MF Garage: 10,000 Miles of the Countryman

When the Countryman was first announced, pretty much everyone on MF hoped the earth would crack open and swallow it whole the moment it arrived. A MINI “SUV” needed to be sent back to whatever vile hell it came from. But a funny thing happened as we got to know the four door MINI: we started to like it. When I say we, naturally that’s a few of us at MF (not all), and some of you. So while opinions are still split on the largest MINI ever made, sales have been going quite well. The R60 now accounts for a third of all MINI sales this year worldwide.

That left us with questions. To better understand this car that’s created so much debate, we thought a long term review was in order. So did MINI USA, and we ordered our Countryman Cooper S All4 in the spring of 2011 for a mid-summer delivery. 10,000 miles later we have some answers.

Size

The Countryman is not a big car. It’s a big MINI. That’s an odd thing to get your head around at first but something that slowly sinks in as you use it day after day. With four seats (the only configuration available for 2011) the Countryman can hold four adults in reasonable comfort. MINI could have shortened up the rear passenger space but they clearly wanted to make this a comfortable four door first, and a cargo hauler second.

That focus on passenger room over cargo space has been a disappointments for a few MF staffers. A family of three heading out for a long weekend can fill up a Countryman pretty easily. A family of four (which I personally tested late last year) becomes an exercise in extreme light packing. As the primary family car, the Countryman’s sweet spot will likely be either a family of two or three and no more – at least in the US.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ever haul a big load of cargo. In fact, you can pack and stow like a champ when you’re not on the school run. With the seats folded down and the optional flat load floor in place (a definite nice to have), the R60 swallows more than 41 cubic ft of cargo. Add to it the (somewhat) secret compartment below the rear floor and you have yourself a decent small cargo vehicle.

Drive

It’s easy to compare the Countryman to the rest of the MINI range and come away less than impressed. It has slower turn-in, sits up higher and feels less eager to change direction. However when you compare it to other small crossovers on the market, the Countryman feels light-years ahead. Instantly those traits that make it feel slow compared to the standard MINIs give the Countryman almost a go-kart feel compared to its four door competition.

In the end, three things keep the Countryman from feeling as “MINI” as the rest of the range: weight, steering ratio and overall length. Of those three, the thing most in the way of “MINI” feel has to be weight. Yet relative to the competition, the Countryman is one of the smallest and lightest cars in that segment. For a car of this size, it’s as MINI a it’s going to get.

Yes the extra weight and length of the Countryman has taken some of the typical MINI feel away. However it’s better to think of that weight as layer of solid substance placed over the top of a typical MINI. It may dull responsiveness slightly but the feel of stability and assurance defines this MINI more than any before it and better aligns the character of what a crossover should be.

All4

We’ve written about the All4 system previously this winter with glowing marks. It’s a system that feels at once transparent and in control.

Interestingly, All4 defaults to AWD from the get go, not FWD. Similar to BMW’s Xdrive system, which defaults to a 70/30 split rear to front and is able to divert 100% of power to the rear wheels, All4 starts at 50/50 and is able to re-allocate up to 100% of power back to the front wheels. It’s a subtle difference, but has pretty profound ramifications on our understanding of the system and its reality on the road.

As an All4 equipped MINI reaches highway speeds, the multi-plate wet clutch that sends power to the rear wheels starts to disengage progressively, sending less and less power to the rear wheels as you go faster. At approximately 80 mph, the rear wheels are disengaged entirely for the sake of efficiency.

It’s also a bit over-engineered. The rear drive mechanisms have been designed to be able to send nearly 300 foot pounds of torque to the rear wheels. Put another way, the clutch mechanism, sending unit, rear differential and axles are engineered strong enough to work with an engine output of up to 600 foot pounds! While I doubt any factory MINI engine will ever see that kind of output, knowing that the system is that strong and that over-engineered speaks well to what we might be able to expect from the system’s longevity.

While traction aid is how MINI USA talks about the All4 system, All4 is much more than just an assistant to DSC. All4 helps to create the most neutral MINI ever with 50% of the power to the back from start. And while it’s still not a dry-surface performance system, it does allow you to bring a large portion of spirited driving back to road surfaces compromised by snow, grit or wet. In that respect, it’s a system designed for safety and driving excitement.

Yet it also has a few downsides. The promise that all wheel drive can solve all of our problems (safety and performance) is somewhat pervasive in the auto industry these days.

The AWD craze in North America began when Audi made people believe they needed four wheels turning all year around to feel that magical sense or security. In reality it was a smart, marketing savvy way to separate Audi and VW products. What AWD was really doing (in almost all situations) was creating a heavier, slower, more expensive car with worse fuel economy.

As smart as MINI engineers are and the All4 system is, it’s hard to argue with physics. The Countryman ALL4 is both heavier and less efficient than the FWD Cooper S Countryman – both core traits of all MINI products. Meanwhile the FWD Countryman Cooper S with snow tires would prove to be more than capable in snow. All while being all around more “MINI.”

Quality

By 10,000 miles, all three MINI’s I’ve owned had to be taken to the dealer at least three times for some sort of unexpected service issue. Out in the community, some of the early MINIs were probably been in for service three or four times that often by 10k miles. This Countryman, however, was a very different story. Put plainly it’s been entirely boring from a service standpoint. For 10,000 miles the Countryman has started, stopped and done everything it does in perfect fashion. While that doesn’t mean things will be perfect forever, it does show that MINI has upped the anty significantly in quality.

Conclusions at 10,000 miles?

We still have a ways to go in our Countryman and a full long-term report to deliver. But with 10,000 miles under our belts we can safely say the Countryman Cooper S All4 has been a supremely impressive commuter, hauler and family car all while still being a MINI. In foul weather it’s confident and (dare we say it) incredibly fun.

While it loses some of what makes the R5X models so much fun to drive in perfect weather conditions, it gives you the space and utility that many times is required. In short this is the MINI that you don’t have to apologize for with friends and family.

Would we buy one with our own money? We’ll answer that in our final few months.