Friday 15 December 2017

It's the extra-large MINI crossover: Countryman targets growing families. It's due here next month

First drive in Buckinghamshire: MINI Countryman

Extra-large: the MINI Countryman
Extra-large: the MINI Countryman
The cabin has decent quality materials
The car has five full seats
The MINI Countryman
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

And so the MINIs get bigger and bigger. The latest example is the new Countryman crossover - a much enlarged motor with, they claim, more boot space than a Nissan Qashqai.

That tells you all you need to know about where this is headed when it arrives next month: straight for buyers of compact crossovers.

It does, however, raise obvious questions. How large does a MINI have to be before you need to call it something else?

And is the Countryman, roomy and all as it is, worth from €33,580 on-the-road, when you consider what you could buy from the mainstream menu of rivals (Seat Ateca, Renault Kadjar, Hyundai Tucson, even the Volkswagen Tiguan)? And has it sufficient appeal as a premium motor to vie, for up to €40,000, with more immediately obvious exponents of the genre such as the BMW X1 and Mercedes GLA?

The cabin has decent quality materials
The cabin has decent quality materials

It all comes down really to viewing the Countryman as a car to suit buyers who want a MINI (as a main or second car) but can't make the ordinary 5dr hatch, for example, work for their growing family. The Countryman is keenly focused and designed to meet that perceived need.

Tall, roomy and long, the newcomer looks a lot more compact than the possible alternatives I've named above, yet when I sat into the back seat, with the front one adjusted for me, I had plenty of knee, head and leg room.

That second row will be occupied by far smaller bodies than mine, I suspect, and has two ISOFIX anchor points on the outer seats.

For the little ones' luggage there is a boot that, on first sight, looks like it can in no way compete with the Qashqai, but when we lifted the 'floor' we opened into another big space that made the claim more credible - it's up 100 litres on the old one.

Apart from its roominess, the cabin strikes a good blend of the MINI layout, decent quality materials (much better than the old one) and solid build. The dashboard architecture is new but, sadly, they've held onto the great big centre-dash circular dial even though it is used mostly for angular displays.

Our drive took us over typical roads where the sturdy/sporty nature of MINI suspension and handling came through reasonably well - helped by a pliant, longer wheelbase.

I suspect that most of those who buy one of these will opt for the smaller petrol and less powerful diesel, but at this first-drive event they had just the 2-litre 4cyl petrol Cooper S (192bhp). I'm not so sure buyers will be too concerned with performance - especially with children in the back - but this was lively enough without in any way conveying a 'wow' factor.

On a miserable, wet day we didn't push hard, but had we done so we had all-wheel-drive (ALL4) to call on if we needed more traction and grip - as we learned on a muddy off-road track later.

In the stark light of price comparison it doesn't do so well against bigger and more established names. But that is to ignore the snob/trendy premium people put on having a car with the famous brand name on it.

Based on the same platform as the BMW 2-series and X1 crossover it is, no surprise, the largest MINI to date: 20cm longer (to 4.3m), 3cm wider and 7.5cm longer wheelbase.

The engines include the 1.5-litre 3cyl petrol in the Cooper (136bhp, 126g/km); the Cooper S petrol has a 2-litre 4cyl (192bhp) while the diesels include a 2-litre Cooper D (150bhp) and Cooper SD (190bhp). As I said, the 3cyl petrol and 150bhp Cooper D versions look like the main sellers, especially as the diesel's road tax will be low (113g/km).

Again, on the face of it, the new car looks like it's got a big price hike compared with the old one at €27,510. MINI argue this is talking chalk and cheese, as the new model is not just bigger (five 'full-size' seats) and has three ISOFix points (one on the front passenger seat), sat nav, Bluetooth (part of the MINI Mobility system), front fogs, 16ins alloys, heated mirrors and windscreen etc.

I suppose the extra outlay won't come to an awful lot a month on a PCP deal, but it is still a fair old increase. There will be a hybrid later on with a 40km range on electric charge.

The Countryman is the fifth of the new MINI generation (hatch 3dr, 5dr, Clubman and Cabrio pre-date it). And there is talk of a saloon.

So, about how big can a MINI become these days? The answer is: as big as it wants to, because the name is no longer associated with just one little car - it's a brand.

Of course, it still has to look like, drive and feel like a MINI.

And that's what the Countryman does across the board without being outstanding in any particular area.

The real surprise lies in discovering that you can get so much space into a car bearing the new MINI logo.

Irish Independent

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