What would Issigonis think?

Sir Alec Issigonis was the irascible genius behind the world's most famous motorized munchkin, the original, 1959 Mini. And standing next its comparatively enormous descendant -- the new Countryman -- left me feeling sort of like John Stewart recently on the Daily Show when he held an iPad up to his head, as if he were on an iPhone. "I actually just use it to pretend to my children that I'm shrinking", he quipped.

How big can a Mini get before the FTC steps in to investigate it as a misrepresentation? A car capable of wearing BMW 5-Series rolling stock is a big automobile to be called a mini-anything. And yet...

I suspect Sir Alec might approve of it anyway -- along with a long list of suggestions, elaborately hand-drawn on sheets of paper. You see, Issigonis's Mini wasn't actually so much about puniness (there've been plenty of tiny cars) but how smartly you deployed those dimensions.

At a length of 161.3 inches (a daring 97 mm beyond the 4-meter length Mini has previously considered its limit) the Countryman is a giant Mini, but still a small car. Think the Honda Fit's length with the Volkswagen Golf's width.

The Countrymans we sampled outside of Vienna (I know, tough job...) were all S All4's -- that last part signaling the availability of very crossoveresque all-wheel drive. Actually, that number "four" comes up a lot here, also suggesting it's the fourth Mini model, and the inclusion of four, adult-accommodating seats...with their very own doors (four again!) And rather than disguise these, the traditional Mini-esque floating table-top roof has been notched to lick around the aft door's window frames, serving to visually shorten the roof and draw your eye to those new apertures. Mini's calling it a 'helmet roof' (I call it FJ Cruiserlike). Up front, Coopers receive an enlarged version of the Mini frown, while the S adds a pouting lower lip. Both are sculpted onto a startlingly tall nose that's sans any scoop (better for pedestrian impact absorbance) and bookended by beveled versions of Mini's ovoid headlights. At the rear, the taillights now protrude from the Countryman's rump in a reference to the old Abingdon days when you just stuck the taillights on the bodywork.

Though I found my thigh grazing over the rear wheel arch on the way into the back seats, my six foot-one frame discovered plenty of space once installed, via a whopping 8.8 inches more shoulder room. Additionally, the rear seat can modestly recline, as well as slide 5.1 inches giving the cargo hold added versatility. Expanding that volume to its 71.4 cubic foot maximum requires first folding-down an anti-parcel intrusion panel behind the individual rear seats, which, in turn, collapse to lay almost flat. Up front, the Mini's familiar dash motif is largely recycled, though with some nice ergonomic improvements to the center stack (the large navigation/infotainment screen seemed impressively logical). Outward vision is expansive, helped by a nearly three-inch taller H-point.

Unfortunately, our drive was confined to some frantic laps around a soaked mini-road course that's pinched enough to be a serviceable kart track. In other words, there was scant chance to evaluate the car's ride or real-world handling. However, what's clear is the 1.6-liter's combination of 181-horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque (in reality, 192 lb-ft, as the turbo can over-boost from its 0.6 bar max to 0.8 for up to 9 seconds) makes it a sprightly conveyance, expected to reach 60 mph in 7.8 seconds (8.2 for the automatic version). That's an improvement of nine hp over the current turbocharged engine, despite delivering an estimated 35 mpg on the highway. Expect manual transmission non-turbo Countrymans to produce a 0-60 time of roughly 10.4 seconds, and 11.5 seconds for the automatic, via its 118 lb-ft of torque and 120 horsepower (two hp up from its 2010 spec).

What's amusing is that while Mini's engines were historically about as stone-age you could get, now they're among the most sophisticated. Including: BMW's Valvetronic intake technology (varying lift and valve-timing -- eliminating the traditional throttle), adjustable exhaust timing, electronically-controlled oil and water pumps, and in the case of the S, a twin-scroll turbocharger that prohibits exhaust pulses from contaminating the evacuation of neighboring cylinders. The transmissions aren't left behind, either, with the 6-speed manual enjoying carbon-fiber synchros on all the gears and low-friction shift cables, while the paddle-shiftable automatic now drops into neutral when at a stop to reduce losses.

On the track, our evaluation cars were all equipped with Mini's new All4 AWD system which consists of a multi-plate clutch near the aft differential which, when activated by a low energy-consumption servo, can ultimately deliver 50 percent to the torque to rear wheels. Shod with 205/55 17-inch tires (18-inch and even 19-inch wheels being available), the Countryman S All4 was an extraordinarily pliable handler, just as happy to enter a corner sideways as exit it in a four-wheel drift. Ah, and I sense your next question: does it steer like a go-kart? Yes, like a great big go-kart with added weight and dimensions, because remember, those wheels are still slammed unbelievably close to the car's corners.

So here's my question to all of you still making faces about the Countryman's scale: and let's be honest here -- when you see a Mini Hardtop on the highway, what do you think? Cool car, but gee ...it's rather small for me. Remember the Countryman's 8.8 extra inches of rear shoulder room, and additional 47.4 cubic feet of cargo space? Bingo.


2011 Mini Countryman S All4
Base Price $24,000-$28,500 (est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, FWD or AWD,4-pass, 4-door hatchback
Engines 1.6L/120-hp/118-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 1.6L/181-hp/177-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
Curb weight 3150-3350 lb
Wheelbase 102.2 in
Length x width x height 161.3 x 70.4 x 61.5 in
0-60 mph 7.6-11.5 sec (mfr est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 26/35 mpg (est)
CO2 emissions 0.66 lb/mile (est)
On sale in the U.S. Currently
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