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By Charl Bosch

Motoring Journalist


New Mini Countryman shows virtues of being big and small

First Countryman to offer petrol and electric powertrains is wider and longer than before, but proves that big can still be fun.


The inevitable definition of what makes a Mini still mini didn’t take too long to surface at the launch of the third generation Countryman last week.

Mini maxed

While jokingly called the “maxi-Mini” ever since the original’s debut 14 years ago, opting for the Maxi denominator probably didn’t receive approval for two reasons.

ALSO READ: Prices revealed as Mini formally debuts all-new Countryman

On the one hand, it famously featured on the rather forgettable British Leyland-era Austin Maxi and secondly, it doesn’t really say much about a crossover intended for town and outdoor usage apart from its size.

Opting for a name once used on an estate version of the original Mini was therefore the only option and while taken to task for being anything but a Mini in the true sense, the Countryman has been a vital model for the Oxford marque as it has remained its sole SUV at a time where no marque can function without such a model.

Driving the new Mini Countryman
Depicted entry-level Countryman C rides as standard on 17-inch alloy wheels.

In its newly conceptualised third iteration, the Countryman takes the term ‘mini’ to extreme by being significantly longer, wider and taller than the first two generations.

Effectively opening it up to even more criticism from die-hard Mini fans, the gain in size has been the Countryman’s favour as discovered during the launch that involved a drive from BMW South Africa’s head office in Midrand, to Graskop in the Mpumalanga lowveld.

The question of size

Once again riding on the same UKL1 platform as the X1, X2 and 2 Series its parent company refers to as FAAR, the Countryman’s dimensions amount to an overall length of 4 433 mm, height of 1 656 mm, width of 1 843 mm and wheelbase of 2 692 mm.

Compared to its F60 predecessor, the U25 Countryman is 136 mm longer, 99 mm taller and 21 mm wider, with its wheelbase increasing by 22 mm.

Mini's new Countryman launches in South Africa
Boot space with the rear seats up measures 460-litres.

Besides the benefit of more boot space, which ranges from 460-litres to 1 450-litres with the 60/40 or 40/20/40 rear seat folded down, the biggest beneficiary is cabin space, more specifically, for those seated in the rear.

Despite the presence of a panoramic sunroof in both models driven during the two days, a lack of leg-or-headroom wasn’t found, with the boot proving to be just as capacious.

Mini's new Countryman launches in South Africa
Can fold either in a 60/40 split or as depicted, 40/20/40.

When all is said and done though, the biggest target on the Countryman’s tailgate has always been whether it feels like a go-kart on the move.

Given its increased size and width, 202 mm of ground clearance and lack of a manual transmission, the odds were stacked against it as the route took in a few twisty bits on the road to Graskop.

Line-up

Sans a single model offered in Europe, South Africa will be privy to four variants; the Countryman C, Countryman Cooper S and due by the end of this quarter, the Countryman John Cooper Works (JCW) and the first ever electric variant, the Countryman Cooper SE.

Omitting only the Cooper E that acts as the opening EV variant, the trip from BMW HQ took place in the Countryman C that replaces the previous Cooper.

While still powered by the familiar turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine, eschewing the 48-volt mild-hybrid system offered in Europe has resulted in a power and torque drop from 125kW/250Nm to 115kW/240Nm.

Driving the new Mini Countryman
For now, the Cooper S is the sportiest Countryman money can buy.

The same also applies to the Cooper S, whose 2.0-litre turbo sheds 10kW/40Nm for a total of 150kW/320Nm. Respective top speeds are 212 km/h and 228 km/h with 0-100 km/h taking nine seconds and 7.4 seconds.

As on the Old Continent though, the JCW lacks any form of hybrid assistance, but while EU markets will have to make do with the detuned 221 kW version, South Africa will have the full 233kW/400Nm.

Its performance figures are therefore identical at 250 km/h and 0-100 km/h in 5.4 seconds.

New Mini launches in South Africa
So-called Favoured interior trim in the Cooper S comes with a leather alternative textile trim for the seats.

With the exception of the ‘C’, all other combustion engine Countryman models feature the ALL4 all-wheel-drive system standard, with the solitary transmission option being the seven-speed dual-clutch Steptronic transmission.

On the EV front, the Cooper SE becomes the flagship Countryman variant with outputs of 230kW/494Nm from its 64.7-kWh lithium-ion battery pack.

Powering an electric motor on each axle, therefore making it all-wheel-drive, the Cooper SE is, however, also the slowest with a limited top speed of 180 km/h and an acceleration time of 5.6 seconds.

Its claimed range is 462 km and according to BMW, will take 30 minutes to charge from 10-80% using a DC fast charger up to 130 kW in place of the provided 11 kW outlet.

A new Mini inside

As mentioned, the first leg in the Countryman C came as a surprise, not the least how “complete” it felt for a base model.

While its styling remains subjective, the interior ups the playful Mini factor to another level – the central display being the main attraction in a cabin redesigned with only the bare minimum of physical switchgear.

A standard fitting across all four models, the 9.4-inch OLED display also doubles-up as the instrument cluster now that the previous 5.3-inch binnacle is no more.

New Mini launches in South Africa
Interior has been redesigned to appear minimalist yet stylish whilst being made largely out of recycled materials.

Admittedly not the easiest system to get familiar with from the start, it incorporates Mini’s version of BMW’s 9.0 operating system and fails to look out of place against a concave dashboard made largely out of recycled plastic bottles.

In fact, Mini’s move towards complete electrification by 2030 means the Countryman, now built at the Leipzig Plant in Germany, lacks any form of leather upholstery or trim.

Instead, a knitted recycled textile fabric adorns the dashboard contrasted by a white polyester material on the seats Mini calls the Classic option, the others being Favoured and JCW.

New Mini launches in South Africa
Traditional centre roundel now houses the new 9.4-inch OLED infotainment system.

A design that works a treat against the gold air vents and the new chunky steering wheel, also with gold inserts, seat comfort is on-point and the fit-and-finish superb.

The minimalist design goes further by omitting the gear lever whose place in the “double” centre console is now occupied by a wireless smartphone charger and a storage area opened by a material pull.

Relocated to a panel below the OLED display, selecting gear now happens via a toggle switch positioned to next to a “turn-key” ignition switch and another toggle inscribed with the word “experience” above.

Engage go-kart

The “replacement” for a traditional mode selector, a total of eight settings are offered which, apart from the Countryman’s dynamics, also changes the look of the display. These comprise Green, Classic, Iconic, Vivid, Core, Trail, Personal and Go-Kart.

Mini's new Countryman launches in South Africa
Taking the place of the gear lever in the centre console is a new storage slot.

Unsurprisingly, the latter was selected throughout much of the drive and despite sounding gimmicky, it actually resulted in a heavier steering with more feedback and slightly better throttle response.

That being said, the supposed smallest engine didn’t lack for punch and actually felt a bit more powerful than what its figures suggest.

Hurled into the twisty corners that descended into Sabie, the “C” felt stable, its chassis tuning bang-on and its body roll kept not as excessive for a vehicle of this type.

New Mini launches in South Africa
Unique to the Cooper S is the “paint splattered” print on the doors.

On the flat stuff, the ride surprised by becoming incredibly comfortable, but not so that it becomes skitch or “door hinged prone” when driven spiritedly.

When base is better

The return to Midrand took place in the Cooper S and while much was expected given the greater power output, the for now sportiest Countryman didn’t feel as exhalating.

Upping the sporty feel by being trimmed in an almost dual-tone blue hue of the Favoured trim similar to a jean, the fun aspect came by way of an almost orange “splattered paint” effect on the door panel that fades back into blue.

Absent though are paddle shifters only available on the JCW, which, in combination with the 2.0-litre engine’s low-down lag, made for a less than joyous drive when compared to the C.

Marginally surer footed thanks to the ALL4 system, the Cooper S, even in Go-Kart mode, felt somewhat undone from a sporty promise, yet like its sibling, shone in Core mode and on straight-and-narrow by being quiet, refined and relaxed.

Conclusion

A significant improvement over its predecessor, the new Mini Countryman isn’t without its quirks and while a bit disappointing in Cooper S “guise” remains true to the Mini ethos of being distinctive, unique and able to get away with the finicky touches simply for being a Mini.

Driving the new Mini Countryman
Countryman remains Mini’s only SUV for now.

Now with the space to match, the downside is a higher price tag and ongoing scone of whether it could still be classified as a Mini or not.

Given that the previous Countryman accounted for 33% of Mini South Africa’s sales though, the latter’s criticism is seemingly unfounded and as such, it now stands-out more as a ‘maxi’ Go-Kart that is still thoroughly Mini.

Price

Included with each Countryman’s sticker price is a five-year/100 000 km maintenance plan.

  • Countryman C – R724 819
  • Countryman Cooper S – R795 074
  • Countryman John Cooper Works – R965 767
  • Countryman Cooper SE – R1 086 000

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