This time last year we were all wearing football jerseys to work and vuvuzelas became as common as a road block in Fourways on a Friday night. But besides the World Cup fever and the sheer pride I had in being a South African during that glorious month, one thing stood out for me as the highlight of the FIFA event: I saw my first MINI Countryman.
It may have been red with a giant soccer ball on its roof and yes, I saw it while pulled over by cops on the side of the highway but that car never left my mind, and when it was finally launched late last year, I was excited like never before. A MINI with four doors and all-wheel drive? Oh yes please!
Firstly, let’s get the name right. This is the MINI Cooper S ALL4 Countryman I’m talking about, which in a nutshell has the engine from a normal Cooper S, an all-wheel drive system from BMW and it’s all packaged into a high-riding, cheeky body with four practical doors. It confuses me too though, so for the sake of sanity, I will refer to it as the Countryman S ALL4.
My first port of call is the design. It’s fabulous, though I know many of you will disagree with me. It may come across as awkward, perhaps even bloated from some angles but I got used to it very quickly, and I love it from all sides. The front features distorted round headlights and the trademark MINI grille, albeit sculpted and squared-off to give Countryman a unique and menacing face. The side profile is uncluttered and purposeful, with the signature black wheel arches and side skirts adding to the chunky feel and “off-roader” appeal this MINI brings with it.
I particularly like the way the rear-most side windows are smaller than those of the doors, making the car look like it wants to break free and get going. The rear features huge tail lights and an equally massive MINI badge, which neatly integrates the hatch opener a-la BMW. Twin exhaust pipes finish everything off, flanked by fake air outlets. To sum the car up in one word: big.
On the inside, it’s a classic play on the now-familiar MINI design theme, with the even-bigger central speedometer taking centre stage. More of a gimmick than something you actually use to monitor your speed, it neatly housed the LCD screen that came in my highly-specced test car. The centre console features the latest design (which has been implemented on the rest of the MINI “family”), although in Countryman some of my favourite metal switches have been replaced by soft-touch buttons – perhaps alluding to the “grown-up” feeling the Countryman imparts. The steering wheel and rev counter are straight out of a Cooper S and as usual, there’s nothing wrong with them.
An interesting design feature is the handbrake, which has an aircraft’s thrust control element to it, and then there is the MINI Centre Rail which runs from the gear lever backwards, allowing a multitude of storage bins and cup holders to be installed and positioned exactly as you want them. The handbrake is flawed though, because it’s difficult to release from its highest position when the arm rest is folded down. The rear is of course where everything changes from the norm, and three sculpted seats are on offer, with meaningful legroom to boot (a two-seat option is available at no extra cost, too). Trump card number one: finally you can put your friends in the back of your MINI and they won’t need surgery afterwards!
Then there’s the boot, which is actually deserving of that name – the tail gate opens wide to reveal a level loading sill and a solid double-floor, which can actually hold more than one overnight tog bag with space to spare. Boot capacity is 350 litres with the seats up, and by folding them down you’ll find a whopping 1170 litres of cargo space just waiting for you. That’ll be trump card number two.
Infotainment is taken care of by the new MINI Connected system, which uses that LCD screen I mentioned to display all its various information modes with wonderfully-designed graphics and colours. Here you can access vehicle settings, additional trip computers and of course the entertainment system, which features the usual combination of CD, radio, aux, USB and iPod integration. I had the 10-speaker Harman/Kardon optional audio system and it was excellent! As a further enhancement, connecting an iPhone which has the MINI Connected app installed on it brings on a world of mobile internet functionality to the car. It’s all controlled by a neat little joystick mounted below the gear lever, which once you get the hang of it, is simple and fuss-free.
The Countryman S ALL4 is powered by the bulletproof 1.6-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine you find in any other Cooper S, and with the latest tweaks it pushes out 135kW and 240Nm (enough to get you from 0-100km/h in just 7.6 seconds), with carbon emissions of only 154/km. Fuel consumption is claimed at 6.6-litres per 100km, but if you enjoy driving a MINI as much as I do, expect that to be a lot more – I returned 12.3 on average.
The 6-speed manual transmission is a joy to use, with slick and precise changes and a short-throw gate enhancing that familiar MINI feel. In Countryman S, the exhaust note has been re-tuned to suit the adult nature of the car, and with a raspy suction noise at higher rpm it sure had me enthralled. Thankfully the optional Sport button still induces sporadic backfiring just like it does in other Cooper S models, albeit muted and less detectable in this car (though it still made some of my passengers beam with excitement).
As is the case with any MINI product, fit and finish are impeccable, with build quality up there with the best. Comfort however has always been a sore point (sometimes literally) because normal Cooper and Cooper S models have always had very firm suspension. It’s a MINI trademark. I have always given it the thumbs-up, but most people find it too hard. In Countryman S ALL4 the suspension has been softened and, as a result, the ride is now superbly comfy, but still has that confidence-inspiring MINI character.
Handling doesn’t suffer thanks to ALL4, though I fear that understeer will become more apparent as a result of the softening, in Countryman models without ALL4. The BMW-developed all-wheel drive system is permanent, but if I am honest, you probably won’t ever need it, because the Countryman is as off-roadish as your laptop. You’re never going to take this off the beaten track, trust me. You probably could, and it would probably be lots of fun too, but I cringe at the thought of even slight pavement-hopping with something as special (and pricey) as this.
And that last parentheses brings me onto the options list for this car. It’s a mile long, and it’s bloody expensive. Let me run through some of the extras fitted to the car in these photos, just to give you an idea. Double sunroof: R10 200. Xenon lights: R7 000. The Sport button: R1 300. The gorgeous white leather: R14 000. Rear parking sensors: R3 300. That fancy MINI Connected system: R3 250. And those are just a few of the options fitted, the total value of which amounted to roughly R70 000!
In defence of the Countryman though, and as I say with any MINI, the standard car is cool in any case, so options like these are just adding to that, and are by no means a be-all or end-all for the car. Safety items are at least not optional, with ABS, EBD, DSC, DTC (I am not going to explain all of those, just know they are good to have), a locking front differential an