the driver on board, the Countryman is still sort of like Stallone in “Copland” vs. the first “Rocky.” The extra pancakes show. There’s more body roll when you go into a corner at speed and the caboose sometimes seems disconnected from the locomotive, so to speak. That latter part is the result of the extra length – which is a lot of extra length. The Countryman is 161.7 inches from bumper to bumper vs. 146.6 for the two-door Mini – a difference of more than fifteen inches.

You also sit a little higher – which many prospects will like. This makes the car feel a bit less slot car-like (in a good way) and more substantial when hemmed in on all sides by monstrous SmooVees and pick-ups. For American roads – which are most unlike European roads – this is a blessing. The two-door Mini is a great urban car but a not-so-great American highway car. The Countryman’s not as adept at Frogger-like darting in and out of city traffic and slipping into Moped-sized parking spots, but it is a much better suburban (and highway) car than the two-door.

AWD-equipped Countrymen can risk grassy fields and gravel roads – and offer better winter/wet weather tenacity than the two-door (and FWD-only) Mini. On dry roads, though, the advertised handling benefits of the ground-hugging AWD system are offset by the extra beef that comes along with it.

Choose it, therefore, if you sometimes need to deal with iffy roads or iffy weather – but otherwise, stick with the FWD version for its lighter weight, snappier reflexes and better gas mileage potential.

AT THE CURB

There are no downsides here. The Countryman is as snarky-looking as the standard Mini, even though it’s bigger, wider and much heavier.

It’s similar – and very “Mini” – but also subtly (and functionally) different. The two-step roofline, for example, visually divides the cargo area from the passenger compartment while the vertical fender breather (Mini calls it a “side scuttle”) on either front flank that feeds up into the windshield A-pillar adds a sporty flair. The Countryman’s larger, single piece lift-up (instead of side-opening) rear gate is a bit fatty looking but it’s hugely practical, opening up the large (41 cubic foot) backside, making it easy to stuff it full.

From the driver’s seat the Countryman’s dash array is the familiar retro-looking deal with large center-mounted speedo and racy-looking steering column-mounted tachometer. But there’s a new LCD display fitted to the center-mounted speedo for the optional GPS unit. Below this are the ’60s-style toggles switches that add a dash of ’60s coolness to the car.

I really liked the grab handle-style parking brake, which seems to have been designed specifically to aid “Italian job” parking brake bootleg turns. Another touch of coolness is provided by the contrast-color door panel inserts, which are available in easter egg colors like orange and bright blue. Like the two-door Mini, you can order the Countryman in two-tones, with multiple combinations possible. A Chrome Line dress up package is available that adds – you guessed it – chrome accents inside and out. The rear seats can be ordered in Lounge form, too – which gets you high-end leather and contrast piping.

The rear seats can be configured for three-across or twin buckets, with a unique to the Countryman modular center console – which Mini calls a Centre Rail. It can be changd to accommodate beverage holders, storage boxes, or electronic gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones by adding or removing various clip-in attachments.

A small Catch-22 is the Countryman’s changed up-front accommodations. There’s about an inch more headroom (39.9 inches) vs. the Mini two-door (38.8 inches) but you lose about an inch of legroom, which drops to 40.4 inches vs. the two-door Mini’s extremely generous 41.4 inches (about the same as in the mid-sized Toyota Camry sedan, for some perspective).

Still, the Countryman, like the regular Mini, is a very roomy on the inside car; even six footers will find they have plenty of clearance between the top of their head and the headliner – and ample space for their legs to stretch out. The original Mini was one of the first big-small cars and the concept has been (understandably) copied by everyone from Honda (Fit) to Scion (xB).

But no one does it with quite the twinkle that Mini does.

THE REST

The Mini has no direct competitors, which by itself is an appealing point in a market cluttered up with same-sames and copycats. The four-door Countryman is closer to something like a Nissan Juke or Kia Soul but still Mini enough to slough off direct comparisons with those (and other) sorta-similar Fun Boxes.

Kudos, too, for the still-affordable price – at least for the as-it-sits model. Yes, you can easily spend $30k or more on a loaded Countryman with the AWD set-u pand lots of optional equipment – and there’s nothing wrong with doing that, either. But it’s nice that you can also buy a Countryman for just over $21k – and that’s sticker. Surely, you’ll be able to dicker – especially after the initial hub-ub has died down. Sx months from now, it will probably be possible to drive home in a new Countryman for around $19k or so – which isn’t much of a mark-up from many 2011 economy sedans.

And a Countryman’s much more pleasing to see parked in your garage.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It’s definitely bigger. Whether it’s better depends on how you define it!

Throw it in the Woods?

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