Review: 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4

Up Front

I love the basic Mini Cooper and love the Mini Cooper S even more, so I expected to be highly enamored of the new SUV-like Countryman. On paper, it seemed an ideal choice for a resident of the snowbelt who needs a practical vehicle for winter driving but craves a driver's car for the rest of the year.

From the moment I started up the Countryman, I was disappointed. My test vehicle—the Mini S Countryman ALL4, the all-wheel drive version with a turbocharged engine—felt sluggish and far less nimble than other Mini Coopers I've driven. It was the first Mini Cooper I've ever tested that wasn't a blast to drive. I kept thinking there was something wrong with the car.

It turns out what was wrong with it is that the S Countryman ALL4 weighs 3,208 lbs., or 540 lbs. more than a regular Mini Cooper S. At 161.3 inches long, it's also 15.7 inches longer and has a 5.1 in. longer wheelbase. Yet Countryman models are powered by the same engines as regular Minis.

As a result, the Countryman's advantages—four-doors, a rear seat actually usable by adults, luggage space—are offset by one crying shame: Even in the S version, which features a turbocharged 181 horsepower four-cylinder engine, the ALL4 lacks the go-kart-style driving flare that is the Mini's main appeal. I wouldn't even think about getting the entry-level Countryman with the 1.6-liter, 121-horsepower, naturally aspirated base engine. It's so slow that General Motors' (GM) Chevy Volt hybrid seems sprightly by comparison.

The Countryman's starting price is $22,230 for the base model, rising to $25,950 for the S and $27,650 for the S ALL4. A long list of optional equipment, however, quickly raises the total sticker. Including options, the Countryman's average selling price is $26,308 for the base model, $31,013 for the S, and $33,236 for the S ALL4, according to the Power Information Network.

By comparison, the Nissan (NSANY) Juke sells for an average of $23,170, the Kia (KIMTY) Sportage for $24,006, the Honda (HMC) CR-V for $24,832, and the Toyota (TM) Rav4 for $25,249.

The Countryman can't match the fuel economy of the basic Mini Cooper hardtop (up to 37 miles per gallon on the highway), but it's still economical—especially if you go with a manual transmission. For instance, the base model Countryman is rated at 28 miles per gallon in the city, 35 on the highway, and 31 combined with a stick, but mileage drops to 25/30/27 with an automatic.

The S Countryman is rated at 26/32/29 with a stick shift and 1 mpg less with an automatic. The S ALL4 is rated at 25/31/28 with a manual transmission, but mileage falls to 23/30/26 if you go with the S All4 with an automatic transmission.

Safety is a major selling point. The Countryman is the first Mini Cooper to be named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard equipment includes seven air bags, stability control, brake force distribution, and cornering brake control. Traction control is standard on the S, optional on the base model.

The Countryman is giving Mini Cooper a nice boost. Through May, overall Mini sales soared to 24,588, up 46.3 percent vs. the same period last year. One reason is that the company sold 6,720 units of the Countryman, which went on sale early this year.

Behind the Wheel

The base model Countryman is a real dog. The company rates it to accelerate from zero to 60 in 9.8 seconds with a stick shift, 10.9 seconds with an automatic. That's slower than many economy cars, to say nothing of slower than many big pickup trucks and SUVs. And why such a big drop in performance with the automatic transmission?

On paper, the S Countryman does much better. The company rates the S to accelerate from zero to 60 in 7.0 seconds with a stick shift, 7.4 seconds with an automatic. Rated times are only somewhat slower (7.3/7.7 seconds) for the S ALL4.

That isn't the experience I had, however, when driving the S ALL4. I consistently clocked the car at 8.3 seconds, 0.6 seconds slower than the rated time. That's odd, because I usually have no trouble achieving the rated times for models from parent company BMW (BMWA). It's also troubling, because a regular Mini with a stick shift achieves about the same time. Simply put, the S ALL4 needs more power to perform like a Mini.

The Countryman's big advantage over the regular Mini Cooper is its relative spaciousness. It's wider, as well as being longer, allowing for noticeably more shoulder and hip space. The rear seats both slide back and recline, creating sufficient room for a six-footer actually to be comfortable. Luggage space shrinks from 16.5 cu. ft. to 12.2 cu. ft. with the seats all the way back, but that's still pretty good for a compact.

At this point I find the Mini Cooper's cute interior design—with its ovoid handles, repetition of circular design elements everywhere, and big round instrument dials—a bit tiresome. The Countryman's ugly plastic glove-box cover looks cheap next to the rest of the stylish matte-black dash. I also find some of the Mini's controls less than intuitive. For the life of me, for instance, I could not figure out how to change the Countryman's radio from AM to FM, even after looking it up in the manual. I finally figured it out by trial and error on the third day I had the car.

A big appeal of the Mini is the tens of thousands of ways in which you can personalize (or "you-ify," in Mini parlance) your car. The exterior can be customized in a seemingly infinite number of body/roof colors and stripes. An innovation in the Countryman is an aluminum rail that runs down the middle of the cabin, to which you can attach cupholders, storage boxes, smartphone holders, etc. (and easily move them around or remove them for cleaning).

Buy It or Bag It?

Personally, I wouldn't buy a Countryman. I'd go with the admittedly cramped and impractical but fun-to-drive Mini hardtop instead, or the Mini Cooper S for more pizzazz. Either one is a zippy little second car that gets excellent mileage.

If you want a small SUV, numerous alternatives are better. The one I'd be most interested in is the Toyota Rav4. With a six-cylinder engine, it's very quick (zero to 60 in around seven seconds), has an available third row of seats, and starts at $25,320. With a four-cylinder engine, it starts at $23,285 and averages 24 mpg.

If you want an odd-ball mini SUV, you can get a well-loaded Nissan Juke with a stick shift for 24 grand, or with torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system similar to the one in the Mini Cooper for 26 grand (about seven grand less than the average selling price of the Countryman All4). The Juke is admittedly ugly, but it's quicker than the Countryman, comes with more standard equipment, and averages 29 mpg with an automatic.

If you absolutely have to have a Countryman, go with the S and forego all-wheel drive. For me, however, even the S Countryman is too maxi to be a real Mini.

Click here to see more of the 2011 Mini Copper S Countryman ALL4.

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