As is normal when the Germans launch a car that doesn't obviously slot into one of the decades-old market segments, the manufacturer will tell us it has invented a whole new kind of car. So it is with the Mini Countryman -- a 'compact sports activity vehicle', apparently. Like, duh. How exactly is this a new category? Toyota RAV4? Kia Soul? Mitsubishi Outlander Sport? In the real world, the Countryman can't succeed by being a new invention. It has to succeed by being better than the opposition.

Well being a Mini, at least it has performance on its side, with an uprated version of the familiar Cooper S engine (Valvetronic throttle-less induction is added to the existing direct-injection and turbo), an electronically controlled center diff for its optional AWD system, and a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension.

But even those things don't make it unique. Nissan's new Juke has its own DI 1.6-liter turbo four, multi-link chassis, and tops the Mini with side-to-side torque vectoring for its AWD system.

So we got the Juke and Mini together. It took place off the Mini's German launch event, which meant no Motor Trend verified test-track performance numbers were possible, but we made sure to run them back to back on a good mix of delimited autobahn, fast country roads, twistier hill route and suburban schmoozing. The Mini came with the AWD system (called All4) and a six-speed manual, while the Juke had a CVT (with six virtual ratios) because that's standard with the AWD system. In fact the front-drive Jukes have a simpler torsion-beam rear suspension. The Mini is always multi-link, whether or not it has All4.

Comparison: 2011 Mini Countryman vs 2011 Nissan Juke

Which tiny crossover would you pick?
  • Mini Countryman
  • Nissan Juke
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A look at the Mini's spec sheets shows the drawbacks of all-wheel-drive. According to BMW, the system adds 130 pounds to the weight and 0.3 seconds to the 0-62 mph acceleration time, taking it to 7.9 seconds. And our tester does indeed feel somehow hamstrung by weight, a little lacking in the get-up-and-go the Cooper S badging would lead us to expect. On the Autobahn, punchy acceleration from 80 mph onwards demands shifting down a ratio or two. Turbo torque just isn't enough to overcome the tall-body drag and crossover weight. The engine also sounds a little strained at high revs. This might be a NVH issue with the Countryman bodyshell, or it might be that this new Valvetronic version of the Mini engine is simply more intrinsically raucous.

Nissan's acceleration claims for the Juke are slightly more modest, at 8.4 sec to 62mph (but to do a strictly fair comparison, it's worth noting that the automatic version of the Countryman is 8.3 sec). Whatever, the Juke seldom feels slower than the Mini, and once its torque converter has locked up, the changes via the plus-minus gate of the selector lever are crisp. Worst thing about this new engine is its tinny characterless sound. As with the Mini's motor, lag is never a serious issue. It's worth noting that at high speeds, engine noise isn't a problem either because in both cars it's drowned out by pretty intrusive wind roar.

So if the AWD systems gnaw away at performance and economy (and in the Nissan's case, trunk space), is there a payback in twisty-road handling? The Mini's engineers are keen to emphasize that the Countryman retains the brand's trademark kart-like agility. But we beg to differ. Sure, the Countryman does sport an extremely eager steering ratio, such that the first movement of your hands dials up a rapid response as the front end dives into a turn. But things immediately go awry. With this initial response comes disconcerting body roll, and a slight delay before the rear half of the car seems to follow the front. And then you find the steering becomes lazier and slightly soggy on lock. Oh and if you go into a corner too fast there's understeer that can't be corrected by adding power. Slow-in quick-out is the best way.

Don't get us wrong. For a crossover, the Countryman is agile fun. But for a Mini it's decidedly dull-witted. Maybe things would sharpen up with the optional sports chassis, which lowers it. Also, be aware that the tester came on the smallest 17-inch wheels. Larger sizes figure in the options list.

The Juke also rolls a fair bit, but it is more agile and has a better handle on canceling understeer. That torque vectoring system can be felt doing its job, nudging the back end onto a wider line to keep the front pointing where you've steered it. In fact with all the body lean, it can at first seem like the beginnings of roll oversteer, but it's very capable once you learn to keep your foot down and trust it. Even so, the Juke isn't such a blast as the best hot hatchbacks, because the steering is too light and lacks any realistic road feel.

Ah well, at least in both Juke and Countryman you are rewarded for coping with the body roll. They both serve up a nicely compliant ride, both over urban potholes and highway-speed ridges.

The Juke, at 162 inches, is an inch longer than the Countryman. But because of the Mini's slightly longer wheelbase, and especially because of its boxier tail-end shape, the Mini actually has interior space to put it on a par with the Juke's older and bigger brother, the Rogue. That makes sense -- the Countryman's job is to be the Mini for people who need space, while the Juke's job is to be the smallest, cheekiest and most stylish member Nissan's extensive crossover lineup and so it's OK for it to sacrifice space for style.

And the Juke is definitely the more distinctive looker of the pair, with its multi-eyed face and huge wheel housings, supporting a tapering glasshouse, sloped roof and pinched tail. Subtle it ain't, but we found it more attractive as we spent time with it. The Countryman's shape we found a slightly harder thing to love. It seems too much like a bloated parody of the two-door Mini hatchback. Still, it has been made with Mini aspirants in mind, and they'll no doubt forgive it.

Within the cabin, the Countryman is very much a Mini too, with rows of endearingly eccentric but hard-to-fathom switches, and the strange layout of dials that sees the speedometer parked way out of your sightline -- it practically forces you to glance instead at a digital supplementary readout set into the tach. The Mini's driving position is as always excellent, placing your feet straight ahead and your shoulders perpendicular. But it's higher, though by no means SUV height. Just high enough to make a real difference if the lowness of a normal Mini causes you to be intimidated by passing trucks.

And of course the Countryman has proper rear seats, comfortable for adults, and definitely larger than the oddball Mini Clubman's pillion. If occupied by kids the seats slide forward to boost space in the trunk. Four individual seats are standard, separated by a rail running the length of the passenger space that carries various clip-in slide-along brackets to hold the necessities of travel -- phones, MP3 players, cups, and shades.

Another innovation is the optional Mini Connected, which consists of an app for your iPhone which, when docked, will put Google local searches and even your Twitter and news feeds straight onto the main navigation screen, or read them out via voice synthesis.

Nor is the Nissan shy of interior innovation. If the Mini's center console was inspired by a utility belt, the Juke's is molded and painted like a motorcycle tank. Gimmicky maybe, but kinda cute while no other car has the same idea. And it does no harm: the normal compliment of cupholders and ashtrays finds a home. In the rear of the cabin, headroom is a problem, and in this all-wheel-drive version, the trunk is almost comically small. As a piece of packaging -- indeed as an overall vehicle concept -- it might help to think of the Juke as a subminiaturized BMW X6.

The Nissan has more that's new in the cockpit. Its HVAC buttons and screen play a secret double life. Press a D-mode switch and the A/C buttons magically change their markings so as to call up a range of sport/normal/economy settings for the steering, throttle map, transmission and air-conditioning. In this mode the HVAC screen will also toggle through turbo boost, economy graphs, trip computer and a real-time torque distribution graphic. One from the GTR playbook, this latter display, and it makes twinkly entertainment for the passengers -- if not for the driver who at moments of transient torque distribution should probably have his eyes somewhere other than on a small display screen low on the center stack.

Both of these cars bring something new to the cute-ute party: decent performance, on-road comfort, novel interiors. As a road-biased tiny crossover the Mini succeeds admirably. It's the most useful of the pair, and has a slightly greater air of premium. Trouble is, it isn't quite the car you might have imagined. It looks like a Mini, but it doesn't drive like one.

Neither does the Juke drive quite as well as Nissan hints when it references its GTR-type AWD system. But it has more of a sense of fun than the Countryman, both in its dynamics and its design. And if you want to be in a car that looks like nothing else on the road, it's definitely the one.

As impractical as it looks, but freakishly fun on the streets. The Juke is no joke, but it will still leave you giggling.

First Place: Nissan Juke
As impractical as it looks, but freakishly fun on the streets. The Juke is no joke, but it will still leave you giggling.

Second Place: Mini Countryman All4
Cuter than a Pug singing Batman, but a letdown when things get twisty. Looks like a Mini. Doesn't drive like one.


2011 Mini Countryman 2011 Nissan Juke
Base Price N/A N/A
Vehicle layout Front-engine, AWD, 4-pass, 4-door SUV Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engines 1.6L/181-hp/177-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 1.6L/185-hp (est)/175-lb-ft (est) turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed manual Continuously variable auto
Curb weight 3200 lb (mfr) 3200 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 102.2 in 99.6 in
Length x width x height 161.3 x 70.4 x 61.5 in 162.4 x 69.5 x 61.8 in
0-62 mph 7.9 sec (mfr est) 8.4 sec (mfr est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 26/35 mpg (MT est) 28/34 mpg (est)
CO2 emissions 0.66 lb/mile (MT est) 0.64 lb/mile (est)

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