"Oh my god, is that for real? It's like a grown-up Big Wheel." "It's a Mini monster truck." The Mini Countryman elicits all sorts of responses from bystanders. So far, they're only positive, but at the same time you get the feeling no one takes the pint-sized crossover seriously. Other companies might cringe at the thought of their products being compared to toys, but Mini revels in it. A vehicle like the Countryman was never meant to be just another car; it's all fun all the time.

Like other S model Minis, the Cooper S Countryman is powered by a 181-horspower 1.6-liter turbocharged I-4. Even with the added weight of All4 all-wheel-drive, the little crossover is still relatively quick. The six gears are a true pleasure to shuffle through and the tiny turbo keeps the car from ever feeling out of the power band. Testing shows a 0-60-mph time of 7.3 seconds, but the Mini is limited to 4500 RPM with the clutch in. (Apparently drivetrain preservation is a higher priority than rally car-style clutch-drop launches.) It can also run the quarter mile in 15.7 seconds and hit 89.1 mph in the traps. Again, impressive for such a small engine, but the time could be better if a more aggressive launch were allowed. The EPA says it will return 31 mpg on the highway, which is surprisingly high for a crossover, if that's what you consider it.

Mini has always been known for building cars that are giant-killers on twisty roads. The Countryman may not chase down ZR1s with such ferocity, but it still feels like a Mini. Maybe more appropriately it feels like a Cooper S wearing Rollerblades. The steering feel and eagerness are recognizable from the smaller models, but everything is elevated. Not more or better, but literally elevated-by several inches vertically. Body roll isn't drastically increased, but because the center of gravity is higher everything is amplified. It just won't change directions as fast as a standard Cooper. The mass is always moving through bigger, higher arcs, and the longer wheelbase takes more space to rotate. Everything happens slower; it's a Cooper S on decaf. During figure-eight testing we steady-state lateral acceleration measured 0.86 g while recording a circuit time of 26.9 seconds, less than a half-second slower than a Volkswagen GTI and almost a half-second faster than the Nissan Juke.

What's harder to define is the Countryman's usability. The largest of the Minis will accommodate huge loads of cargo for a hatchback, but falls short for a typical crossover. It holds four adults easily, but some will miss the ability to carry a fifth person in the rear center position. It will, however, run circles around most crossovers in handling. A quick poll of the office still leaves us scratching our heads as to how to really classify the Countryman with respect to other vehicles.

As is typical of Mini, just about everything on the car is optional. This allows for a high degree of personalization, but also makes it easy to rack up an extra $10,000 on the base price. It seems to happen at an exponential rate: You start adding a heated seat here and an armrest there, and suddenly you need to spend another $1750 on navigation because you can't have a $30,000 car with a monochrome stereo display and then you can't have a $32,000 car without a sunroof and you can see where this ends.

Our test car is priced at $33,150, so it is way out of the price range of someone looking at a Nissan Juke. It is, however, a far nicer car than the small Nissan. The size difference means it isn't really occupying the same space as a RAV-4 or CR-V. If you want an all-wheel drive enthusiast car at this price, you can go with an STI or an EVO, but will buyers cross-shop these in either direction? Probably not. This begs the question: Is Mini building the Countryman to attract new customers, or just to keep the ones it already has?


2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4
BASE PRICE $27,650
PRICE AS TESTED $33,150
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, AWD, 4-pass, 4-door crossover
ENGINE 1.6L/181-hp/177-lb-ft* turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3255 lb (57/43%)
WHEELBASE 102.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 161.8 x 70.4 x 61.5 in
0-60 MPH 7.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.7 sec @ 89.1 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 113 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.86 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.9 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 25/31 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 135/109 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.71 lb/mile
*192-lb-ft with overboost
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