Since its initial debut a decade ago, the Countryman has served as not only the biggest Mini ever made, but also the most controversial in the eyes of purists still unwilling to accept that Britain’s immortal ‘people’s car’ had become a standalone brand with an SUV as its flagship instead of a small three-door hatch.
Unofficially dubbed the maxi-Mini, the Countryman, in spite of also contradicting the concept of what ‘mini’ should be, received approval for a second generation three years ago which, after a subtle facelift earlier this year, arrived on local shores recently in Cooper and Cooper S guises with the red-hot John Cooper Works coming next year.
In typical Mini fashion where ‘ordinary’ means the opposite, the two-day launch involved a road trip from Johannesburg, through the Mpumalanga Lowveld to Limpopo that saw not only breath-taking scenery but also the roller-coaster, grin inducing Long Tom pass where the go-kart feel of the heaviest made Mini to date was to be put to test.
Unsurprisingly, the revisions have been small in the fitting of LED headlights as standard, together with a new body coloured front bumper, the inclusion of new alloy wheel designs, a tweaked grille, restyled taillights featuring the trademark Union Jack motifs, a redesigned rear bumper and two new colours; White Silver and Sage Green.
Inside, the five-inch digital instrument cluster from the all-electric Mini E replaces the previous display, with a new sports steering wheel being standard on both models. Optional gloss black inserts, a selection of new material choices and upgrades to the standard five-inch Mini Connect and optional 8.8-inch Connect Navigation infotainment systems complete the changes.
For the first leg of the trek, which ended on the outskirts of Hoedspruit, the Cooper was selected with motivation from its three-cylinder 1.5-litre engine remaining unchanged at 100kW/220Nm. Fed to the front wheels via the new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the only option across the range following the dropping of the six-speed manual, the smallest Countryman made a big impression by being willing to perform with a good low-down surge.
In spite of the usual three-pot thrum, the unit quietens down on the move with good levels of road noise deadening. Arguably more of a star performer is the new dual-clutch ‘box which went about its business without fuss, but still remained smooth and quick when presented with an incline or a flat surface.
On the Long Tom pass, and with the drive mode selector switched from Mid to Sport, the efficiency focused Green never being used, the Countryman didn’t run out of breath and despite being front-wheel-drive, felt sure footed and handled well, but too much vigour displayed its top-heaviness and a tendency for the back to become light.
The return run took place in the Cooper S which upped the fun factor a bit more. Powered by the carryover 141kW/280Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, complete with a Group B rally car-style chatter on lift-off, the S’ added prowess marginally improved on that of the Cooper with the same sharp steering and firm ride being present, although the response, unsurprisingly, was quicker and the transmission just has quick.
Disappointingly, the lack of gear shift paddles on the twisty bits sullied the Cooper S a tad as the use of the gear lever in manual mode felt somewhat out of place and a bizarre omission in a vehicle costing R631 004. It is available as an option but not on the Cooper that carries a sticker price of R599 624.
As much of an eye-sore as it might be to purist, the Countryman accounts for 30% of all Mini South Africa’s sales, making it a key model in a market where SUVs are vital. The only Mini SUV currently available with an all-new model above it earmarked for introduction in 2023/2024, the subtle tweaks have improved what was an already accomplished package, but one which is getting pricier in the face of similarly equipped, albeit less style focused and cheaper rivals.
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