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!

  • John

    I’ve a manual Cooper D All4, and it’s coped superbly in the UK over the past few weeks. The only time it failed me, was when the snow was deeper than it’s clearance…..

    It’s my first Mini, and I’m loving it…..

  • rhawth99

    Nice write up Nathaniel. As I’m reading this, I’m peering out at around 18 inches of snow here in NJ. An ALL4 would be real handy!

  • Dusty S

    That’s fantastic news!! I live here in this frozen tundra of Minneapolis. My ’08 Cooper S gets me around fine with my snow tires, though with the amount of snow we’ve had this year, the All4 Countryman would be much appreciated along with the added space. After this winter, it will be move to southern Texas, of which I’m seriously considering, or the All4 Countryman to put up with these @#!!&%$$# Minnesota winters.

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  • JonPD

    Only thing that has ever cause either of our R53 issues is when the snow gets deep enough to snowplow down the road, the raised height of the R60 would help there, but as far as I care they can keep the nanny aid of variable awd for others that need it. When the weather gets exceptionally nasty I will take a awd over any variable awd system personally. I believe that this is likely to cause more than one R60 to be piled up over the winter because their owners will be chanting “I have awd” through their minds as they don’t change an iota of their driving habits to suit the weather.

  • Great write up! I knew the Countryman would be a welcomed addition to the MINI family despite what some MINIacs say about it being too big to be a MINI.

  • RichardinCO

    Excellent article. My ALL4 is in production. Anxiously awaiting the opportunity to test it in Denver snow in 2011. Thanks

  • JonPD

    Guess the equation for the R60 comes down to driving need. For me a month of slick roads is a bad case for a heavier, slower MINI that is more prone to wallowing around corners during the rest of the year. To each their own though.

  • Grgramps

    In JonPD “I believe that this is likely to cause more than one R60 to be piled up over the winter because their owners will be chanting “I have awd” through their minds as they don’t change an iota of their driving habits to suit the weather.”

    True, All4 is no substitute for common sense. Every winter we see all wheel drive vehicles, of every ilk, off the road in a snow bank. Isn’t that why they are called, “off road vehicles”?

  • Otra

    Very nice write up! Now if only they’d put that bench seat option in, I’d be much more apt to consider buying one of these.

    I really appreciate hearing what it was like in some serious snow and slush. Well done and thank you!

  • Bob

    I have a ’09 Clubman out here in Apple Valley. Snow tires are a must. It’s nice to know that the all-season tires could hold their own on the All4.

    Thanks Nathaniel

  • NashGuy

    But the All4 doesn’t add value in just that one month of slick roads! As someone who has owned various iterations of all-wheel drive cars (Passat W8, Audi A4 quattro, a VW R32, and even my very first car, a Subaru DL), I encourage folks not to think of the All4 configuration as simply something that kicks in mid-blizzard!

    Whether you’re simply on a wet road, or driving some nice serpentine roads, or taking an exit or entrance ramp, all-wheel drive does provide something extra. (And I definitely am a fan of getting good tires, regardless of drive configuration.)

    Sure, you’re sacrificing pure speed for what you get in handling or overall control. But I’d rather have that feeling of solidity or stability, if that makes sense, then the ability to beat someone from a stop or the extra fractions of a second whipping through a track.

    The CountryMan is bigger than a Cooper, and the All4 is heavier still, and probably slower than some other Minis, but that’s ok with me! The CountryMan isn’t a Cooper, but it’s a very fun car, nonetheless.

    Just a prospective buyer’s opinion!

  • JonPD

    I hear were your coming from Nashguy. Just to me my biggest interest is performance which the stock R60 All4 will always be much more sluggish with compared to the stock Cooper or Cooper S cars. I have no doubt it will be a fun car in its own right, just feels like a watered down MINI to me.

  • NashGuy

    JonPD, thanks for the civil discussion! A big reason I like Mini is that they give us choices! You can go after performance, while I can choose stability. Different models, different options, we can all get what we want.

    And as much as I do love the Cooper (the local dealership has some great Cooper combinations on the lot, especially a black JCW), I’m at a stage in my life where I like the larger CountryMan, and the four doors! Tossing stuff in the back seat is much easier, as opposed to flipping the driver or passenger seats up and down. And I do like the more upright seating position. Maybe I’m just getting old…(Coming from someone who currently is in a 2008 R32 two door.)

  • stock R60 All4 will always be much more sluggish with compared to the stock Cooper or Cooper S cars

    That’s simply not true. The All4 system only adds about the weight of an average adult passenger.

    Official 0-60 times (manual transmission):
    Cooper Hardtop — 8.4 seconds
    Countryman All4 — 7.3 seconds
    Cooper S Hardtop — 6.6 seconds

    So the difference between the Cooper S hatch and the Countryman All4 is only 0.7 seconds, and it’ll handily take the Cooper hatch by almost half that margin again. Even that 0.7 seconds is but a slow blink of the eye. You’ll never miss it on the street.

    Having driven it, I can testify that the Countryman All4 is fast, even on snow.

  • Nice write up… but I suspect that many new Countryman All4 owners, like so many other inexperienced/clueless AWD/4WD owners (Note: I didn’t say ALL of them), will forget or ignore one basic but extremely critical fact:

    EVERY car has 4 brakes.

    Tires > drivetrain.

  • KPH

    Thanks Nathan and to the cooperating dealership for a real world road test. An AWD/4wd system “pays” for itself in the first nasty winter. To optimize what it’s cost you get the right tires on dedicated rims, click on the WINTER DRIVING icon in your brain and enjoy the satisfaction of getting to point B and back again. Those that don’t understand what AWD/4wd does and doesn’t do are the same folks you need to keep an eye on in good weather too.

  • charlie

    Thanks nathaniel for your time and the great write up.The countryman amazes me everyday I drive it ~

  • Now lets put winter tires on a Countryman with ALL4 and really have some fun.

  • Evan

    Nice write-up. I’ve never had a problem with my R50 in the snow on all-seasons. Maybe it’s a tad low at times, but it handles deftly and I’ve never been stuck. My RWD E90 is also pretty good in the snow. It really comes down to knowing when too fast is too fast and having good tires. I drove an R60 S FWD auto a couple of weeks ago and it was quite impressive. Very composed body motions, good steering feel (better than my dad’s R56 but not quite R50 direct), and boy was it quick! Just as fast as my 325i for sure. Plus with the framed doors and some extra refinement, it approaches the BMW for quietness. The R60 is a great MINI, and I think you really have to take one for a spin to understand.

    As long as the bench comes to the R60 here next year, I’ll probably be turning in the E90 for one. My wife is sold on All4, while I’d take a FWD S without issues. Manual transmission all the way too. I guess I’ll just add on the JCW package and make up some of the weight difference. Motor on.

  • JonPD

    Nathaniel, speak to DB about a Cooper on the track. I have seen more than one Cooper flow past a Cooper S, usually in the corners with lighter weight. Think adding the bulk of awd is and some slower performance from the Cooper S is not likely to help at all.

  • JonPD,

    Didn’t say a Cooper wasn’t fast. Just said a Countryman All4 wasn’t slow.

  • JonPD

    Lets leave it as is Nathaniel, I somehow don’t think either of us are likely to change our view on the worth and place for this car. I still think even MINI has announced that the all4 is not a performance model. Rather its build to scale scary speedbumps, smooth gravel roads and to give drivers that false sense of security.

  • RT19


    DId your test vehicle have the sports suspension or the regular suspension?

    Thanks for the review!

    • DId your test vehicle have the sports suspension or the regular suspension?

      Standard suspension. But keep in mind, I was flirting with the limits of snowy grip, not dry asphalt handling. That said, the ride quality and overall stiffness up at highway speeds was very comfortable and very responsive.

  • …so why not tune up the All4’s engine a bit with some nifty aftermarket stuff? Give it the extra power it needs to offset the extra weight of the AWD system? If the issue is that the thing’s got less performance than our R53’s, then we’ve got an easy problem to solve. AWD is WAY more confidence-inspiring in the dry, in the wet, in the snow, in the dirt… wherever you want to drive it. I’m with NashGuy here, if the single biggest problem you’ve got with the All4 system is decreased performance, then you’re just not looking at “performance” correctly.

    FWIW, I drive a JCW R53 with Blizzaks. Two years ago, while driving around a bend up here in snowy Massachusetts, I lost control doing about 15 mph and slid (rather violently) into a telephone pole. The car behind me? A Subaru Impreza. Drove right away, no drama at all.

    Speaks volumes about AWD.

  • goat

    I like this new MINI for what it is, but don’t love it… I do strongly feel that full-time AWD would have been a much more credible engineering solution (like x-drive if not quattro). With the current system it is a German CRV or RAV4 and I find that a step down for MINI – when doing fwd in the hatches, they do it better than most competitors (equal length half-shafts, available LSD, multilink rear suspension, battery at rear for improved weight balance, short overhangs)… in comparison, I feel MINI has missed an opportunity to head-and-shoulders outperform the Japanese and American CUVs by using a “slip-then-grip” type rear axle on the r60 All4. Full-time AWD would be a performance driving asset year-round and as such a better fit for the MINI brand. Despite, I do look forward to a test drive.

  • that.guy

    Uh, isn’t Minneapolis basically flat? My friends who live there go with FWD and Hakkas. Unless you are doing a lot of steep climbing, FWD is all you need in the snow. It’s all about the tires, imo.

  • Nashguy

    Mr. goat – re your dislike of the “slip-then-grip” AWD implementation on the r60 – does the “quattro” designation actually indicate a fulltime vs. the “slip-then-grip” AWD configurations?

    I thought that some of the current quattro vehicles (the A3 and TT AWD cars, in particular) are Haldex-based? Many in the Audi and VW forums don’t view Haldex AWD as true AWD. Couldn’t tell from my digging around if there are different Haldex implementations that make some better than others.

    I’ve had both Torsen-based (Passat W8 and Audi A4) and Haldex-based (current R32) AWD cars, and haven’t felt let down by R32. (At least not its AWD, but that’s another post all together ;-))

    The All4 is FWD, unless the front wheels slip, correct? How much can the power be split between front and rear wheels? One review says that almost 100% can be directed to the rear wheels, but I’m not sure I’m buying that.

  • Jack Grouell

    Always amazes me to hear people complain about the extra weight of AWD on the Countryman All4 but don’t think twice about having a sunroof that puts a lot of extra weight on top of the car where you want it the least….

  • JonPD

    That’s part of the reason I would never spend a dime on getting a sunroof, plus have had enough friends fighting with leaks on theirs alone to swear them off lol.

    As a counter Jack, I can point out a very slick and snowy day I was headed up to go skiing and drove my GP right past a 335i X drive that spun out and piled into the trees. I pulled over to check on the driver (who was ok, but had to suppress the laugh when I spotted Ultra high performance tires on all four corners. I have seen so many awd vehicles with stock summer tires that have never changed them because the feel safe in their awd. Driving skill and proper tires are much more important than awd will ever be.

  • I’m definately more interested in an ALL4 now. Initially I had dismissed it, not from a performance standpoint but from a price standpoint… What I want in a Countryman will run me $34k…

    The thing is – I abandonded the MINI brand because they weren’t producing a car that fit my needs. We outgrew our MINI and when we made the call to move on we knew that going bigger meant sacrificing some level of performance & handling.

    However (like many owners) I didn’t buy the MINI for sheer performance. I’m gladly willing to take the hit on sheer performance to get back into a MINI that is a better fit for my family’s lifestyle… If I had been looking at sheer performance 9 years ago when I first considered MINI, I never would have put down a deposit. Instead I would have ended up at the Lotus or Porsche dealer down the road…

    The fact is, much like the upcoming roadsters, the Countryman is targeted at a specific demographic – and like the Countryman MANY current MINI owners won’t buy either roadster because it doesn’t meet their needs. Like the Countryman – it doesn’t mean that the roadsters are crappy cars – but like the Countryman the roadsters aren’t intended for everyone.

  • Well put, MichaelB. Let me know once you get to drive one. I’d be very interested in your thoughts. All comparisons to other MINIs or Lotus aside, the Countryman All4 was really fun to drive — even on the slushy stuff.

  • that.guy

    @Nashguy MkV R32 in my stable as well.

    Even with marginal all-seasons it rocks in the snow, as long as you keep it’s massive low-end torque under control. 🙂 I think the “then” in “slip-then-grip” in a Haldex system is no more than a couple of tenths of a second. Works for me.

  • 05MINI

    Thanks for the great review! I live in Northern Iowa and while I have an all wheel drive vehicle and a 4 X 4 for the really bad winter weather I miss driving my R53. I do take her out whenever possible but clearance is my biggest issue. I live 20 miles from the nearest city and these country roads are not kept very clear. The All4 sounds like the perfect winter MINI for me.

  • MINIme

    JonPD, Driving skill and common sense is paramount, but tires do not replace AWD. Yes, it is a given that tires are what contact the ground, and hence, are the first and last line of defense. However, AWD is an aid that allows drivers of all skill levels to proceed in a safer, more sure-footed manner. We are all well aware of your feelings on this brand-crusher (Countryman). Please just give the concept its due. With a little tweaking, I am sure that the Countryman S All4 could be made to keep up with your GP. Despite the winter tires that you invest in, your GP will never be able to go places a stock Countryman S All4 might dare to tread. Different models exist for a reason (to meet the needs of different drivers). Thank God and MINI for a little diversity.

  • Jason K

    MINIme, you say that JonPD’s GP (with snow tires) “will never be able to go places [that] a stock Countryman S All4 [will].”

    It sounds to me like you think a Countryman S All4 will be better in the snow with its stock tires than a 2WD GP with snow tires. If that’s really what you mean, you’re making a dangerous mistake.

    (FWIW, I’m a mechanical engineer who’s done research in vehicle dynamics. Tires are a particular interest of mine).

    True winter tires make a much bigger difference to performance on snowy roads than the number of driven wheels. A car with summer tires will spin its driven wheels in the snow; a 4WD car with summer tires will just spin all four wheels.

    Even with four-season tires (which likely come stock on the All4) a 2WD wearing car true winter tires (e.g. Bridgestone Blizzaks) is at a huge advantage compared to the All4. Winter tires vastly improve braking, cornering and acceleration. A Countryman All4 with all-season tires would be outperformed by a GP wearing snow tires in all of these areas, The All4 would benefit from its AWD when accelerating, but that wouldn’t be enough to overcome the snow tires’ advantage. The All4 would be at a huge disadvantage in cornering and braking.

    I’m only mentioning this because many people believe that 4WD alone makes them “safer” in the snow. But many times, it amplifies the danger. Acceleration is OK, but braking and turning still suck. (4WD systems do not increase absolute cornering limits, in the snow or otherwise). In other words, it’s easier to get into trouble (i.e., to add speed) and harder to get out of it (through braking and turning). That’s one reason you see so many SUVs with all-season tires in the ditch when the first snow hits.

    On a snowy road, a Countryman All4 with snow tires will absolutely outperform a GP with snow tires–but only in acceleration.

  • NashGuy

    Jason, a very interesting writeup – Thanks! Regarding your last statement:

    “On a snowy road, a Countryman All4 with snow tires will absolutely outperform a GP with snow tires–but only in acceleration.”

    What about on curves and turns? Wouldn’t the All4 have some advantages there, too?

  • Jason K

    Hi NashGuy,

    I’m glad you liked what I wrote; thanks. Regarding your question, I addressed this (at least a bit) in my original post. I wrote this:

    “4WD systems do not increase absolute cornering limits, in the snow or otherwise.”

    I worded that very carefully, because this is a complicated subject. I stand by what I wrote–no 4wd system increases a car’s absolute cornering limits. However, a 4wd car might give the driver finer-grained control near those limits. For example, a 4WD car will generally be able to accelerate out of a corner faster than a FWD car–but only once you’re past the apex. Lateral acceleration typically reaches its peak at the apex (this is a gross generalization, but bear with me).

    One useful way to think about this is to imagine that any given tire can only deliver a certain amount of tractive force before it slides. The direction of that force is variable–it can be used to generate lateral forces, acceleration forces, or braking forces. But once the force vector sum exceeds a certain value, the tire slides.

    So you can use your tires’ force any way you want. But if you’re already at peak lateral acceleration, any additional force in any direction will cause sliding. Any accelerative force, no matter which axle it’s applied to, will cause sliding. (This assumes a 50/50 weight distribution between axles. I’m generalizing, but bear with me).

    If you cause sliding to the rear axle–oversteer, in the popular sense–it feels a whole lot faster (and more controllable) than understeer. But unless your last name is Hakkinen or Block, you’re probably going to go fastest around the corner with no wheels slipping.

    (Sliding friction between the tire and the road is lower than static (sticking) friction, so once you start sliding, you’re way below peak lateral acceleration).

    So yes, you might accelerate out of a corner faster with AWD, but that’s rarely something one does in the name of accident avoidance. More often, you’re braking, steering or both. And AWD doesn’t help–at all–with driver inputs that do not involve acceleration.

    (If you’ve got a true 4WD system with three locked differentials, that can help with braking. But all MINIs with DSC have electronic brake force distribution, which essentially does the same thing. Furthermore it’s really not fun to turn with three locked differentials).

    It’s absolutely true, however, that an AWD car can be more fun to drive near the limit than a FWD car. I love autocrossing my R53 JCW, but I’d probably find a WRX STI to be more fun accelerating out of a corner.

    As an aside, it’s very, very difficult to find a better snow car than a 2WD Porsche 911 with snow tires. Most 911s have significant rear weight bias, which means they typically stop very well in the snow. When they accelerate, the rear weight bias is exaggerated, so they go very well in the snow too. Obviously, 911s are very easy to steer with the throttle as well, so you have lots of ways to play with direction and cornering attitude.

    • Tom

      blah blah blah……………………………….

  • As an aside, it’s very, very difficult to find a better snow car than a 2WD Porsche 911 with snow tires.

    Doesn’t hurt that those 911 tires are about nine feet wide! Ha! Thanks for all your input.

  • that.guy

    Hakkas > Blizzaks

  • Bernie

    Great article. How is visibility all around, especially for a 6 foot tall driver?

  • How is visibility all around, especially for a 6 foot tall driver?

    I’m 6′ 3″ and visibility was fine. Aside from sitting up just a tad higher and the different bonnet line, you’d think you were just driving a Clubman (minus the barn door pillars in the rear, of course). I had a bit more head room than I have in my R53 and the seats are more comfortable as well. The C-pillars, while wider than the hatch, still aren’t wide enough to hide a car in.

  • JonPD

    Something that I heard from a Clubman driver while on MTTS while he dug out a measuring tape (must have been 6’5″ or taller) is that he had more headroom in the Clubman than in the R60. As I have spent little time in Clubman I could not verify that however. How about you Nathaniel?

  • JonPD,

    I have spent a week with the Clubman S and an evening with the R60, both had the glass roof and both had more headroom than my R53 (also with roof). As to which has more than the other, I didn’t notice one way or the other. I just know that I’m able to sit comfortably with a very upright seating position in both cars and my head’s not bumping the rafters.

  • jon

    The one thing you may have overlooked, Jason, is off-throttle engine braking. In a slippery emergency situation, when you snap the throttle closed in a 2wd car, and before you apply any brakes, you have a dangerous situation of 2 (or even 1!) wheel being “acted upon” by engine braking. With awd, this will not be the case. To me, the analogy would be like trying to hop around on one foot on ice. Simply not safe…unless you’re wearing spikes. An extreme hypothetical case would be if the car had 10 wheels being “acted upon” simultaneously (for either + or – acceleration), the car would be extremely stable on a low friction surface. Do winter tires have their merits? Of course, but tires will always be rubber/rubber derivitive and ice will always be slippery to rubber. There are those who argue ‘tires over awd’ and those who argue ‘awd over all else’. You’re both wrong. While you can get away with compromises leaning one way or the other, ideally you need both. (…Until tires having retractable spikes becomes a viable option…)

  • NashGuy

    To John, the first one to post – so envious, a Diesel All4! You get all the good cars!

    Are you loving it?

  • Erik R

    Since we are comparing apples (GPs) and oranges (Countrymans), I thought I should chime in here, since I own a apple since new, and just picked up my wifes orange. The GP is an amazing car and I would never trade it for a Countryman, but even with snow tires it is useless in the snow. Sure on plowed roads I could get down fine, but at 2 inches the rubber under the airdam starts scraping. An inch later the airdam takes the hit, and after 4 inches it is a snowplow.

    I picked up the Countryman S All4 today. It’s a manual trans, but has almost every option, so it is about as far from a GP as MINIs get. Had 4 Blizzaks fitted before I picked it up. Took it down some back streets in Philadelphia today that haven’t been plowed and it handled them just fine with out traction control coming on. When I went to park it on the snow mound I had struggled with earlier (in our ex-535xiT, manual trans), I got in and out with no difficulty due to the extra ground clearance. On the dry, even on snows, it still feels like a MINI in corners. So much more tossable than the BMW wagon ever was, and that’s where the Countryman makes sense.

    MINI could only go so far in the market with little hatches, now I got to buy one as the family car too. I still love BMWs, and own 3, but the new ones are no longer as involving to drive as the earlier ones. If BMW had kept importing the 5 wagon (manual trans), I still would have bought another, I didn’t want to own ours out of warranty. We drove the new 5 GT. It’s nice, but a luxury car, and no manual trans, so I couldn’t get myself to spend the extra money for something I didn’t love.

  • Thanks for chiming in, Erik R

    I love the discussion, but so much of it has just been conjecture, theory and philosophy. Great to hear more real-world testimonies from actual owners using the car in real-world conditions.

  • JonPD

    I hear you Erik, in deep snow the GP is a snowplow for sure! However on standard ice covered roads I have never had a issue. This included episodes of a half inch of frozen rain covering every surface in a improvised skating park. I am not doubting that the part time awd and extra height could help when the snow gets deeper, however I my main point has been the large number of awd drivers that blindly stumble into each winter hanging all their hopes on awd only to end up bouncing off immobile surfaces. I will guarantee that before long we will get to see some the first all4’s suffering a similar issue, with drivers that blindly trust in awd.

  • Captain

    My ’08 Clubman S (manual) was the first car in over 10 years that did not have an awd/4×4 configuration.

    We still have 1 awd vehicle in the garage.

    Living in the Boston suburbs, there are a half dozen days a year where taking the Clubman out on it’s all season tires would be foolish, so I don’t. The frequency has not compelled me to invest in a set of winters – yet.

    My interest in the Countryman has more to do with my family needs. The kids are older and we desire more space along with 4 doors.

    I adore the driving/handling character of the Club, my questions (especially to those who may have driven both) are the following:

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

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

    I am leaning towards skipping the All4 and make the winter tire decision later, but I am interested in the MF community’s thoughts.

    A spirited test drive will sort some of this out, but I am interested in any early returns as it may be a month or two before I get my hands on one.

  • 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


    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.

  • 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!

  • 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!


  • 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

    • 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.?

        • 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!

  • Marlakapoor

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