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Mini Countryman stretches the genes

Since taking ownership of the Mini brand, BMW has tried very hard to retain sufficient visual links to the 1959 original to keep the connection alive and credible and to feed on the emotive values inherent in the brand. Does it succeed with the Countryman?

This Anglo-German union has provided around 15% of the Motoren Werke’s global sales so despite the Mini brand’s inexorable move into the ranks of the premium compact class and all that means in terms of pricing, the cash tills have kept ticking over.

Now comes the one interpretation of the Mini theme that might just require you to stretch your imagination a tad because the gen 2 Countryman has grown by 20cm, a third of which is in the elongated wheelbase.  While BMW might like to describe it as a Sports Activity Vehicle, the truth is that the new 4.3 metre Countryman is now competing in premium hatchback territory.

Two TwinPower Turbo petrol models including the 3-cylinder1499cc Cooper with 100kW and the four cylinder 1998cc Cooper S with 141kW were sampled on launch. A 110kW 2.0 Turbo D is coming in the third quarter of 2017.

Visually, all the familiar Mini Countryman styling cues are present, notwithstanding the horizontal headlamp execution. Decent panel fit and glossy paintwork available in fresh colours consolidate the premium image. So too does the interior execution which sports lots of soft-touch surfacing but the uninhibited desire to retain original  interior design cues has resulted in a dashboard that lacks cohesion.

Naturally, the massive circular central display, now with touch functionality and Bluetooth, is present but is home to a kaleidoscope of LED-inspired colours telegraphing driving modes not to mention optional satnav mapping, infotainment feedback and more.

If some of the dash design elements could be described as an acquired taste, the improved space and comfort levels are indisputable. Multi-adjustable front seats, with optional electric assistance, are supportive and comfy and those in the rear will enjoy more knee and shoulder room albeit that the sliding 40:20:40 split pew is still a place for just two adults or three kids.

The smartly-finished luggage space is generous at 450 litres (expandable to 1309 litres) and is accessed via a large tailgate optionally available with electrical assist.

If the practical side of the new Countryman has been honed, the spotlight falls on its dynamic qualities which BMW loosely describes as “fun to drive.” The launch route took in a variety of roads from motorway to undulating and poorly surfaced tarred A-roads to gravel.

The Cooper S was first out of the blocks complete with optional 8-speed Steptronic auto and MINI Driving Modes linked to Dynamic Damper Control all of which is activated by a rotary switch that offers MID, SPORT or GREEN.

The engaged mode is telegraphed by colour bands circling the central display and affects responses from basic drive, to steering, to gearbox, to sound, to damping and comfort.

On motorways and smooth city roads, SPORT is addictive largely because the helm is more responsive and the exhaust burbles are frequent, but on undulating open roads, MID is more comfortable.

In truth, the 141kW Cooper S motor needed more use of the paddle shifters than was anticipated to regain lost momentum so maybe the extra girth – a plump 300 kilos of it versus a 5-door MINI Cooper Hatch – is taking its toll…

Expectations of the smooth-spinning 1.5 litre triple driving through a 6-speed auto were probably set lower but this motor delivered beyond its on-paper figures and thanks in part to smaller wheels and higher profile tyres, the package just felt more refined, especially over coarse tar.

Whether the slick driving attributes and retro-cool presentation of the Countryman and its altogether more practical disposition will attract new buyers is debatable and entirely dependent on whether its residual quirkiness is seen as a positive or a negative.

  • 1998cc, 4-cyl petrol turbo, FWD, 141kW, 280Nm, 8A
  • 6.5l/100km, CO2 159g/km
  • 0-100km/h in 7.4secs, 224km/h
  • 1535kg
  • R512 806
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