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MotoringFile 1st Drive: MINI Countryman Cooper S

MINI Countryman

The MINI Countryman has a lot on it’s broad shoulders. Not only is MINI expanding into a new market but it’s an entirely new model for the still very small brand. In fact this is truly the first new MINI that BMW has ever created. The hatch, the convertible, the Clubman, they’ve all been done before. The Countryman on the other hand is entirely new, and in turn risky.

The risk is all about the brand and performance. Does a four meter long MINI go against everything MINI stands for? Or is this a new age when the idea of size becomes more of an ideal to grow a brand by? Then there are the questions about performance. The MINI is successful not only because the way it looks but the way it drives and feels. Can a larger four door MINI possibly achieve levels of performance that the R56 or even the R55 enjoy?

We’re going to answer all those questions and more but first let’s take a step back and talk about the essence of any car, it’s engine. And in this case it’s not only the Countryman we’re talking about but the entire MINI range since the updated powerplant and transmissions found in the R60 will be part of the 2011 facelift for the R55, R56 and R57.

MINI Countryman

Engines and Transmissions

The upgrades to the Prince line (available outside of North America since March 2010) are substantial and all revolve around smoother operation, higher efficiency and more power.

First the Cooper. The R60 Cooper has 122 hp up two from the previous configuration of the naturally aspirated Prince engine. Yes it’s just a slight increase but there are a lot of changes under the surface. The naturally aspirated 1.6L gets a new map regulated oil pump that adjusts pressure and volume based on needs of engine (and not just engine speed as before). It results in a 3% fuel savings and allows for the whole system to heat quicker in cold weather (due to it not engaging in cold starts when it’s not needed).

The MPG ratings haven’t been released yet but expect the Cooper to reach 34 mpg on the highway – matching or exceeding every hybrid crossover on the market.

Even more impressive is what MINI have done to the Cooper S. Yes there’s more power, but lets focus on efficiency first. The R60 MCS will reach the same 34 mpg (not a typo) on the highway thanks to a more substantial upgrade. In fact CO2 levels go from only 140 gm to 143 despite the turbo and the extra 60 hp. The MCS sees all the same updates that the Cooper gets but with the major addition of fully variable valve train (Vanos as BMW calls it) along with refinements of friction point throughout the engine. The result is an increase of around 10hp for approximately 182 hp (final US figures are forthcoming).

Vanos gives the Cooper S the ability to rev quicker, deliver more power yet achieve better miles per gallon. A win win by all accounts.

When I spoke with the MINI engineer that lead the development of the revised engines, he noted that all of these additions to the range are patented and will only show up in the MINI range. I probed a bit more and he expanded on the relationship with PSA a bit. For one BMW handles all development separately and in fact PSA is only in charge of purchasing components. All Prince engines are assembled in the UK at Hamms Hall with only the block coming from France. Additionally he pegged the ratio of British to French parts at around 80/20.

And that cold start issue? It’s eliminated with the new engine. For the sake of the MotoringFile reader I continued to press him a bit and he let slip that the issue was caused by a production problem from a supplier. However problems with current engines have been rectified with a fix sent to dealers earlier this year according to the engineer.

How is this new power translated to the road you ask? It was impossible to feel the difference in acceleration (and power) between a 2010 Cooper S and the 2011 Countryman Cooper S with the new engine simply because of the added weight the R60 carries. However I could detect a difference in the eagerness of the car to rev and some subtle changed to the clutch and shift feel.

The transmissions also see some substantial revisions on the 2011 models as well as the Countryman. The Countryman features unique ratios and a taller shift lever but aside from that all changes carry over to the 2011 models as well.

The biggest upgrade is the entirely new clutch that is now self adjusting. This provides a more consistent pedal feel and we’re told should be a little more robust than the previous version. The flywheel is now a dual mass unit that adds a bit more comfort in regards to smoothness and sound. Also new are carbon based shift cables that add an even smoother feel and should last the life of the car.

The result is gearbox that feels even more slick than before. While it lacks the positive feedback of some of the better BMW gearboxes, it’s certainly a step up from any of the competition (I’m looking at you VW) and a noticeable improvement over the previous system.

The six speed automatic is also upgraded in several key ways. The biggest change comes with a system called neutral control. At idle (with your foot on the brake) the auto equipped Countryman (and any other revised 2011 MINI) will subtly de-couple from the previous engaged gear. Once you lift off the brake the transmission re-engages with the previous gear. The net result is a subtle gain in efficiency. In sport mode this system is off for optimized (and more immediate) acceleration.

Another improvement in the auto is stop and go detection which can tell when you’re in stop and go driving and change the shift program to stay almost entire in 2nd for smoother operation.

MINI Countryman

ALL4 – MINI’s First All Wheel Drive System

MINI’s first all-wheel drive system (marketed as ALL4) is a tour de force of technology rarely found on small crossovers. The system allows up to 50% of torque to go to the rear wheels when the system detects front wheel slip (any more wouldn’t make sense from a weight distribution prospective). However under cruising conditions (on a highway for instance) the ALL4 equipped Countryman is entirely front wheel drive.

There are some notable differences between ALL4 and xDrive that should be mentioned. First ALL4’s control unit is fully integrated into the DSC unit and thus transfers data much faster than a typical set-up (thus reacting to conditions faster). It works by a small clutch in the front detecting wheel slip and engaging the rear driveshaft. Unlike xDrive it’s a simple (read ingenious) system that doesn’t use complex electronics. The system (pictured above) is made by GKN and is entirely patented.

In its entirety ALL4 adds 70kg (154 pounds) to the Countryman’s weight. The option is only available on the Cooper S and the Cooper D due to the torque that is necessary.

MINI Countryman

Driving The Countryman Cooper S (manual)

Our test cars came equipped in every combination along as you like Royal Grey Cooper S with a manual transmission and the standard suspension. MINI’s idea in this was to show what the average specification would on the fastest model. There were two tracks set up for us. The first was a relatively slow speed course that involved a completely saturated slalom course and a semi-wet skid-pad. The second was a partially wet full track experience that gave us a full view of the Countryman’s dynamic’s in an unforgiving environment.

So here it is. My chance to rip the Countryman apart for being overwrought and overweight. When it was first announced no one at MotoringFile hid their feelings of disdain for the idea of a MINI crossover. Why? It was against what we all knew the brand to be. But more than anything it was an affront to the performance mind-set that so many of us have when it comes to these small cars. And yet I’m sitting in Munich after just driving a pre-production R60 trying to conjure up the adjectives that best describe how shockingly good the car really is.

No the R60 MINI Countryman doesn’t have the same eager turn in or the quick reflexes of a R56 MINI hatch. It’s steering rack s very slightly slower than the R56 and it’ll be always slightly dulled due to the extra weight. But the incredible thing, with four doors and 3,000 lbs, it has 85% of those magical reflexes you’d find in the standard MINI. And as any MINI owner can tell you having 85% of MINI’s performance is about 50% more than any other crossover currently on the market. In fact the crisp turn-in and the general performance leaves is very close to Clubman territory.

Gabe in the MINI Countryman

On the track the Countryman surprised with a level of steering and brake feel that seems just off what the R56 delivers. It’s confident and crisp with its initial turn-in in a way that blows all expectations away of what a small crossover should feel like. Granted the combination of the standard suspension and 3,000 curb weight combine to make the R60 a little less than what the R56 delivers. While the optional sport suspension (designed to be aggressive in the Cooper and even more aggressive in the Cooper S) does drop the R60 1cm we’d hope that either an optional JCW suspension or an aftermarket set-up would drop it even further.

But in short this is the best handling crossover currently on sale. It’s that good.

Yes the standard suspension can wallow a bit. But then again MINI has created the standard set-up to be everything to everybody. It’s good enough to ride compliantly to Starbucks every day yet still perform adorably on a track if needed.

And here’s the best part; you can four wheel drift this MINI all day long. Granted well timed brake input and damp roads help greatly. But the key (and why this is so interesting) is that the drift can be held while power is applied through the corner. It’s a MINI first and a great trick to pull-off with anyone in the car.

But does the R60 deliver in all the ways a MINI should on the road? While I only got a chance to drive the car on the track (the road tests come this July) my initial answer would be a resounding yes. The R60 Countryman is astounding in its ability to change direction, produce feedback and generally perform in a way that you’d expect out of a MINI.

 the MINI Countryman

Exterior Design

Exterior design is always subjective. And when you’re dealing with a brand with so much heritage, it can be a herculean task to create a new shape within the context of a new model range. But that’s exactly why the Countryman is so impressive. In this vehicle MINI has both departed and embraced the visual language that they have so carefully crafted over the last 10 years.

The Countryman departs greatly from the R50 and 56 with its entirely new design for the headlights.The new shape accentuates the grille and the height of the front the car in all the right ways. It’s such a considerate design in so many ways because it allows you to notice shapes, angles and design nuances around the front of the car that are quite subtle. So subtle in fact that it’s probably unlikely they’ll all reveal themselves to you in photos. But trust us, they are there.

The Helmut design seen in the coupé is here and in this case emphasis the rear doors and helps breaks up the would be expansive roof.

Around the side MINI has established a new side grille to further show-off this MINI’s new found height.

Gabe in the MINI Countryman

As you walk to the back you start to see the sculpting that has been done to the rear fenders. This is a first for MINI and is meant to speak to the “All4″ drive drivetrain that is optional for the car. Also a nice touch is the flare on the lower portion of the doors. The rear lights are extended from the body for two reasons; first a nod to the original MINI and second to help airflow over the rear of the car.

Wheels from the factory will range from 16″ to the 18″ on the optional Sport Package on the Countryman Cooper S. 19″ will be available from the accessory catalog and will likely be marketed under the JCW brand. And for those wondering, they are not interchangeable with BMW 5 lug wheels. MINI has created a slightly different fit that will not allow for a swap from an X1 to the Countryman for instance.

Around back MINI has finished the Countryman with simplicity in mind. Save for the unfortunately faux rear vents just behind the rear wheels, there’s little ornamentation on the car. Yes that enormous MINI logo acts as the handle for the hatch much like the current BMW Z4 or the VW Golf. And all together the design emphasizes the width and overall size of the R60 and speaks of the interior volume

But perhaps the best aspect of the car’s exterior design can be found in the shark nose. It’s an aggressive and masculine design that gives the car a unique character while mapping back to the historical MINI form language. Yet it also works on a functional level helping with airflow and pedestrian impact standards.

In fact a functional reason for a particular design can be found in pretty much every nuance of the car. And as is customary with Mini and MINI, the design team strove to make function relate to design on every level.

Gabe in the MINI Countryman

Interior

Inside there is a blend of R56 interior design with some important deviations. MINI has created a refined version of what we know currently and it is certainly not out of the question to expect some of this new direction in the R55/R56/R57 refresh coming shortly. The material quality is decidedly a step-up from the R56 family of products an the ergonomics is a definitive improvement. While the center stack still confuses with it’s radio layout, the buttons and the backing plastic look noticeably better than the R56.

Gabe in the MINI Countryman

The new hard drive based navigation is a revelation with it’s quicker reaction, more intuitive menu design and crisper screen. In fact it’s a must have in my book for not only how to functions but how it looks.

However the biggest interior feature of the MINI Countryman (beyond more space) is the new rail system. With the MINI rail you can add and subtract different components depending on your needs. Want an armrest? Easy, snap it in and position where needed. Need an iPhone holder? MINI will surely have that covered. What about different devices? The beauty of the system is that MINI can offer a array of options depending on what you need. In the US the split rail comes standard (with rear seat passthrough) but the full rail will be optional.

Conclusions

MINI has created the best handling and characterful small crossover in the world. And while doing that they have pushed the MINI brand into a new category while maintain the character of what we’ve all come to love. However pricing will still play a significant role in the success of the R60 and in the US market we have no final decisions yet. If the base price of the Countryman Cooper comes in at under $25,000 as we expect then it’ll be a full-on success. With that price it’ll compete with the more mundane crossover options while delivering in expectational performance, style and fuel economy all with a brand that still (even after introducing a crossover) means something. And if it does all those things then MINI has succeeded in pushing MINI (with brand attribute surprisingly intact) into a new, more lucrative and much larger market.

Look for more in-depth articles on the engine, design and some of the untold stories around the Countryman’s development in the coming weeks.

Full Gallery

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Written By: Gabe

  • Hoover

    Gabe, I know that you are tall. How is the fit in the front seat for folks above 6’? (or 6’6″?)

  • http://www.motoringfile.com/ Gabe

    I’m 6’2″ and had more than enough room.

  • katy sanders

    Hi Gabe, Is there any discussion about new exterior colors? Mini seems to be stuck in the “which shade of gray would you like” genre. Too many primary colors already. When will they come up with some new exciting colors (pastels, caramel color, etc.,)?

  • cece_unity

    am gettin this car for mah sweet 16 birthday i jus hope u can put ur ipod in there

  • LOCO

    Ordered a CountrymanS in red w. black roof & all extras minus ALL4, Curve lights and Sport suspension in Aug, delivery 15 Nov. for 35K Euros (inkl. 9% rebate, 19% German sales tax and trans). Just so you US guys know what we pay here.


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MINI Model Cheat Sheet

1st Gen MINI
R50: One & MC Hatch
R52: All 1st Gen MINI Convt.
R53: MCS Hatch
2nd Gen MINI
R55: Clubman
R56: Hatch
R57: Convertible
R58: Coupe
R59: Roadster
R60: MINI Crossover
R61: MINI Crossover Coupe
3rd Gen MINI
F54: Clubman
F55: Five Door Hatch
F56: Hatch
F57: Convertible
F60: MINI Crossover
F58: Traveller

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