Friday 24 March 2017

I hate to love this new Mini

Despite its many shortcomings, the Countryman displays enough potential to leave even the most cynical driver smitten, writes Campbell Spray

GOING PLACES: The four-door Countryman has plenty of potential but it's not quite there yet.
GOING PLACES: The four-door Countryman has plenty of potential but it's not quite there yet.

THERE we were over the bank holiday powering our way through coastal Meath and discussing just what we would do with the €16m or so that we could have won in the weekend Lotto.

"We'd buy this car; I love it," said the one who gives therapy and makes beautiful cakes -- or are they the same thing? "Yes, dad, it's cool," said the long-limbed one, who was stretched out in the back with the hairy friend who can't be named or admitted to.

It's strange this love thing. Even before I had set eyes on the new Mini Countryman I knew that it would be something special in my life. It sounded like just the thing I needed; a step up from the go-kart-like car to something that would carry a family and a lot of tackle and go off-road a bit as well.

The first time I saw this Mini-on-steroids my heart skipped a beat. It had all the bumps in the right places. Yet my first drive was a disappointment. The gear-change was notchy and imprecise; the 1.6-diesel engine might be incredibly frugal and clean but was woefully short of fun and power around town; every time I used the clutch my foot risked getting stuck; and many of the controls were too fiddly and annoying.

All these faults were summed up and given a big and useless face by the enormous speedometer in the middle of the fascia. It might hark back to the Issigonis original but these days it is a waste of space and only serves to give rear passengers knowledge of your speed. It's all the more silly because the drivers have their own rev counter and speed read-out above the steering wheel.

Poor air conditioning, entertainment and other comfort controls all suffer at the expense of the big dial.

So in more ways than one my first impressions behind the wheel were a let-down, especially as a number of colleagues conspired in picking more holes in the possible object of my affection just as they might have done many years before over a pint and tales of lust and love. Yet real emotion can transcend niggles and everybody deserves a chance of redemption.

The Mini Countryman will pay this back in spades, especially when I know the Cooper S and D models will give more of the poke that the Countryman deserves if it is truly to be seen as one of the great Mini clan.

While I never really got used to the gearbox, clutch pedal or fascia, these are things that in time will be fixed. The basic concept of the family-sized Mini with the same boot size as a Golf, five seats and with soft off-road capacity has been achieved brilliantly.

My test car's large 17-inch double-spoke alloys literally lifted the car out of the mundane and were more than able for the rutted paths through the dunes of Bettystown. The four-wheel drive ALL4 option at €2,150 for the Cooper D and €3,410 for the Cooper S will be an added bonus.

The ordinary model does have lots of the handling fun of its smaller sisters and it didn't suffer from standing that much higher. The suspension and handling and the use to which you could put them was only really let down by the gear-change, clutch and power of which I spoke earlier.

The frugality of the basic 1.6 D engine is legendary and for the Countryman it is now mated with stop-start technology. I doubt it is physically possible to get less than 60mpg and the emissions are in the lowest band for VRT and Road Tax. However, it would be worth sacrificing a bit for more power potential and basic grunt. A 0-100kmh of a fraction under 13 seconds for such a car is not really on, nor is the way it doesn't have real overtaking confidence.

The Mini One Countryman has an on-the-road price of €23,680 and the One D comes in at €24,810. Cooper models are another €3,400 and €2,600 respectively. The Cooper D ALL4 is €29,580, ordinary Cooper S €32,140 and Cooper S ALL4 a hefty €35,560.

This is all before the very weighty list of expensive options and customisations comes in. However, even the basic models are well-equipped with rear parking distance control, an option of two separate seats in the rear against the normal three and things like heated door mirrors and washer jets. The controls on the air conditioning aren't the only weaknesses of the system. It needs an all-round upgrade.

Over the week I moved between loving and hating the Mini Countryman. The Mini passion is there and develops the whole concept to the level that I really want and makes it a real family option. But I despised the idea that so much is still to be done before I would really know that this was the "one" for me and the rest of my life.

I think I will wait for the car to be revamped in a couple of years, then there will be really nothing holding us back from a forever relationship. And, to be truthful, I have to wait for that Lotto cheque as well.

Sunday Independent

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