After ten months behind the wheel of our long-term Countryman tester, we’re here to tell you what we would have done differently. Perhaps more importantly, how you should spec your own Countryman if the time comes.
With 12,000 miles under its belt, we’re starting to wonder what the Countryman All4 can’t do. Sure there are those who loathe the idea of a four door MINI. We say get over it. The car is here and selling in significant numbers. We should all be happy it’s actually a good car in the grand scheme of small, four door crossovers. The Countryman brings the MINI brand to the masses. No it’s not an R56 or R53, but it’s certainly the most interesting thing to ever hit the small crossover market. It’s the lightest, most nimble car in its class while (in our experience) being exceptionally well built.
Yet for all the capability of our long-term test vehicle, there are choices to be made if you’re going to order a Countryman of your own. Choices in models and choices in options. And, like any MINI, navigating these choices intelligently is essential in ending up with the MINI that’s right for you.
Four doors and four seats
MINI’s goal with the Countryman was to offer a car that appealed to a broader market. That meant four doors for starters. It also meant an available five seats. Or perhaps 4 seats and one “space” would be a better definition. However, for the 2011 model year the R60 was only available with four seats due to a NHTSA required seat width for all cars in the US (insert fat American joke here). So with that being the case we figured we’d go all in and not only embrace the four seats but order MINI’s unique full rail system with our MotoringFile Countryman. In the eight months that followed we threw everything at our four-seat Countryman. Road trips galore and kids everywhere. The conclusion? Order the bench seat if you appreciate utility and flexibility. That, or don’t have kids.
The Cooper S vs Cooper
When you’re ordering the Countryman there’s really only one box that has to be checked. The one right next to “Cooper S.” The 181 hp is the perfect compliment to the weight and size of the R60. The Cooper Countryman, even in manual guise, struggles to get out of it’s own way. What if you’re tight on funds? Simple, wait another few months, save some cash, and still order the Cooper S. You will thank us.
Cloth vs Leather vs Leatherette
The MotoringFile Countryman has been put to every real world test imaginable, but perhaps the most rigorous has been transporting two small children over long distances. In these excursions, we learned one very important lesson about cloth seats. They are great at pretty much everything with the exception of repelling a stain. If you care about such things, go with the leather or animal friendly leatherette. Wiping up will be much easier.
Additionally, we learned that not all MINI Sport Seats are created equal. The $2,000 Lounge leather is fantastic in smaller MINIs. However the Countryman has less side bolstering and the lower cushion is much less aggressive. It’s more of a park bench than a real sport seat. For our money, it’s the standard leather sport seats that represent the sweet spot in Countryman seating options.
Manual vs Automatic
In the almost ten years that MotoringFile has been in existence we’ve never come close to recommending anything but a manual transmission in a MINI. Today that streak continues. Go with the manual, but there is an asterisk involved in that recommendation.
On all front wheel drive models of the Countryman, the manual transmission feels and acts as you’d expect coming from any other recent MINI. The clutch has a clean, low engagement point and the transmission has good feel and feedback. While not exceptional, it’s easily best-in-class and keeps you adequately amused and involved in the process of driving. All in all, we consider it a no brainer.
Here’s that asterisk, though. If you’re dead-set on getting the Countryman Cooper S All4. All the auxiliary components in the driveline, combined with the standard MINI clutch, creates a tangible lack of feel at the point of clutch engagement. In English? You’re going to stall the thing. No matter how experienced you are as a manual driver, nothing will quite prepare you for how slowly and how high in the pedal travel the clutch engages. You will stall the car as you learn to drive it, and you will find it frustrating. Eventually you’ll figure it out, then you’ll drive anther car with a manual. Then you’ll get back into your Countryman All4 and stall again.
While I’d personally still opt for the manual (for greater feel, control etc) the automatic becomes much more attractive for this and one other reason: it’s actually pretty good. Clearly MINI has made a choice to refine the software just a bit for the R60, because the auto Countryman All4 feels just a bit more willing to relinquish control to the driver through those flappy paddles. Even if you don’t choose the gears yourself, the transmission is quick and competent enough to avoid frustrating even an enthusiast driver. You don’t get the involvement, and it’ll never quite be as rewarding as the manual (yes even with the lazy clutch), but it’s not a bad choice in the All4.
Is All4 Worth it?
When we tested the three CM models available in the US in 2010, our conclusion was that the front wheel drive Cooper S Countryman was actually the sweet spot in the range. It was faster, lighter and more efficient than the All4 Cooper S. As a bonus, it also costs less. The downside? Less traction in the cold, white stuff. Solution? Get a set of winter tires.
We love the idea of the All4 system and would highly recommend it if you live somewhere with extreme, snowy winters. However we cannot recommend it if you don’t live in the frozen north. It’s unnecessary weight and complexity on a car that was ultimately born out of simplicity. For manual drivers, its absence gives you more feel as there’s not the added driveline components to all but ruin the clutch feel, as we’ve already described.
In FWD form the Countryman is more agile, quicker off the line and better on petrol. What’s not to love about that? If you’re worried about snow, get winter tires.
As with any MINI there are some must-have options in our book. Black headlights suit the character of the car and the shape of the lights well. As does the matte black trim in place of the optional chrome-line trim. Then there’s the after-sales matte black headlight trim that will be arriving at dealers later this summer – that’s also a must-have in our book.
In our opinion, you really can’t go wrong on exterior color choices on the Countryman right now. It’s an interesting palette that can work with white or black roofs and even white wheels. One of our biggest regrets was going with Light White/Black instead of the Surf Blue/White as we had originally wanted.
Finishing off the car with 18″ wheels is also essential to us. It helps to fill out those big wheel arches. In fact, after seeing the JCW 19″ wheels, we’d be hard pressed not to spring for those and help visually lower the car. That said, stay away from the run-flat tires if you can. The ride quality will reward you.
Inside, there are just a few essentials. For us, navigation will always be on that list, but at the very least get MINI Connected. The screen and the extra control it gives you over the car’s electronics is a must-have. Then there’s the trim around the center speedo. Go for the dark grey – trust us.
Otherwise, the Countryman is an incredible blank canvas for vehicular expression. The combinations are pretty much limitless and always interesting. But if there’s just a few key things to remember, keep these in mind:
Keep it simple and then get as many options as possible. What that means is go for the Cooper S but (unless you live in a serious snow-belt) keep it front wheel drive. If you do that, then we can heartily recommend the much more appropriate manual transmission. If you can’t live without the idea of an all-wheel-drive MINI, then we wouldn’t fault you for going with the automatic for that car. Also, don’t be scared to go for a white roof and even white wheels. It’s a great look that stands out in a uniquely MINI way. Above all else, make sure you get the Sports Suspension for the 10mm drop and the more nimble handling. It is a MINI, after all.