Our Countryman S test drive begins in Austin, Texas, billed as the live music capital of the world. Twenty minutes after touching down, we're gripping a chunky three-spoke wheel and hustling the Austrian-built, ultra-compact crossover on autobahn-smooth roads, surrounded by green, hilly pastures and 1000-pound purebred longhorns.
Under the Countryman S' stubby hood lives the 181-horsepower, 1.6-liter twin-scroll turbo four-cylinder found in the rest of the Mini lineup. Non-S models employ the naturally aspirated 1.6-liter mill making 121-horsepower. Regardless of trim, the 2011-spec engine deploys Valvetronic (a valve timing technology borrowed from parent company BMW), direct-injection, and electronically activated oil and water pumps.
Once the engine is urged to its 5000 rpm sweet spot, a torque surge gently pushes us back into the leather-wrapped buckets. As the velocity builds, the chassis responds without distress. Depressing the throttle past its normal limits initiates an overboost function good for a 9-second stint of 192 pound-feet at 11.6 psi of boost pressure beginning at 1700 rpm (up from the regular 177 pound-feet at 1600 rpm and 8.7 psi). Every time we put the spurs to it, the Countryman S responded with a calm, collected, and smooth rush of giddy-up that's been exorcised of Mini S-like torque-steer - at least in the ALL4 all-wheel-drive model we piloted.
The Countryman's weighty steering feels just a notch below anything wearing a BMW roundel, and that's impressive. The helm communicates a road sense unrivalled in the Mini range, and it doesn't feel highly electronically assisted. (In reality, it is.) Whether this steering sense is the byproduct of the 3252-pound mass or the car's optional 19-inch rims shod with Pirelli PZero summer rubber (yes, we said 19 inches) is unclear. We're just happy it exists.
The standard six-speed gearbox increases the Countryman S's sportiness, but its long throws prove cumbersome and languid at times. (This is a daily-drivable family-mover, so we can excuse some gearbox laziness.) We immediately find a cure by high-rev heel-toeing, especially with the more aggressively mapped 'Sport' mode engaged.
Approach a corner fast and the Countryman S leans and rolls into it like a drowsy baby elephant. Its button nose loves to dart quickly at the slightest command. Pin each gear to redline and the Countryman S ALL4 dashes to 60 mph in a claimed 7.3 seconds (7.7 seconds for the automatic) - slightly slower than the lighter, non-all-wheel drive manual gearbox S version (7.0 seconds). Play nice with the throttle and you'll easily see a return of 31 mpg highway.