2012 Mini Countryman Driving Impressions

The four-door Mini Cooper Countryman is the largest Mini ever, but it doesn't give up much of the sharp steering or precise handling that defines other Mini models. It's also the most comfortable Mini ever. With Mini's new, optional ALL4 all-wheel drive, the Countryman could quickly become a favorite with Mini buyers in United States, even if those buyers have a slightly different mindset than longtime Mini enthusiasts.

The Countryman is good fun to drive, eager to sprint off into a corner like a rabbit bounding into a vegetable patch. Those who haven't owned Minis may not be aware that you can have this much fun in a small crossover. Those who've owned other Mini models might be the only drivers less than impressed with the Countryman's dynamic performance.

That's because Mini owners are used to a certain level of response, which can be slightly diminished by added weight and a slightly higher center of gravity with the Countryman. A Countryman weighs about 400 pounds more than the Mini Cooper hardtop, or 250 pounds more than the Clubman or Convertible. Those are significant differences for a 3200-pound car. Still, we'd guess that the Countryman's slightly slower reaction times will be obvious only to those Mini owners with the sportiest models, like the hyper-tuned John Cooper Works variants (not yet available with the Countryman), or those who compete in autocross slalom events.

The biggest drag may be the base engine, which has to move the Countryman's extra weight. The 121-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder will get the job done but needs revs to do it best, so don't be shy with the gas pedal. Both the manual and automatic transmissions are geared properly, though on anything but highway cruise control we left the automatic in Sport mode to get the best of it. Using a lot of the engine a lot of the time, the base engine never felt or showed any sign of stress. It's among the smoothest little four-cylinders out there, and the noise or vibration never became annoying.

Still, the turbocharged engine in the Countryman S is well worth a premium price and the minimal hit you'll take in real-world gas mileage. Matching 181 horsepower with the Countryman's 3200 pounds, it delivers a slightly better power-to-weight ratio than the typical mid-size sedan. With a reported 0-60 mph time of 7.0 seconds, the Countryman S is plenty quick, particularly as crossovers go.

Moreover, the Countryman S generates up to 192 pound-feet of torque for passing and merging. The torque starts to come on below 2000 rpm and is pulling full-steam by 2500. The only difference in noise level is an extra exhaust whoosh in the rear seat under full throttle. In most instances, the S is quieter than the base Countryman because it needs fewer revs to get the job done. On winding roads or grades, the S can run a gear or two higher, and go quicker to boot.

All Countryman models (Countrymans? Countrymen?) come with a Sport button that makes the engine respond to the throttle faster, though engine response is so good the only time we found this advantageous was for blipping the manual's throttle on downshifts. The Sport mode button also affects the effort needed to steer, making it bit heavier without delivering better feel.

The Countryman's steering doesn't feel quite as razor sharp as that in some other Mini models. There's a slight numb spot just as you begin to turn the wheel off center. Yet the Countryman is supremely responsive as so-called crossover vehicles go, and its directional stability, or its ability to stay on the intended track without steering correction, is first rate. With a bit of familiarity, it goes exactly where you point it.

Its ride is decent, too, certainly more comfortable than any of the other Minis models, particularly on beat-up roads. It's most comfortable with the standard 17-inch wheels, as opposed to the upgrade 18-inchers. There's a bit more suspension travel in the Countryman, though drivers may also notice a bit more body roll (side-to-side sway) through bends than they will in a Mini hardtop or Clubman.

Mini's ALL4 all-wheel drive system is offered only on the Countryman S. In technical terms, ALL4 uses a power take-off at the front differential and delivers power to the rear wheels with an electro-hydraulic, multi-plate clutch. In real world application, this means that in normal driving circumstances all of the engine's power is turning the front wheels, as it does in every other Mini model. But if those wheels slip in any fashion, a bit more than half the engine torque can flow to the rear wheels, balancing the Countryman's traction.

ALL4 adds 154 pounds to the Countryman's operating weight (not much for an all-wheel drive system) and lowers EPA mileage ratings to 25 city, 31 highway, compared to 27/35 for a standard front-drive Mini Cooper Countryman. Still, the Countryman S ALL4 gets better mileage than just about any all-wheel drive vehicle available in the United States. And with ALL4, the Countryman can do things other Minis, including the JCW models, simply can't do.

It can, for example, accelerate hard from a stop with no tire squeal and no torque steer tugging your hands through the steering wheel. That's because ALL4 spreads power to rear wheels so those in front aren't overwhelmed with power, and the process is predictive. If you mash the gas pedal when the on-ramp signal turns green, All4 engages rear drive as fast as the engine makes power, and you're off.

A reasonably skilled driver can also turn the Countryman S ALL4 with the gas pedal. Like all Mini models it understeers a bit, or pushes on its front wheels out toward the edge of the pavement, if it's driven really hard into a curve. But with the Countryman ALL4, a squeeze on the accelerator pedal can actually tighten up its line through the curve, because the all-wheel-drive system will power up the back wheels and turn the back of the car. In such circumstances, other Minis will just churn the front tires and keep pushing toward the edge of the road until the driver lifts of the gas pedal. For the enthusiast driver, this ability to steer with the gas pedal adds an element of control, and fun.

For the rest of us, ALL4 adds an extra layer of traction and a bigger margin of safety, particularly on wet or snowy roads. It does not add significant off-road capability, and that is as much a function of ground clearance and tires as anything. Most Countryman variants come with tires more suited for grip on smooth, dry pavement than sloppy or rough surfaces. For that reason, graded dirt roads are as far into the countryside as a Countryman should go.

If you like the Countryman's size and are considering all-wheel drive but don't want the power or price of the turbocharged model, a second set of wheels with dedicated winter or rougher-terrain tires will get you just as far, maybe farther, than an ALL4 on the standard tires. All4 and that second set of appropriate tires are the best choice of all for action through Midwestern winters or mud.

The Countryman's brakes work just the same as they do on any Mini Cooper, which is to say very well. They respond immediately as the pedal begins to move, and you don't need to press it very far to get a high rate of deceleration. Turning or braking, or both simultaneously, the Countryman stays planted and doesn't lean too far sideways or forward.

Stability control is standard, as is cornering brake control, which that uses the braking system to help direct the car where you aim it by braking wheels individually to maximize directional movement. Both these systems tend to stay in the background, and you really have to screw up before they engage.

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