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!