When we last drove the all new MINI Countryman it was on the coastal and mountains roads of Portugal. We found both the combustion-powered Countryman JCW and electric Countryman SE to be hugely improved over their predecessors, offering more performance, engagement and of course space than before. But how does the more mainstream combustion-powered Countryman S compare?

We know the Countryman is larger and heavier than ever. But in JCW form, we found that MINI has done an exceptional job of masking that weight with improved suspension, quicker steering and a more fluid transmission. Our European-spec JCW was slightly down on power with only 300 vs 306 in the F60, but the real deficiency was torque – down 36 lb-ft. Still, we found it to be more engaging and fluid in its responses. Where the F60 JCW was numb but responsive, the U25 JCW delivered quicker responses with more feedback and eagerness. Could the non-JCW version do the same? We headed to the nicest roads we could find north of Chicago to find out.

mini countryman

The new MINI Countryman S is up in power – way up. 241 hp in the US and a massive 295 lb-ft of torque. The latter equals the new JCW in fact. And the second you call on it, it delivers. There’s no question this is a faster car than before. But it’s unlocking and engaging that performance that we found to be a bit of a struggle.

The good news is that MINI has broadened the Countryman’s capabilities. GoKart mode (what used to be called Sport) is now a bit more aggressive with better throttle response and a more aggressive transmission programming that never feels harsh like the previous model. It may not quite snap shifts off like the previous Aisin auto, but it’s much more refined. Want even more aggressive transmission programming? Pull the transmission down into “L” and it will mimic what used to be the “S” setting on the old Countryman.

Faster Doesn’t Equal More Fun

However, that’s where your input ends. Because there are no shift paddles on any Countryman except the $46,900 JCW model, you’re limited in terms of what you can control and just how much input you can have. Then there were the seats. Our almost fully loaded Countryman S came with the standard sport seats which are very flat and devoid of the side bolstering you’d expect. While the JCW Sport seats we’ve experienced in the Countryman JCW and Countryman SE get high marks, these base seats are flat and much less supportive. The second you begin carving corners they are a problem.

mini countryman

What’s really interesting is that MINI does not call out the difference on the configurator at all. The two different seat options are simply differentiated by color and not design. Even more frustrating is that the only way to get the JCW Sport seats in a Countryman S is by choosing the Favoured Style which adds the champagne-colored Vibrant Silver trim. A trim color that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with something performance oriented like the JCW seat.

Combine this with a larger, heavier car and the resulting experience feels a bit less engaging and interactive. Ultimately we came away with the impression that we were more passenger than driver.

Other updates are a bit more successful. The suspension has been recalibrated and gives the Countryman S more fluid responses. It’s still won’t rotate in corners and it’s not going to be mistaken for a Cooper in terms of responsiveness. But in a world of small crossovers, it’s near the top in terms of driving engagement.

mini countryman

Our test car was equipped with the Iconic package which added almost all options including the Max Comfort package. This gave the car Level 2 Autonomous Driving which worked perfectly in our highway tests. The Augmented Reality Navigation, Massaging Seats and other options all make the new Countryman a more modern and premium product than its predecessor. At $43,695 you’d hope so. But keep in mind the new base Countryman in the US is the “S” model with all-wheel drive and starts at a reasonable $38,900.

The MINI Countryman S: Early Conclusions

We suspect MINI will be incredibly successful with this new Countryman in the US market. It’s larger and more comfortable with more tech. The circular display and MINI OS9 are exceptional if not still a touch slow (updates are coming). And let’s be clear, most Countryman buyers will love this car. But the enthusiast who looks at a MINI as an engaging, performance-oriented experience may find some aspects of this new car disappointing.

There is a solution that naturally involves more money. The Countryman JCW solves every one of these issues mentioned but at an $8,000 premium. Which is a shame. For years we’ve often found the simpler, cheaper MINIs to be almost as fun as the more expensive JCW models. It was always a very egalitarian attribute and one that felt directly connected to the the brand’s 1959 origins.

With the new Countryman, it would seem MINI has made decisions to push the Countryman S more towards what an average buyer would want while focusing the JCW on all those looking for performance. It may be what the broader market wants, but we’re pretty sure it’s not entirely what MINI enthusiasts were asking for.