Sunday 24 September 2017

The Mini is still a marvel

The new Countryman is fast, stylish and comfortable - but its price makes it one for the elite, writes Campbell Spray

NIPPY SWEETY: The Mini Cooper Countryman S E ALL4 is a solid, premium car – with a solid, premium price
NIPPY SWEETY: The Mini Cooper Countryman S E ALL4 is a solid, premium car – with a solid, premium price

Some 58 years ago when living with my family in the village of Waltham St Lawrence, about 30 miles west of London, we were acquainted with the Carews , who seemed to be scions of the nobility of the area.

My friend's father was a bit of an entrepreneur and inventor and definitely what we would call now an "early adopter". And in 1960 nothing would indicate this more than his purchase of the first "Mini", which in truth was either an Austin Seven or Morris Mini Minor, in the village.

It was with some pride that I could go to my prep school and boast of being driven in what was to become an icon of popular culture - and probably the most influential car of the second part of the 20th Century and possibly, after the Ford Model T, the groundbreaking vehicle of mass manufacturing.

Those concepts were far from my mind at the time, but I do remember the feeling the link to the go-cart experiences I had been lucky to have had at a trade show my father had taken me to.

So began a love affair with the Mini, which in time involved rallying, lust and ownership.

It continues to this day, 17 years after the bigger and more premium model BMW Mini of Frank Stephenson's design replaced the original conceived by Alec Issigonis and launched in 1959. It did, however, manage to keep some of the most important DNA.

What a success it has been, with a phalanx of styles and customisation, including the full, family-sized off-roader the Mini Countryman ALL4, which last week saw me enjoy the latest twist in my long, relationship with the brand .

It has only suffered as the prices have gone up and the marque is no longer a car of the people - but one of a more privileged elite.

I think that my friend's father would understand why I was impressed with the version of the Mini I was driving.

He wouldn't have cared much for the size but the fact it was powered by an electric motor for much of the time would appeal to his early adopter and inventor brain.

The level of comfort would be almost mind-blowing for him. Gone are the cardboard door pockets and door handles which were little more than a loose length of wire.

The Mini Cooper SE ALL4 PHEV Countryman is a solid, premium car coming down with spec and safety equipment, and at the price, which we will go into later, it should.

However, the 18in Black Pin Spoke alloys were a bridge too far.

The car is powered by electric batteries under the rear seats and a 1.5 litre three-cylinder petrol engine.

The electric-only range is only 40km at best so this silent procession is really only for the urban commuter. But by using a mix of electric and petrol - which is totally seamless - there is no range anxiety and the pairing encourages frugal driving to get the most benefit from the mix.

Handling is not affected at all and under electric power, the All4 E becomes the first rear-wheel drive Mini as that's where the battery power goes.

And with the electric and petrol power in tandem, the car is punchier than its sisters. I loved the six-speed auto box and I'm getting to the age when such gearboxes take out another decision before I sign for the Fair Deal scheme. Yet, for now, the 0-100kmh in less than seven seconds keeps the brain intact.

Unfortunately, as the fuel tank has been shrunk by nearly 30pc to give space for the batteries, this means the chance to escape my minders and get to the continent undetected is unlikely. The overall economy sounds good, up to 134 mpg, but probably too good to be true.

There are some niggles, some silly, some not.

The back is just a little more restricted for full-size adults, albeit comfortable enough and the front seats aren't suitable for shorter people who will find the seat digging into the back of their knees.

There are also probably just too many controls and switches. Yet there is so much to like about the ALL4. It is just about a proper-sized SUV which will stand muster with anything out there, but there is still this price thing.

BMW's PR spokeswoman, Laura Condron, told me that although the ALL4 E starts at €43,290 at the moment, there is up to €9,500 off the RRP of the car, if you are trading in an EU4 or below diesel car with a retailer under our MINI €2,000 Lower Emissions Incentive and the €7,500 VRT and SEAI grant. So, the price would be down to €33,790.

Now that's very tasty. Unfortunately, there was another €8,439 in extras which pushed the price back up to €51,740.22 before the possible €9,500 off. This is a mighty price for a Mini Countryman or anything else.

But perhaps that's how the world is going.

I see that Waltham St Lawrence is a village much in demand. My childhood friend's home is fetching some £4.5million and Beauly, our fine Edwardian house on four acres, has been knocked down.

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your car loan repayments

A house with more size than style has replaced it. It is also now the headquarters of an olive oil, cheese and tobacco company. Maybe that says it all. Everything changes, gets bigger. A car for the people becomes one for the elite.

Such a shame, but I did like it.

Sunday Independent

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