After more than a year of concept teases and name guessing games, the long-awaited Mini Cooper Countryman -- the first four-door Mini of the modern era -- has finally come out into the light and is headed to U.S. Mini showrooms in early 2011 after a world debut at the upcoming Geneva motor show.

The fourth model variant in the Mini family, the Countryman (Mini says the name will be different in some markets) represents the BMW brand's movement in a new, bigger direction. According to Mini, the Countryman "bridges the gap between the classic concept of the Mini and a modern Sports Activity Vehicle." In other words, Mini needed a crossover. What brand doesn't these days?

While the Countryman is immediately recognizable as a Mini, there are several obvious differences. It's much bigger, of course, with four doors and lots more room for passengers and their gear. Like many crossover style vehicles, the Countryman employs an elevated seating position in an effort to improve overall driver sight lines. Rear seat passengers have the option of moving the seats both fore-and-aft, and the vehicle can either be outfitted with a standard two seat arrangement or an optional bench with either 60:40 or 40:20:40 setup depending upon option package. And the Countryman has a lot more cargo space than a traditional Mini, with a luggage compartment that ranges from 12.2 to 41.0 cu-ft and a wide-opening rear hatch for better cargo loading.

Another major addition that's rolling out with the Countryman, which will come in base and Countryman S models in the U.S., is Mini's new permanent ALL4 all-wheel-drive system. ALL4 is anchored by an electrohydraulic differential that, like many systems of this type, varies power distribution to the Countryman's wheels depending upon driving conditions. In normal situations, up to 50 percent of power is routed to the rear wheels, and up to 100 percent is available under extreme conditions.

The ALL4 system is augmented by Mini's top-end suspension componentry, including McPherson spring struts and forged track control arms at the front axle further augmented by electric power steering with Servotronic, along with a multi-arm rear setup. The Countryman also comes with standard with stability control, with traction control as either an option or standard on the Cooper S Countryman with ALL4. An electronic limited-slip option is also available depending on the option level.

For the U.S., although U.S. numbers aren't yet available, the Countryman is expected to be powered by Mini's two 1.6-liter gas engines (Europe gets two other diesel and one gas option) which will be similar to what's employed on today's Cooper and Cooper S models -- the base, 122 hp, 1.6-liter I-4 and the turbo variant. The major difference is that the 1.6-liter turbo, which is rated at 184-hp, has been updated and comes with BMW's new twin-scroll turbocharger technology with direct injection and fully variable valve management. Power will be routed through either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with Steptronic shift option. Mini says brake energy and stop-start systems, a gearshift point indicator, and on-demand management of the engine's ancillary units will also be part of the Countryman package, but at this point, it's unclear whether which of these features will make it to the U.S.-spec model.

Outside, the Countryman, while much bigger in overall dimensions (full specifications have yet to be released), maintains plenty of the Mini DNA that made the original car a hit with consumers. Not surprisingly, it has more ground clearance, along with larger wheel arches designed to highlight the car's all-wheel-drive capabilities. Other features that have seen a reworking include the roofline, side markers, window graphics extending around the car, and rear light banks. The front end, with a new interpretation of the Mini's hexagonal grille, is more upright in order to meet European pedestrian safety standards.

The Countryman employs a number of changes on the inside, the main difference being Mini's new Center Rail (first seen on the 2008 Geneva show's Crossover Concept), a console that extends to the rear of the car in the four-seat models and integrates various storage areas, cupholders, audio devices such as iPods and telephones (iPhone and smartphone integration is possible). Flexible clip-in elements enable the driver and passengers to divide up the boxes as necessary. The Countryman also features a slightly updated center display surrounded by colored rings, and high-end audio and navigation options will be available. Of course, Mini will offer a myriad of customization options for the Countryman both inside the cabin as well as for the exterior.

Other Countryman options include an extra-large panorama roof, adaptive, xenon headlights, heated windscreen, towbar, alloy wheels ranging in size from 16 to 19 inches, a sports suspension option that lowers the car by almost 0.4". In addition, a wide range of John Cooper Works components will be available for the car, and it wouldn't be a stretch to think a Cooper Works version will become available at some point.

While some may question the decision by BMW and Mini to move the Cooper lineup into the four-door direction, the Countryman seems a logical move, and as long as it retains the Mini's fun-to-drive character, we're guessing it will find a whole new audience of buyers who may have never before considered the brand.

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