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.
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.
At 161.7 inches long, the Countryman trumps the standard Mini Hardtop's length by more than a foot (15.1 inches) and sits 4.1 inches wider at 70.4 inches. It stands 61.5 inches tall, too - some 6.1 inches higher than a Hardtop. As technical director Kim Reynolds put it in his First Drive of a European-spec prototype , "think the Honda Fit's length with the Volkswagen Golf's width" and you won't be too far off in imagining the Countryman's dimensions. Throw in a Versa-like height for the full measurement visualization.
We open the back hatch and reposition our carryon luggage, thankfully without having to use any of our antiquated Tetris strategies. Prior to strapping into the driver's seat, we notice the sporty vents at the front and rear of the back wheels. They match the aggressive lower diffuser and side skirts, which channel passing air more efficiently.
Heading directly into the thick of Austin's rush hour, we're quickly sandwiched fore and aft by two other Countryman testers. The trailing car's round Xenon-equipped headlights positioned at the nose's furthest extremities shine into our auto-dimming rearview mirror. Like the protruding LED taillights glistening ahead, they accentuate the vehicle's width.
Athletic bulges, mighty alloys, and four full-size doors give the iconic shape a more sophisticated, less caricature-like appearance, while still evoking the British brand's eccentric spirit. Reinvigorated traits like a smiling mug, short overhangs, and distinct helmet top (now with rear kink to mark the inclusion of four doors) remind everyone of its Mini DNA.
There is no signature turbocharged scoop in the Countryman S's hood. The engine sufficiently cools without one, plus the car better satisfies strict international pedestrian safety standards. Instead, an intake below the blacked-out hexagonal grille was added to further differentiate the model.
As a Countryman pulls alongside us we notice the diagonal function line ahead of the exterior mirrors extends down into the front wheel well, serving as a reinvention of the body welding seam first seen on the original Mini Cooper. (Only the Countryman wears this unique line.) Ample chrome dresses up the headlights, grille, and lower intakes, and serves as a dividing beltline.
Shoulder space remains surprisingly copious in true Mini fashion (up 7.4 inches in the rear versus the base car). The large windows and elevated seating provide wide, unimpeded views. Its 16.5 cubic-feet of cargo space isn't huge, but with the reclining rear seats folded flat, there's 41.3 cubic-feet available.
Elliptical shapes decorate every interior façade, from the cartoonish instrument cluster, gauges, and cascading dash, to the door handles, seat inserts, doors panels, and air vents. Designers created five bespoke cabin colors, which together with 11 new exterior paints can be matched in more than 10,000 combinations.
Three center clusters can be had, but if you opt for the upgraded Visual Boost Radio or Visual Boost Radio with Nav, Mini Connected is available. Countryman is the first model to get this BMW Group innovation that seamlessly mates smartphone (initially just the iPhone) and automobile by providing real-time Twitter, Facebook, Web radio, news feed, and dynamic music into the infotainment system. For 2011, all Minis get HD Radio and a one-year Sirius XM subscription free.
There is no center console in the Countryman, only an innovative Center Rail that accommodates movable storage bins and cupholders. Ambient lighting illuminates the neat rail, as well as the entire cabin for a lounge-y effect.
The next day, we speak to Mini USA's passionate president, Jim McDowell, who addresses our second query. In a nutshell, Mini set out to build the Countryman because of a large customer base that Mini believes remains untapped - much like Porsche did when the Cayenne hit the streets.
"I think you're going to find several veins of new customer," McDowell says. "Very importantly, they are people who have taken Mini test drives in the past, loved the dealership experience, (but) couldn't get their heads around something quite that small. These are people that were severely tempted, but bought something that they thought was more practical, not as much fun to drive."
He says there are Mini owners who own a bigger SUV for extra cargo capacity or room enough for two child seats. McDowell and Co. hope such owners will replace their conventional, gas-chugging SUV with a nimbler, cheaper Countryman that will retail in base, non-S trim for $22,350 (including $700 for destination and handling).
Around music-loving Austin, the Countryman S ALL4 performed just as we imagined: like a bigger, top-heavy Mini Cooper Hardtop with controllable grip, uncanny soft-road capability, four full doors, and interior space capable of housing four American adults. Whether you like it or not, Mini has a true crossover on its hands.
| 2011 Mini Countryman S ALL4 |
| Base price || $22,350; $27,650* |
| Vehicle layout || Front-engine, FWD or AWD, 4-pass, 4-door hatchback |
| Engine Engines || 1.6L/121hp/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 || 3000; 3250* lb (mfr) |
| Wheelbase || 102.2 in |
| Length x width x height || 161.7 x 70.4 x 61.5 in |
| 0-60 mph || 7.3 – 7.7 sec (mfr est) |
| EPA city/hwy fuel econ || 24-25 / 31 mpg |
| CO2 emissions || 0.71 - 0.73 lb/mile (est)|
| On sale in U.S. || January 2011 |
| *Countryman S |