We sometimes have a problem keeping our MINI Coopers straight. There is the regular little MINI Cooper that’s 150 inches long, except for the four-door that’s 156 inches long, which is the same length as the Clubman that’s more like a little wagon with its back barn doors, except the real wagon with a liftgate is the Countryman that’s 161 inches long, and right straight we have arrived at the subject of this review.
The Countryman came along for 2011 and got a new grille, LED foglamps, and a bit more chrome for 2015, but otherwise it hasn’t changed. It’s the only MINI Cooper with all-wheel drive, called ALL4, available in each of three models. So it’s not really a wagon, it’s more of a sub-compact crossover utility vehicle, at least the ALL4 models. It’s virtually a genre unto itself. You could cross-shop a Chevy Trax, or even a Honda Fit, but not really.
Countryman comes standard with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine making 121 horsepower; the MINI Cooper S Countryman uses the same engine turbocharged to make 181 horsepower; and the John Cooper Works model wrings 211 horsepower out of that tidy little powerplant. The standard transmission is a fun 6-speed manual, with a 6-speed automatic available.
The manual transmission allows better fuel mileage than the automatic, an unusual thing nowadays that usually means the automatic isn’t as efficient as it could be. The base Countryman gets an EPA-rated 27/32/29 mpg City/Highway/Combined, while the MINI Cooper S with all-wheel drive gets 23/30/26 mpg. Could be better. Not only that, Premium fuel is required.
MINI Countryman earns a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, including the best score in the new small-overlap front collision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t tested the Countryman, because relatively few are sold.
The MINI Cooper base model in front-wheel drive goes for $22,750, while the much faster MINI Cooper S jumps the price up to $26,100. With ALL4 all-wheel drive, that S model costs $27,850. Meanwhile, the one you want but don’t want to pay for, the John Cooper Works ALL4 model, goes for $35,550.
The option and trim choices for the Countryman go on and on, with many tech and luxury features as well, so the price will climb. For 2016, the Countryman Park Lane is a special edition package in gray metallic with a red roof, and costing $2000 or $2500 depending on the model.
Countryman stands apart from the other MINI Coopers because it’s clearly a wagon.
The short hood and nose, with its wide grille with horizontal slats and big round headlamps, is fairly aggressive for a car so puny, and the flared fenders and 17-inch wheels give it a pugnacious but fun stance. It stands upright, and the flat roof seems to float above it. The taillamps at the corner of the liftgate are consistent with the boxy attitude, big rectangles rounded at the edges.
Like the other MINIs, the cabin is quirky, dominated by big round gauges with a lot of little levers and switches, and oval shapes scattered around the dash and doors. Too much glossy piano black and too many shiny things for us, with information displays that are captive to the statement which seems to be that chaos is fun.
What makes the Countryman way more functional than other MINIs, and puts the utility in crossover utility vehicle, is its 42 cubic feet of cargo space, with the split rear seats folded. Up front the seats are comfortable and in the rear headroom is ample, although knee room is not so ample, which makes it perfect for kids or other people with big heads and little knees. Technically it seats five, but that’s six real small knees.
That 2015 freshening added the available MINI Connected infotainment system that speaks to smartphones and brings internet functions, using apps that run on the display screen and are controlled by a joystick on the center console.
A Toyota Prius is faster than the base MINI Cooper Countryman. If you’re at a freeway on-ramp regulated by a light at rush hour, and the guy next to you gets a good start those couple seconds after you, you’ll probably get in his way. Ten seconds is a long time to reach 60 miles per hour from a standing start.
The 3000 pounds isn’t that heavy for a small crossover, but not a lot of power here. The electric power steering gives good feedback, and the brakes good pedal feel.
The MINI Cooper S Countryman, with its turbocharger adding another 60 horsepower and cutting 2.5 seconds off that zero-to-sixty time. Now we’re talking. The John Cooper Works model adds another 30 horsepower, but only cuts about half a second off that acceleration time. So, bang for the buck, it’s the MINI Cooper S model, with the 6-speed manual gearbox. The Sport mode with the 6-speed automatic sharpens the shifts, but it can’t sharpen them enough, because nothing can afford to be lost to quickness.
The ALL4 all-wheel drive system might be capable of going off road, but it’s not meant to make the MINI a rugged crossover, so don’t plan on taking it elk hunting (take the Jeep Renegade, on the Fiat 500 underpinnings). ALL4 just improves traction and safety on gravel roads or in snow or rain. The traction is divided 50-50 front-rear on dry roads, and, using an electronic limited-slip differential, moves up to 100 percent to the rear as the front wheels slip.
The MINI Cooper Countryman offers 42 cubic feet of cargo space in 161 inches. There are other vehicles you could choose, but it’s unique, so the competition is among the three models. Given that, the MINI Cooper S with 6-speed manual transmission offers the best value.