As our tester was equipped with Mini's new optional ALL4 all-wheel-drive system, finding a snippet of unpaved Texan terra became imperative. The heart of the all-wheel-drive setup is a rear differential with a multi-plate electro-mechanical clutch capable of sending up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels during aggressive or low-grip driving.

Luckily, we run into some knowledgeable locals who directed us toward some soft-road trails. Despite rolling on low-profile rubber (17-inch all-season runflats are standard), the front MacPherson suspension (with forged control arms) gracefully absorbs the most cavernous of ruts and the rear multi-link setup follows suit. As we slide the Countryman in a feeble attempt to mimic our rally racing hero Tommi Mäkinen, it's quickly apparent that on these rutted, rocky, dusty, dry paths the ALL4 shines. The all-wheel setup routes power to the ground with impressive skill, keeping us stable, in control, and away from any longhorns.

But even as we carve Austin's backcountry roads, we crave the "Mini-ness" that makes the Cooper S such an entertaining ride. Our biggest gripe: The Countryman doesn't sound like an S. Its turbo engine note lacks the addictive burbling, cracking, and off-throttle popping we've come to associate with the performance trim. Instead, a lackluster turbocharger whine and annoying wind drone permeate the cabin.

We stop for a quick rest after our date with the dirt. Looking past the accumulated dust layers on its flanks, the Countryman S is obviously all Mini. Though "grown-up" in about every physical dimension, the fourth model in the range still stands small relative to the litany of SUVs, pickups, and midsize sedans trolling the Texas highways.