Pros: Great turbocharged engine; solid fuel economy; capable handling; choice of backseat styles; available all-wheel drive; better crash test scores than a regular MINI Cooper

Cons: Weak base engine; pricey options; limited cargo space

New for 2013: Redesigned interior trim; window switches moved to door panels; no cost choice of 3-person rear bench or dual rear bucket seats; John Cooper Works model added

The 2013 MINI Countryman is essentially a MINI Cooper to the max. What you make of it depends largely on whether you consider it a bite-sized crossover SUV with great fuel economy, or simply a MINI Cooper that's not so small. Is it a ploy by MINI to capitalize on the crossover/SUV craze? Or is it a genuinely enjoyable vehicle with real advantages over other MINI products? In reality, it's all of that.

Like the smaller Coopers, the Countryman offers turbocharged 4-cylinder engines. Unlike the little guys, it is available with all-wheel drive -- further lending credibility to its crossover designation. Also unique to the Countryman is its choice of two adult-friendly sliding individual rear seats or a new-for-2013 rear bench seat, which makes the Countryman the first MINI in history with seating for five.

With the seating position of a crossover, handling similar to a go-kart, a little versatility and a lot of personality, the Countryman fits in no particular car category. Whatever it is, the Countryman does the MINI brand proud. Because let's face it, as charming as the Cooper is, it's not so charming after a visit to IKEA or when you have to take three adult friends to dinner.

Comfort & Utility

The 2013 MINI Countryman is a 4-door crossover (kind of) SUV that comes in four trim levels: base, S, S ALL4 the new for '13 John Cooper Works (also called the JCW).

Standard features on the base Cooper Countryman ($22,000) include 17-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, rear bike rack preparation, ambient interior lighting, leatherette upholstery, power accessories, a leather-wrapped tilting/telescoping multifunction steering wheel, keyless access, push-button ignition, a trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity and a 6-speaker audio system with auxiliary input and HD radio.

The Cooper S Countryman ($25,600) adds a turbocharged engine, an electronic limited-slip program, a mesh grille, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, dual exhaust pipes, sport front seats and stainless steel pedals. The Cooper S ALL4 model ($27,300) has all-wheel drive but otherwise generally keeps the same equipment roster as the regular S model.

For 2013, MINI has added a new Countryman John Cooper Works model ($34,850) at the top of the range. As with the other MINI models, the JCW version has a slew of performance-oriented upgrades, including a more powerful turbocharged engine, larger alloy wheels (18-in in this case, with 19-in optional), Brembo brakes, a special sport-tuned suspension and various interior and exterior styling flourishes. Unlike other JCW models, however, the Countryman JCW comes standard with all-wheel drive.

MINI has few peers when it comes to the extent to which you can customize its cars, and highlights from the Countryman's lengthy options list include various wheel designs, a sport suspension, xenon headlamps, a panoramic sunroof, satellite radio, navigation, leather upholstery and a premium Harman Kardon audio system. And that's just the beginning. Seriously, the sky is the limit; just don't forget your checkbook because the options can rack up quite a tab.

The base Countryman's standard front seats are rather flat -- that's where the optional contoured sport seats (standard on the Cooper S Countryman) come in. But we love the chair-like driving position, which is absolutely commanding thanks to the Countryman's extra ride height. The pedals are perfectly placed, and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes for comfort.

While the window switches have moved to the door panels for 2013 -- a genuine cause for celebration -- we wish MINI would rethink the ergonomics of the audio and climate controls. Materials quality is also inconsistent. We get a kick out of the pie-plate central speedometer, though, and hope it never changes.

The Countryman now comes standard with a 3-person rear bench seat, though actually putting three adults back there may be a tight squeeze. Two people back there -- even lanky people -- is no problem, however, especially in the no cost optional individual rear bucket seats, which slide and recline for an optimal combination of comfort and cargo space. Also noteworthy is the center divider system that comes with the individual rear bucket seats, consisting of an attractive metal divider that divides both seating rows and contains two cupholders, a glasses case holder and an iPod cradle.

Cargo space behind the rear seats is 16.5 cu ft, 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 cu ft (the same assessment applies).

Technology

As with MINI's other models, Bluetooth connectivity is now standard on the Countryman. Satellite radio is optional, as is the nifty MINI Connected suite that adds an attractive information and entertainment display in the center of that massive speedometer. MINI Connected gives iPhone users access to an app that can integrate Facebook, Twitter, Internet radio and a variety of other services.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The MINI Cooper Countryman has front-wheel drive except for the S ALL4 model, which has all-wheel drive. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard across the lineup; a 6-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.

Fortunately, the Cooper S Countryman's turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 cranks out 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque (192 lb-ft during temporary overboost full-throttle acceleration). And even in this model, the heaviest of MINIs, it always has enough torque on demand. We love the S engine's exuberant noises, too. The S ALL4 model gains an additional 150 pounds, but snow belt dwellers may consider that a small price to pay.

Speaking of prices to pay, the new Countryman JCW is certainly expensive, but its 208 turbocharged horsepower reliably brings a grin to your face each and every time you step on the gas pedal. Indeed, the Countryman JCW could be considered the best such model in the MINI family. Why? Because its all-wheel drive system -- unavailable on any other MINI except the upcoming Paceman -- allows you to use all of its power, all the time. In smaller, front-drive MINI JCW models, the front wheels have a tendency to spin like crazy when the turbo kicks in.

Fuel economy is stated as 27 miles per gallon 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 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn't actually tested this particular model. The automatic base Clubman comes back to earth with a 25 mpg city/30 mpg hwy rating. The Cooper S Countryman actually does a little better, checking in at 26 mpg city/32 mpg hwy with the manual and 25 mpg city/32 mpg hwy with the automatic. The S ALL4 drops to 25 mpg city/31 mpg hwy with the manual and 23 mpg city/30 mpg hwy with the automatic. The JCW was not rated at the time this article was written.

Safety

The 2013 MINI Cooper Countryman comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain).

The government had not yet crash tested the Countryman at the time this article was written, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded the Countryman its top Good rating in every testing category.

Driving Impressions

While the Countryman is the MINI with the most mass, it's still not huge. Therefore, it drives like a sport compact car. Compared to other MINIs, the Countryman feels bigger from behind the wheel due to its increased ride height and width, and that dilutes some of MINI's trademark glued-to-the-road driving character (though not much). The Countryman is still extraordinarily surefooted, and you also get a more compliant ride than the MINI norm as a result of the extra suspension travel. If you want to be more glued to the road, the stiffer sport suspension is your ticket to ride, especially with the optional 18-in wheels. If you want a more compliant, family-friendly ride, stick with the standard suspension and 17-in wheels.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Sportage - The stylish Sportage ($19,000) 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 Impreza - The Impreza hatchback ($17,895) has standard all-wheel drive, good cargo space and a loyal following. It lacks the Countryman's customizability and cool factor, though.

Volkswagen Tiguan - With strong performance and a more capacious interior with a similarly premium feel, the Tiguan ($22,995) is an intriguing alternative from the conventional crossover ranks.

AutoTrader Recommends

If you're going to buy a Countryman instead of the smaller Clubman, we say go all out and get the S ALL4 model. As the only MINI model with all-wheel drive, the S ALL4 could be a stretch worth making.

What do you think of the new Countryman? Let us know in the comments below.

author photo

Steve Siler is a freelance automotive journalist and presenter based in Los Angeles, California. Known for his ability to make automotive subjects accessible to both enthusiast and non-enthusiast audiences, Siler has contributed to dozens of lifestyle and enthusiast publications, including The Robb Report, Automobile Magazine, Edmunds.com and Car and Driver Magazine.

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