Thursday 23 March 2017

A 'Maxi' mini revolution

Appeal: The Countryman is a major new player on the crossover front.
Appeal: The Countryman is a major new player on the crossover front.

I remember dancing in the Central ballroom in Tullamore (and other 'hot' spots through the midlands) when the micro mini-skirt was in vogue. Yes, many, many years ago. Those skimpy garments were no deeper than a good-sized belt.

Then came the midi, then the hippy ankle-lengths and then . . . well I forget after that.

Now I happen to think the word 'mini' is grossly abused and often a confusing contradiction in terms. You know: mini-bites, mini-crisis, mini-pack and so on.

But this week's car takes the concept to a new level altogether. This is now a 'really big' MINI.

And I'm going to get my spoke in first by calling it a 'maxi' MINI.

There. I've said it. I've corrupted the English language once again (what's new?).

This fresh arrival is called the Countryman. It is by far the largest they've made. It has four passenger doors, a surprising amount of rear room, a decent boot and is significantly larger in all areas than the little one we've become accustomed since BMW made it a modern icon.

It is also a different sort of concept. They are calling it a 'crossover' (not a word you'd have heard in the Central ballroom when the Crackaways were playing). In other words, it has a bit of everything, including an option (not on my test car) for all-wheel-drive so you can go off-roading.

There is no doubting, when you first see this, that it is some kind of a MINI. It blurs boundaries -- as crossovers do -- and, like so many others nowadays, points to a future where conventional design will, like so much else from our dancing days, be a thing of the past.

Multitudinous glances and questions over the course of my drives (sadly, the funeral of an old friend appears to pockmark so many of my journeys these days) underlined just how interested people can be in something of this nature. Here was an example of a car turning heads in their droves. It just has that presence. It is 374mm longer than a MINI hatchback, 106mm wider and, significantly, 154mm taller; and being such it really sits up there and says 'hello'.

But the real maximisation (if the dictionary permits such usage) of these extended dimensions reveals itself when you sit in. There are back seats where grown men can sit in relative company (you can order a two- or three-seat configuration). And the higher driving position certainly made a huge difference to me. Straight away, I saw how this could easily become an option as a second family car. That is where it will appeal. Where the MINI hatch is a motor primarily for the young single or couple, this will take three children in the back, their luggage and still allow you the quiet self-satisfaction that you are driving something more than just a bit different.

There's good versatility. The rear seats can slide a bit forward/backwards, depending on whether you want more passenger or luggage room, and the front seats have a decent amount of adjusting on them. Yes, it has all the smart touches of the MINI we know, and the not-so-smart great Big Ben of a central speedo-cum-display. Ugh!

A few of my passengers used the word 'sturdy' to describe this. That about sums it up. Its build is rock solid, with the suspension veering towards the sporty rather than the soft. The electric steering was precise, maybe a tad heavy, and I strayed once or twice into reverse when I went for first gear. But I soon got used to that.

Just a few things bugged me. The outside door handles are not the cleverest or easiest to use. They can feel a bit stodgy when you press to open them. Then there are myriad switches way down to your left on the middle of the lower dash and up near the ceiling. Too far down, as far as I'm concerned, to have to reach to do something as simple as opening a window.

And there were no controls for the radio on the steering column. Shock, horror. Must be the only car in the world without one at this stage.

For all that, it is a serious package with a high basic level of standard equipment. There is no doubt this MINI has grown up, big time. So much so that it expects 80pc of potential buyers to never have had a MINI before. In other words, a whole new set of consumers will regard this as a car that will suit them and their needs.

And I can see many of the existing 20pc going for it, too. Surely some of them have tied the knot since the heady days of the MINI's first appearance under BMW and need a bigger car for their young family.

In the main, the Countryman covers an awful lot of ground in terms of creature comforts, room, practicality, smartness, safety, and so on. One of its more obvious selling points was the 1.6-litre diesel engine. Now here was a real little battler. It is, of course, a BMW production and, alongside a slick six-speed manual gearbox, it was smart off the mark and smooth on the main roads. And it consumed around 43mpg -- a figure I could have improved on with just a little less urgency.

Cars like this often meet their Waterloo on the bumpy, boggy roads I love to traverse at a rate of knots. This held up particularly well.

It was one solid number all round.

I'm not sure it sparkled as much as the hatchback, which can simply be a go-kart experience every time.

But the Countryman is a major new player on the crossover front. It might take people a little time to get used to the idea of a maxi mini -- it didn't take them long back in the dancing days. But there is no mistaking the reality that I have just sampled something of a mini revolution.

Not, I think, a micro-mini revolution; more of a major MINI revolution, and one we'll see play out for a good few years.

What

MINI Countryman One D crossover 4dr, (1.6-litre, 90bhp), 6spd gearbox, front-wheeldrive, CO2 of 116g/km; VRT is 14pc. €104 annual road tax.

Cost

From €23,800. One D: €24,930 Delivery, related charges extra.

Target Market

Couples, families, well-to-do singles.

Plus

Four doors, 4/5 seats, room, smartness, practicality, frugal engine, boot.

Minus

Confusing array of switches and stodgy door handles.

Standard Equipment

Air con, six airbags, roof rails; digital radio, USB connection; heated door mirrors, preparation for bike rack, rear parking warning system.

Others to consider

Nissan Juke, Citroen DS3, BMW 1-series, even family cars such as the Ford Focus and VW Golf.

Rating 85 / 100

ecunningham@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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