A few weeks ago we started a new feature at MF called the MF Vault. The idea is to bring back some of our favorite reviews over the years and present them to a new (and larger) audience at MF. We started with our R53 vs R56 review from late 2006. Today we’re back with another view. However this time one that’s technically less than a year old. However with the internets having a such short memory, we thought it appropriate to re-aquaint some of you of our Countryman Comparison pitting the Cooper, Cooper S and Cooper S All4 in a death match.

And it’s a perfect time as we’ve just taken possession of our own long-term Countryman MCS All4. So with that, let the best really small cross-over win…

The roads west of Austin Texas were my personal rally stages last week as I test drove each of the three Countryman models back to back to back. It was a perfect combination of weather, roads and the right cars that so rarely happens with busy schedules. But beyond the joy of just driving, the time allowed me to dig deeper into each of the Countryman models and get past the initial “getting to know you” phase we had with our first drives of the Countryman. What it allowed me to do is truly evaluate each model compared to the next without any assumptions or preconceived notions.

If you’re looking for a more straight-foward review of the Countryman head over to our first drives of each model (MCS All4, MCS, MC). But if you’re ready to move beyond the typical first drive review and hear our objective thoughts on the entire Countryman range from an enthusiasts point of view, read on.

It’s important to consider that the Countryman is a unique platform built for a singular purpose. Portions are derived from the current MINI range. The drivetrain for example is almost entirely a carry-over. However the structure of the car has no compromises in design or engineering. It sounds boring but trust me, this is important when it comes to this vague thing we call “feel.” That feel is something many remark on when they experience a MINI. While the car shrinks around you in corners, it also drives larger and more solid than you’d expect from a small car. Part of this is due to how BMW designs and engineers their chassis. For instance, they do not make control arms out of stamped steel (looking at you Toyota), but instead use cast aluminum ones. Nor do they compromise when it comes to creating a rigid chassis a class or two above competitors. All of this creates the feel of substance that defies expectations of a small car.

In the Countryman that feel has been amplified. In fact it almost has a teutonic similar to the best BMWs. While some might believe the weight and size of the Countryman has taken some of the typical MINI feel away, it’s almost better to think of it as layer of solid substance placed over the top of it. Yes, this dulls responsiveness slightly, and sure, the extra weight cannot be masked at the limit. 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.

The Test

I wanted to get there early. The plan was to give us (about 30 journalists) keys to about 10 MINIs representing the entire 2011 model range. One benefit of running MotoringFile is the fact that I had already spent lots of quality time with each of the Countryman models so I wanted to get straight to comparisons. The plan was to do quick drives back-to-back-to-back with a handful of models. All I needed was the right road. Surprisingly, that was easy to find. The test course was a series of roads in the back country outside of Austin, TX that challenged the cars with everything from off-camber corners to extreme elevation changes. It was a perfect way to help determine what made a each model unique.

The Cooper

Slow cars are not something that the car buying public are very used to anymore. There was a time that a 10 second 0-60 time was considered sporty. Clearly that time has passed. Anything over eight seconds is usually looked at with raised eyebrows and certainly dismissed by driving enthusiasts. This has always served MINI well with the base Cooper model (in the US of course) coming in right around that mark and always feeling just frisky enough. The Countryman Cooper does not. It is a slow car in the modern sense of the word. Motivating nearly 3,000 pounds of metal up and down the hills west of Austin was both physical and mental work. I drove the manual this time, but even rowing the hell out of the gears didn’t solve the problem.

That said, it’s still a MINI. It has all of the same attributes that make the Countryman such a solid buy. You just need momentum on your side, a quick right hand on the gear lever and some fast footwork with the clutch. Sounds fun doesn’t it? It’s entertaining but in truth it’s not nearly as fun as the Cooper S. There’s no way around it. Because of that there’s never been a better time to tell prospective Cooper owners to seriously think about laying down the extra $3,600 for the Cooper S. There, I said it.

If there was ever any doubt as to why MINI didn’t allow for the All4 system on the Cooper it clearly comes down to power and speed. With the extra driveline to motivate the Countryman Cooper would have gone from slow to uncomfortably slow. Even on normal roads the engine was clearly taxed trying to get the car up to speed. There were several times when I turned onto a four lane divided road, floored it, and still wasn’t sure if I was going to be a moving chicane or flowing with traffic.

But motivation aside, it’s an impressive package for $22,350. The interior is nothing short of a miracle compared to the pre-2011 MINIs. Material qualities and build quality (even on this early production model) are better than anything I’ve ever seen from MINI. Everything from design to build tells the story of a premium vehicle that has every right to be positioned above much of the Japanese or American Competition. In short, it’s a very impressive package. It’s only let down by the power of the engine. If there was only something that offered more performance. in the same package. Oh, right.

The Cooper S

After driving the Cooper I wanted to take the next step up the ladder into a manual transmission FWD Cooper S. Our test car was equipped (unlike the Cooper) with the sport package, 18″ wheels, Navigation, MINI Connected (more on this soon) and that beautiful off-white leather. Like the Cooper, the material and build quality was first-rate and easily the best thing I’ve ever seen from MINI. The design and execution of the interior just warms the heart after living with an ’07 MCS for a year. Seating position is what MINI calls “semi-command” and offers a view of the road that will surely be more reassuring for some drivers.

Also, at $25,950 it’s a pretty fair price for an up-market cross-over of the Countryman’s positioning.

We’ve covered the updated and improved 1.6L turbo found in all Cooper S models for 2011 ad nasium, but it’s worth talking about if not to simply dwell on a few impressive numbers. With the addition of Valvetronic (long a staple of BMW engines) power is up 9 hp while efficiency is also up. Beyond the numbers the result of Valvetronic is a better throttle response, smoother delivery and — simply put — a quicker car.

All of this motivates the heaviest car ever to wear a MINI logo. But at just under 3,000 lbs the Countryman Cooper S is the sweet spot of the R60 range with the best power to weight ratio of all models. And on top of that delivers 1 MPG better than the All4 equipped Countryman MCS.

But one thing about the Countryman that physics dictates: it doesn’t quite have that same level of go-cart feel that the hatch possesses. Where the R56 can be fun at anything more than 20 mph, the R60 needs at least ten more mph to get the same thrill. And that’s where the 181 hp turbo power plant really helps the equation.

It is said that weight is the enemy of performance, but comfort and safety is essential to any modern mass produced car. The Countryman, more than any other MINI, has to cater to both. So comfort + safety = reduced performance right? I don’t know if the word “reduced” is quite right here though. I believe “different” would be a better description. In fact R60 feels like exactly what it is: a heavier, taller MINI. Its senses are muted slightly (by design and by weight and height) and its motion is more controlled.

Our test course featured extreme elevation changes and off-camber corners that taxed the suspension setup of each model. It also did a great job exposing the limits of the chassis and grip. The standard FWD Countryman MCS has the most MINI-like feel with a hint of lift off over-steer along with the standard understeer that we all expect with a MINI. The sport suspension, while better damped than the stock, still had more body roll that I would have liked. Make no mistake, the ride is composed and comfortable in a way no MINI has ever been. In fact it may just be perfect for someone new to the MINI brand perhaps. But I can’t help but feel that this is the one area where MINI clearly got it wrong from a hardcore enthusiast’s view-point. Yes the car has more weight and more roll is to be expected, but if BMW can work magic on a 5,000 lb X6, it can do the same on an MCS Countryman with the sport package. The JCW suspension (planned to be available at launch) would likely be money well spent for the hardcore enthusiast.

On the highway the Countryman MCS (and all Countryman for that matter) has a solid feel that is unknown in the rest of the MINI range. The steering has good on-center feel and the entire package feels (as we mentioned earlier) teutonic at highway speeds.

Speaking of steering feel, MINI has clearly refined the electric steering over the years and the result is the best feel since the first generation. The Countryman features an updated system that surprisingly has a more fluid feel (as it weights up in corners) than the hatch. The sport button further enhances the weight but doesn’t dull the connection to the road as the R55, R56 or R57s’ systems do. No it’s not at R50/R53 levels of immediacy, but the largest heaviest MINI currently sold now has the best steering feel.

Inside, our MCS was equipped (like all US R60s currently) with two rear buckets and the standard full rail system. The design looks great and functions as expected. The only downside is the quality of rail accessories. They don’t inspire the confidence with their overly complex latching mechanism and cheap plastic. Yet I can’t help but applaud MINI for the idea, and if they can’t make a good iPhone cradle, I’m sure the aftermarket can.

One last thought on the rail system. I found that the full length rail posed no issue in navigating over or around and would heartily recommend it over the split design.

The most fundamental new feature of the Countryman is its four doors. Even as small as they are, they allow for perfect access. Getting the rear seats folded down for full loading capabilities or adjusting the angle of the back is accomplished by a small strap on the inside of the seat near the rail. It’s not the most obvious location and surely will be a decision knocked by organizations like Consumer Reports. However, the seats themselves are fantastic. Unless you absolutely need a bench seat (look for the option in the latter half of 2011 for the US market), the rear buckets are the way to go. With fore and aft movement, plus good side bolstering, they are the best rear seats you’ll find in a small crossover anywhere.

The overall rear interior volume is about the same as the Clubman. However it’s the extra rear legroom, width and height that makes the Countryman slightly more usable day to day.

Driving the FWD MCS Countryman, unsurprisingly, is just like driving a heavier, taller MINI. The DNA is there but combined with new attributes that are designed to appeal to a broader range of consumers. Is it still a MINI? You’ll have to answer that for yourself. But in my mind, it’s not simply “MINI’s crossover”, but MINI’s interpretation of what a crossover should be. And I like it a lot.

The Cooper S All4

For years MINI fans have been waiting for all wheel drive — the promise of a more balanced and better performing car thanks to the magic or all four wheels putting power to the ground. And (finally) it’s here. It just happens to be the heavier and worse performing of the two Cooper S Countryman models. It’s also the most expensive, starting at $27,650.

The promise that all wheel drive can solve all of our problems (safety and performance) is somewhat pervasive in the auto industry these days. But it’s a promise that is rarely fulfilled in mass market products. And like many other awd vehicles the All4 Countryman doesn’t deliver on all the expect or perceived benefits.

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. But as many of us know, that added propulsion really just creates a heavier, slower, more expensive car with worse fuel economy. But MINI engineers are smart. And the Cooper S Countryman All4 has a system that was designed to mitigate those old downsides with clever technology and electronics. But as smart as they and the system are, those downsides are still present. It’s both heavier and less efficient than the fwd Cooper S Countryman.

And then there’s speed. The All4 Countryman Cooper S stops the clock at 7.7 seconds (manual) 0-60. The standard front wheel drive Countryman Cooper S does the same distance in 7.3. While we expect those times are equally conservative the .4 of a second separating them is hard to ignore.

How about some positives? First off, ALL4 is available with a six-speed manual – a rarity in the US market and a huge win in our book. Try ordering that combination in a Nissan Juke. It only offers a CVT with AWD. Secondly, it’s rather efficient in the way it uses power. The system itself is typically 100% front wheel drive which means the rear tires are just rolling along with the car until they sense slip. While that means that your Countryman All4 is nothing more than a FWD almost all of the time, it also means it’s more efficient than some other, older comparable systems. At any point when traction is lost, up to 50% of the power can be sent to the rear. Like other modern systems, power can also be sent from left to right based on traction needs. Put plainly, All4 is what you need when you need it and nothing more.

What this gives All4 is a uniquely planted feel at the limit that no other MINI has. But it doesn’t mean All4 is a performance option. This is a safety feature and MINI clearly positions it as such. The stock Countryman Cooper S is not a street legal WRC car that many had hoped. Not yet at least.

Nevetheless there are moments when All4 does affect the Countryman at the limit. When pushed there is a subtle solidity and ability to power out of corners where the FWD car would simply rotate and then shoot out of them. It’s a slightly more refined character than we’re used to (even in the FWD Countryman), and one that would certainly be appreciated for those of us who are aggressive in slippery conditions.

In all the All4 Countryman Cooper S is the most solid and grown-up MINI yet. Yet I can’t help but feel it’s overkill when you already have an exceptional front wheel drive Countryman Cooper S for $1,700 less. There simply isn’t enough benefit to justify the cost, weight, efficiency, and performance penalties. I have confidence in my ability to work through any snow that Chicago will throw at me in a MINI. I also have confidence in my judgment to be prudent enough to not have to rely on All4 to save me.

The Verdict

We have one that’s too slow and one that’s just a little too much of everything. Then sitting in the middle is the perfect compromise: the FWD Countryman Cooper S. It’s not that the Cooper is too slow to be a good car, or that the All4 is too buttoned up to be a MINI. The FWD Cooper S wins because it’s the closest thing to what we know and love in the MINI brand. More specifically, around these roads and driven back to back, it’s the clear winner when you look at performance and price. And (perhaps more importantly) it wins when asking the most important question: does it feel like a MINI?

We’ll be back to test the All4 Cooper S during the depths of winter here in Chicago as a follow-up. In the meantime, you can head down to your local MINI dealer and drive the Countryman yourself starting this November. MINI USA’s official on-sale date is January 8th 2011 however those who order November production will likely receive their cars before that date.

Full Gallery

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