Pros: Great turbocharged engine; solid fuel economy; capable handling; spacious and versatile back seat; available all-wheel drive; better crash test scores than a regular Mini Cooper
Cons: Overmatched base engine; questionable ergonomics; limited cargo space
What you make of the 2012 Mini Cooper Countryman depends largely on what type of vehicle you think it is. If you call the Countryman a crossover SUV, you'll love its fuel economy, but you'll likely be disappointed by a cargo bay that maxes out at only 41.3 cubic feet-roughly 15 cubic feet less than the norm for a compact crossover. If you call it a hatchback, that cargo capacity may seem just fine. Aside from storage space, anyone can appreciate the Countryman's available turbocharged performance and all-wheel drive, not to mention its adult-friendly sliding back seats.
But maybe we're overcomplicating things. Perhaps we should look at the Countryman as a bigger, taller Mini. From the driver's seat, that's exactly how it feels. You sit up high in the Countryman, but it never feels tippy. On the contrary, the handling is nearly as athletic as that of other Minis. As for the available engines, they're exactly the same, so the Countryman's extra few hundred pounds yield the slowest acceleration in the Mini family. Note that only the non-turbo base model feels a little poky; we're fans of the turbocharged S model's performance.
At the end of the day, even we aren't sure what to call the Countryman, but whatever it is, it does the Mini brand proud. It's no cynical ploy by Mini to capitalize on the crossover/SUV craze; the Countryman is a genuinely enjoyable vehicle, with real advantages over other Mini products.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Mini Cooper Countryman is a four-door crossover kind-of SUV that comes in three trim levels: base, S and S ALL4.
Standard features on the base Cooper Countryman include 17-inch alloy wheels (larger than the norm for a Mini), roof rails, rear bike rack preparation, ambient interior lighting with variable color, height-adjustable front seats, twin rear bucket seats with center rail front/rear divider system, leatherette upholstery, power accessories, a leather-wrapped tilting and telescoping multifunction steering wheel, keyless push-button ignition, a trip computer and a six-speaker audio system with auxiliary input and HD and satellite radio.
The Cooper S Countryman adds a turbocharged engine, an electronic limited-slip program called Electronic Differential Lock Control that's optional on the base Clubman, a black mesh grille with an extra air inlet, foglamps, a rear spoiler, dual exhaust pipes, sport front seats (Recaros are not available for the Countryman) and stainless steel pedals. The Cooper S ALL4 has all-wheel drive but otherwise generally keeps the same equipment roster as the regular S model.
Mini is the Dell of the automotive world, meaning you can tick every box on your dream Countryman and then wait for Mini to build it for you. Some highlights from the enormous options list are 18-inch alloys, a sport package with a stiffer suspension, xenon headlamps, a panoramic sunroof, Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity, a navigation system with a 6.5-inch display, leather upholstery and a premium Harman Kardon audio system. There are also seemingly endless potential combinations of colors, special trim items and wheel designs.
The base Countryman's standard front seats are rather flat-that's where the optional contoured sport seats (standard on Cooper S Countryman) come in-but we love the commanding, chairlike driving position. The Countryman improves on this familiar Mini virtue thanks to its extra ride height. The Countryman's pedals are perfectly placed, and the tilting and telescoping steering wheel is low and straight, right where your hands expect it to be.
On the other hand, we don't approve of the audio and climate controls. They are laid out haphazardly, and some are stylish but frustrating toggle switches rather than proper knobs or buttons. Materials quality is also inconsistent. We do get a kick out of the pie-plate central speedometer, though, and we don't understand why so many people deride it. Who wants a Mini to have a boring BMW-style interior? Be careful what you wish for.
The Clubman wagon improves on the regular Mini's cramped back seat, but the Countryman takes it to a whole new level. The individual rear bucket seats slide and recline for optimal comfort or cargo space, and unlike the Clubman's low-mounted rear seats, the Countryman's are nice and high. Even lanky rear passengers will find satisfactory legroom and support. Of course, having four regular doors-instead of two front doors with a third reverse-opening "club door"- helps as well.
Also of note is the center rail divider system, an attractive one- or two-piece (your choice) metal divider that bisects both seating rows and contains two cupholders, a glasses case holder and an iPod cradle. It's another inventive Mini feature, reinforcing the sense that this isn't just another automaker.
The Countryman has a standard hatchback liftgate; no dual barn-style doors here. Cargo space behind the rear seats is 16.5 cubic feet, which is a lot by Mini standards although not by anyone else's standards. Fold down the rear seats, and you'll have 41.3 cubic feet-the same assessment applies.
As with Mini's other models, we're disappointed that Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity don't come standard on the Countryman. You get a standard iPod cradle on the center rail, for goodness' sake, but you have to pay extra for iPod integration with the sound system (although the standard auxiliary input works in a pinch). Speaking of sound, we're unimpressed by the supposedly premium Harman Kardon stereo, but the base stereo is much worse. On the plus side, there's a nifty option called Mini Connected that adds an attractive information and entertainment display in the center of that massive speedometer. Moreover, it gives iPhone users access to an app that can integrate Facebook, Twitter, Internet radio and a variety of other services.
Navigation can be added to Mini Connected if you want, but we figure that if you've already got a smartphone that works with Mini Connected, you already have access to Google Maps and the like, so you probably don't need to pay extra for Mini's maps and directions.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Mini Cooper Countryman has front-wheel drive except for the S ALL4 model, which gets all-wheel drive. A six-speed manual transmission is standard across the lineup; a six-speed automatic is optional and, on S and S ALL4 models, comes with paddle shifters.
The base Cooper Countryman is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 rated at 121 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. This is a fun little engine in smaller Minis, but the Countryman weighs nearly 400 pounds more than the Mini Cooper Hardtop, and that's a recipe for sluggish acceleration. When your car weighs 3,000 pounds, you're going to want more than 121 hp.
Therefore, we strongly advise stepping up to the Cooper S Countryman's turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4, which cranks out 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque (192 lb-ft during temporary overboost full-throttle acceleration). Even in this heaviest of Minis, the little turbo 4 punches above its weight, and the twin-scroll turbocharger makes sure you always have torque on demand. We love the S engine's exuberant noises, too. As for the S ALL4 model, it gains an additional 150 pounds, but snow belt dwellers may consider that a small price to pay.
Fuel economy is stated as 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway for the base Countryman with manual transmission. That's hard to believe since it's the same as the considerably lighter Clubman with the same powertrain. We suspect the EPA hasn't actually tested this particular model. The automatic base Clubman comes back to earth with a 25/30 mpg rating. The Cooper S Countryman actually does a little better, checking in at 26/32 mpg with the manual and 25/32 mpg with the automatic. The S ALL4 drops to 25/31 mpg with the manual and 23/30 with the automatic.
The 2012 Mini Cooper Countryman comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain).
The government had not yet crash tested the Countryman as of this writing, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Countryman its top Good rating in every testing category.
Don't get the idea that the Countryman is a big vehicle. It's actually only about half a foot longer than the Clubman. The Countryman feels bigger from behind the wheel, however, and that's because of its increased ride height, although it dilutes some of Mini's trademark glued-to-the-road driving character. The Countryman is hardly a tippy SUV, though. Handling is still extraordinarily surefooted, and you also get a more compliant ride than the Mini norm as a result of the extra suspension travel. Nonetheless, we'll stick to our default Mini recommendation that you stay away from the stiffer sport suspension, not to mention the unforgiving 18-inch wheels.
Other Cars to Consider
Kia Sportage - The stylish Sportage lacks the Countryman's cool interior vibe, but it compensates with an available 260-hp turbocharged inline-4 that'll blow even the Cooper S Countryman into the weeds.
Subaru WRX - The WRX hatchback probably isn't often cross shopped against the Countryman S ALL4, but maybe it should be. With standard AWD and superior turbocharged power, the WRX is a strong rival. It lacks the Countryman's cool factor, though.
Volkswagen Tiguan - With strong performance and a more capacious interior with a similarly premium feel, the Tiguan is an intriguing alternative from the conventional-crossover ranks.
If you're going to buy a Countryman instead of a Clubman, we say go all out and get the S ALL4 model. As the only Mini model with AWD, the S ALL4 could be a stretch worth making.