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MF Review: MINI Countryman All4 On Snowy Streets

In my estimation, the Countryman exists to appeal primarily to two groups: those who want more interior room, and those who want a MINI with AWD. I definitely fall into the latter category. These Minnesota winters push the cold weather driving capabilities of any car. And while my stock 2006 Cooper S is manageable in the slush and slick of Keillor country, I have to drive it very, very carefully — even on good tires. As such, I’ve been very keen to get my hands on MINI’s new micro crossover and see if the new All4 system just might be my winter road secret weapon.

Thanks to Charlie at Motorwerks MINI here in Minneapolis, I got my hands on a brand new Countryman All4 for a session of Minnesota winter road testing last week. The Twin Cities had just received about two straight weeks of regular snow. Big roads were plowed and salted, but side streets were still pretty treacherous. Even those main, plowed roads had a shiny glaze on them. It was hovering just under freezing so conditions were perfect to test the whole range of the R60’s winter street capabilities. The car was also a nice mid-range mix of winter options. All-season tires rather than snow tires, plus an automatic transmission, meant that I’d be relying on the All4 system to make any differences in grip. For testing purposes, this was perfect because it meant that if the Countryman was highly capable in this spec, it’d only get better with snow tires and the manual gearbox.

The car itself

Setting off into the cold winter evening, what I noticed first was just how comfortable the Countryman All4 really was. It felt very MINI in how it turned in, and how it let me feel the road surface, but the overall comfort had my immediate attention. It was such a relief to drive. It felt like a Clubman S, only just that bit better. The suspension soaked up the bumps, but without leaving the car numb. The steering feel is the best combination of feedback and weight in any MINI to date and these are definitely the best MINI seats I’ve ever sat in. While not as flat as my R53 into a hard corner, it still felt very poised and progressive. Also like my MINI hatch, the Countryman All4 feels very solid — very stout on its four wheels. The new variable valve timing, turbo mill propelled the car forward with a lot of confidence, even through the slushbox. Yes, you’re definitely sitting up higher than in the MINI hatch, but while this might seem philosophically wrong, it only added to the pleasure of driving this spirited little road car. In short, the R60 is everything I love about the R55 in terms of comfort, power and refinement, but without most of the aesthetic and ergonomic things that drive me crazy about MINI 2.0. In fact, I very quickly stopped trying to compare the Countryman All4 to anything else and simply enjoyed driving it on its own merits. As such, I think it’s a simply brilliant car.

Winter performance

My entire experience of the Countryman All4 was in precisely the kind of road conditions for which it was designed. I didn’t have a warm summer’s day to compare it to, but I did have my own R53, running the same tires, in the same winter conditions. The winter road performance between the two cars couldn’t have been much more night and day. Where my R53 seems all too often on the edge of grip and understeer, the Countryman All4 allowed me to quite simply own the slippery streets of Minneapolis, but let me be more specific.

Starting, stopping and accelerating

Hands down, the most challenging aspect of winter driving can be simply getting the car to go in the first place. If the snow is deeper than about 4″, you can easily bog a MINI hatch at a stop light. Odin help you if you’re facing uphill on a slick road. It’s not impossible, but you’re not getting out of anybody’s way in a hurry.

Once I had a basic feel for the Countryman All4, I wanted to test the car’s ability to put power down in snowy conditions. I purposefully drove off the heavily trafficked main streets of south Minneapolis and found some barely plowed neighborhood side streets where I could put the car through its winter paces.

The first test was the stop sign dash. As more and more snow gets plowed up, it tends to form huge mounds on the street corners. This greatly reduces your ability to judge oncoming traffic, especially at stop signs on side streets. So what you’ve got to do is take your best guess on what you can see and dash across the intersection from what is usually a really slushy cross street. The Countryman All4 did this maneuver beautifully. I could basically just give it the power and not have to give it a second thought. From what I could tell, the All4 system tries to solve your traction problems by first redistributing power front-to-rear before DSC goes cutting any power to try to find grip. So where my R53 will slip and bog almost right away because the DSC cuts the power, the Countryman All4 will kick in the rear wheels and the result is a car that surges forward almost as though it were on dry pavement.

Obviously, in traffic I was feathering the throttle in smoothly for safety’s sake. But once onto the side streets, several times I purposefully brought the Countryman All4 to a halt in the middle of some deeply rutted, slushy areas that the plows had failed to follow up on. Then I’d give it the beans. While hardly neck-snapping, the car would move forward instantly and positively, with basically no side slip. Only a few seconds and two gears later the car was putting a lot of power down on the snow and turning it directly into speed. While this was fun, it also means that the Countryman All4 has a fundamental ability to get out of its own way on snow. That’s a very big deal in my experience. It’s also highly capable of coming to a very manageable stop, even without the benefit of rowing through the manual gears.

Cornering, grip and “the moose test”

In a FWD car like the MINI hatch, what you’re essentially trying to do all winter is keep from over-driving your grip. Follow too close and you’re going to rear-end somebody. Turn too sharply and you’re going to understeer out of control into a curb or other obstacle. Limited-slip diff and DSC certainly help, but once you’re out of grip, you’re at the mercy of Isaac Newton.

Still on the slushy side streets, I started testing the Countryman All4 with some gentle weaving between the curbs. The grip was progressive and predictable, which inspired a lot of confidence. These neighborhood streets had lots of dead ends, stop signs and really sloppy intersections, so I was constantly changing directions. The corner transition from one street to another is a really easy place to get stuck in my R53. The Countryman All4 just powered right through these slushy areas where both the AWD system and the slightly higher ground clearance kept the R60 from bogging at all.

Now that I had a baseline feel for the vehicle dynamics, I actually started trying to put the car out of sorts on purpose. I took corners faster than I ought to. I purposefully let my momentum lag going through big, deep, slushy patches where the plow paths intersect. I’d spin the wheel through a 90º turn and put my foot down hard. Where my MINI hatch is apt to simply understeer in these situations, the Countryman All4 would power through these corners and I could feel the nature of the car’s grip change in a very dynamic, predictable way. It’s a pretty grin-inducing experience, I have to say. If I pushed it too hard, the car actually tended to oversteer just a little bit around these corners, where just a tad of opposite lock would sort the car out just as the DSC would kick in and snap the car back on course. Even beyond the limits of grip the Countryman was wholly manageable, undramatic and downright fun to drive.

It was time for “the moose test” so I found a nice long stretch of snowy side street. Pushing the car up to about 45 mph, I executed an aggressive swerve around an imaginary Bullwinkle. Turning the wheel sharply, I could feel the front wheels break loose for half an instant. But just as quickly as the front hesitated, torque kicked in from the rear and the Countryman All4 ducked eagerly into that initial swerve. Turning back into my lane just as sharply, the steering hesitation was gone as I was fully in AWD at this point. I set the car back on its original course without any drama or need for opposite lock. From what I could tell, DSC didn’t even kick in. A few more mock moosen only reinforced the car’s amazing capabilities on snow. I could swerve and turn at will, with almost complete disregard to street conditions or speed.

On better streets

The Countryman All4’s performance in the slippery, slushy nonsense off the main roads was utterly confidence inspiring. As I made my way back onto larger roads and eventually the freeway, I found that my whole approach to winter driving could change in the Countryman All4. I no longer needed to avoid the outer lanes with their perpetual dusting of snow cast off the plow piles. I could tear through traffic with the kind of impunity I enjoy in my R53 in warmer months. The combination of the All4 grip and the new engine’s torque had me owning the streets in a downright addictive manner. Out on the freeway, moving through traffic was even more effortless, and it was all too easy to forget that it was still winter and All4 notwithstanding, you’ve got to be careful out there.

The verdict

While I agree with Gabe that AWD is not a safety magic bullet and wholly unnecessary in most markets and most cars, I’d go so far as to say that if you have winters anything like we have here in Minnesota, the Countryman All4 may be your ultimate MINI. It’s immensely comfortable, capable, powerful and practical. While the All4 system won’t shave seconds at the race track, it let me own the streets of Minneapolis that snowy night in a way that inspired utter confidence and actually made winter driving really fun. In my value math, that experience is more than worth the cost and an extra bit of weight. Add a real set of snow tires and a manual transmission, and it’d only be that much more brilliant. I’ve always appreciated the Countryman in concept, but now I’m definitely a believer. I want one. I really want one.

Huge thanks to Charlie and Motorwerks MINI for making the car available for me to test!

Written By: Nathaniel Salzman

  • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com Nathaniel Salzman

    Captain,

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Clubman S and really, really like that car. Having driven both, here’s what I say.

    1.) will I still grin in the R60 on a series of turns or taking on/off ramps?

    I certainly did. I had a lot of fun driving the Countryman All4 at the full range of speeds, which did include several shots up and down the freeway at quite a clip. While I haven’t yet had the pleasure of a warm, windy road, I’d wager the feel would be very, very similar to your Clubman, especially if you opt for the sport suspension.

    2.) winter driving – thinking manual S, would you go with All4 or invest in a set of winter tires?

    I say both. Personally, I think that if you live in a place with a real winter, it’d be dumb to buy a Countryman and not get the All4. As far as I’m concerned, the All4 is the entire point of the car, people hauling aside. That said, if I can get one in my garage, I’ll make the snow tire investment as well. I’d be buying it for its winter-driving capabilities, and as such, would want it fully capable.

  • MatthewW

    @Eric R, well put.

    I’m in Colorado, and I came from an Audi allroad. Before that I spent a lot of time in a 325ix (the most fun I’ve ever had in a car), countless VWs, and even a red 1970’s Jeep and a spell in a MB 4-Matic wagon.

    While all of these vehicles had their virtues in horrid weather, I have to say, my 1st-Gen MINI is an astoundingly capable replacement. Of course, there are a few days when I can not…or shouldn’t drive it, but that’s not often enough to pull me towards a SAV.

    I can see how the Countryman’s configuration, increased passenger capacity, All4, elevated ride height, perhaps even the added weight all make the Countryman a compelling choice.

    Me? I loathe SAVs/SUVs/et al, which is what brought me to MINI in the first place (“Let’s Sip”). I would prefer something like an anti-Countryman. Something closer to the 325ix, a performance sedan if I needed something like all-wheel drive, or a Rally Edition Clubman with All4 :-).

    P.S. If MINI would have carried over the round headlights and made the Countryman a bit smaller overall I would be less resistant to the car. My opinion could change after I drive one, however….

  • Rixter

    Nathaniel

    Is the 4WD function something that can be enabled/disabled with a button or is it all-time, 4WD? I’m just wondering about when there’s no snow and you don’t want 4WD.

  • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com Nathaniel Salzman
    Is the 4WD function something that can be enabled/disabled with a button or is it all-time, 4WD? I’m just wondering about when there’s no snow and you don’t want 4WD

    The system is all-time FWD and when traction needs demand it, up to 50% of the power can transfer to the rear wheels. That’s all computer controled and done as needed. Just like the DSC system, it’s using information from the ABS sensors on each wheel to determine wheel slippage and react accordingly.

    So most of the time you’re running around, it’s just a normal FWD car. It’s more efficient that way, actually. You’ll get better gas mileage by not trying to put power through four wheels all the time. Being only part-time AWD is part of what makes this more of an extension of the traction control systems, and not a performance system like you’d find on a WRX or an Evo.

  • Rixter

    Cool. Thanks for the explanation. Cheers

  • alpinamike

    Tires play the biggest role for slick roads, get some some snow tires with studs, end of story.

  • Woodster

    Nathaniel, I drove that same Countryman All4 a couple weeks ago at Motorwerks and you nailed the experience perfectly. I also had a chance to pull away from a stop sign on a snow covered intersection and compared to my 2009 JCW it was hands down a much more grin-inspiring experience. I loved driving it, and love the additional space and functionality, but until they come out with a JCW version of the Countryman (or maybe a WRC inspired version) I’ll probably stay with what I have.

    Great write-up though!

  • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com Nathaniel Salzman

    Thanks, Woodster! It’s a great little car and you’re right, it wouldn’t suffer at all for a JCW version. The Paceman concept that just debuted is almost exactly that. Were the timing different, that might be the car I’d prefer for my garage, especially in 5-door trim.

  • Amy R

    Nathaniel, thank you so much for your write up–I’ve reread it several times as I (im)patiently wait for my Cooper S Countryman ALL4. Lisbeth passed through the Panama Canal 3 days ago & should be in CA on 6 January, then onto WA to come live with me.

    I have lusted after a Mini for awhile–before I got married I had 3 different Mazda RX-7s and I really miss a sporty car. However with 2 kids (now teenagers), we needed a bigger car than a Mini. The Countryman looked just about perfect. My last 3 vehicles each had AWD, so I knew I wanted that. I’m 4’10” & my husband’s almost 6′, so everything I read indicated neither of us would have issues driving it–so I ordered it without having taken a test drive since the Countryman was not yet released. I’ve already joined a local Mini Club–Mini owners sorta remind me of Mac users (of which I am one), They are very helpful, welcoming, and quick to share info. Thanks again for the informative article!

    ~Amy

  • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com Nathaniel Salzman

    Well done, Amy! I certainly do hope you like the car, but more than that good on ya for getting plugged into the MINI community.

    (by the way, Mini = the classic car, and MINI = the new BMW-owned company) See, now you’re learning MINI history! We’ll have you speeking in R-model numbers in no time. Welcome to the site, the club, and the ownership experience. Cheers!

  • Amy R

    Thanks Nathaniel–I was wondering why sometimes I saw Mini & sometimes I saw MINI. Now I know to keep it MINI :-). BTW, my MA has a Countryman in stock, so on Sunday my husband & I will actually be able to sit and test drive one. It’ll probably make me even more obsessed about when will Lisbeth get here! Happy New Year!

  • Captain

    Congrats on the new Countryman Amy! Enjoy Motoring!

    @Nathaniel, thank you for the thoughtful reponses to my questions, quite helpful.

  • V. Stitt

    Thanks so much for writing up this excellent review. I’ve owned the convertible mini and now a Clubman. I’ve been waiting to find a review about the Countryman’s snow handling capability. Live in sunny CA, but like to drive to the mountains for skiing and need a second SUV-like car for our growing family of drivers. 4WD and snow tires are a must to avoid mandatory chain requirements. Will this car do the trick in the Sierra Nevadas? VS

    • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com Nathaniel Salzman

      V. Stitt,

      I did not have the opportunity to test the Countryman All4 in deep snow, nor have I spent any time in the Sierra Nevadas, so I don’t have a good answer for you. Please keep in mind that this is not any sort of off-road vehicle. This is a road car. Period. It happens to have an on-demand AWD system that makes it a lot more capable on snowy streets, but if you need something to handle deep snow on unplowed roads, this is probably not the car for you.

      • Ata Alturfan

        Hi Mr Salzman It is really a nice review and quite helpful for us. Could you tell us about the off road capability of Countryman all4.?

        • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com Nathaniel Salzman

          Ata Alturfan,

          Having not driven the Countryman off-road, sorry, no I can’t tell you much of anything about its non-tarmac capabilities. I’ve talked to people who’ve driven it off-road in snow and been amazed at its competency, but I haven’t heard anything about dirt, gravel or mud. Keep in mind that the R60 was never meant to be a trail vehicle or compete with Jeep. While it has better ground clearance than the standard MINI, it’s not any kind of real off-roader. What it is, is a MINI with four doors, a scad more ground clearance, and better traction. Aside from the occasional country dirt road, I’d personally never take a Countryman off to do any real off-roading without some serious modification.

  • Mike

    @Nathaniel, “The system is all-time FWD” is not quite correct. basically there is not a big difference in Haldex, xDrive or Mini All4. All of these drivetrain have a main driven axle and a hang-on axle(rear axle for Haldex & All4, front axle for xDrive) driven by a lamella clutch. This clutch is controlled by a seperate control unit and/or the DSC systems. All of these implementations actuates the clutch based on the amount of available engine torque in order to prevent wheel slip before it occurs. It’s true that the clutch is actuated more if for some reason the main driven axle generates slip. You’re right when you say that “most of the time you’re running around, it’s just a normal FWD car” becasue during cruising just little engine torque is needed thus there is no need to close the clutch so effectively you have just FWD. This changes immediately as soon as you hit the throttle.

  • Kendall

    I have a first gen Cooper S (delivered November 2002), my MINI is getting long in the tooth and I was really debating what to go to next.

    After test driving the Countryman All4, I have no doubts and plan to order a Countryman sometime this year…

    Living in Colorado and having a love of hiking, I’ve driven the MINI places in the mountains where really a MINI should not go (I grew up in the foothills and was very used to driving small FWD drive cars on marginal roads). I’ve never had an issue but I am looking forward to a car with the slight bit more clearance and grip that will add some margin for error on back roads.

    I am giving up a bit from the old R53. But I thought there was plenty of power in the Countryman, the cornering was pretty good, and the steering felt like MINI steering.

    The only thing I’ll miss much, is the great rearward visibility in the R53 which I’ve come to realize is more the exception than the norm in cars. But I think overall I’ll enjoy the Countryman more because I’ll be up in the mountains at times when I might not have gone before.

    Some here have voiced concerns that people will overdrive the AWD as people are wont to do. But consider this; these are MINI owners you are talking about! Generally that means people who have more of an appreciation for controlled driving and, I dare say, just that much more intelligent than other car owners; We’ll all be fine. Well, except for that Dakar guy I guess. :-)

  • Kendall

    I meant to add to my last message, that I really appreciated the lengthy detail of this review. In my test drive around Denver I tried it out on some still very treacherous side streets and I was pretty surprised with how stable the car felt moving around on snow or ice, and our other car is an old Jeep Cherokee!

  • Griggs

    Thought I had posted here before but don’t see it. SOrry if it’s a repeat. Tracking the blizzard in the midwest, where I have family. Chicago is still getting pounded which made me think of a billboard Mini Countryman is running. Would love to see a more current pic with the snow piled all up! http://bssp.com/2011/news/mini-countryman-goes-well-over-ice/

  • Marlakapoor

    Beautiful writing …I also love the car.test drove in Portland or. And ordered one. Still waiting…but with a smile.


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