Can a Mini tackle mountains? We take the Cooper Countryman on a road trip to find out.
WORDS & PICTURES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
Driving any new car for the first time takes a bit of adjustment. Finding the bite point, assessing the road position, deciding whether you can fit through gaps without denting every corner. All of the usual stuff.
Driving a car for the first time in the very centre of London? Let’s just say that’s a different challenge altogether. Especially in a sort-of-SUV.
Having collected my Mini Countryman – the 2017 edition, my ride for the weekend – it was with some trepidation, then, that I crept out of the car park and onto the streets around the Tate Modern. This thing felt big.
Not big in a bad way, mind. Just big for a Mini. Big like a Cooper that stole the vitamins from its siblings and grew to twice the size. Whilst it’s all recognisably Mini, with a bonny face and those archetypal curves, it also sits far higher off the ground, far chunkier around the hips and far gruntier at the nose.
It’s also big like only an urban SUV can be: you wouldn’t notice it from a distance but, proportionally, the Cooper Countryman is almost the same height as a Nissan Qashqai, yet, squeezing through the weaving lanes of London’s inner arteries, dodging buses and rumbling through tunnels, it’s also deft at doing the whole city driving thing.
Steering is the right amount of light, the ride is smooth and the engine is disconcertingly quiet (which remained the case even when we made it onto the M1). Stick it in ‘Green’ mode and you’ll get a softer accelerator pedal and stop-start that’s unnervingly smooth; even in ‘Sport’ it’s more effortless pace than fast aggression.
All of which adds up to a car that struggles to squeeze into tight parking spaces, but breezes through urban streets without a care in the world.
Cruising is pretty sweet, too: there are mod-cons aplenty in the cabin, from subtle mood lighting to a big, bright touchscreen display (which handles everything from settings to entertainment), all of which create the sense that this is a Mini that’s gone upmarket – countryside or otherwise.
It’s also one that feels like it might be better suited to a runway: a heads-up display that projects speed and directions onto a driver’s eye panel, and enough switches to fly a 747 give the Mini Cooper Countryman a serious sense of heft – albeit refined heft.
Buttons aside, it’s all very comfortable when flying down the outside lane. Whilst I’m not a huge fane of the SatNav being split across the central touchscreen and the HUD (with junction instructions particularly confusing), this new Countryman is otherwise the consummate urban machine.
Sufficiently unique to make an impression, it’s also big enough to hold its own on crowded roads without being unmanageable – and the giant windscreen makes visibility a treat. Ideal, in fact, for ogling the sights and stadiums of the English capital as you wind through its eastern end.
After just three hours of driving north, though, we entered an entirely different territory: the hillside roads of Derbyshire’s Peak District.
Nestled a mere 30 minutes outside of Sheffield, this heather-topped land of ragged edges and rolling hills is definitively countryside. If the Countryman wanted to prove itself to be more than a souped-up city boy, this is where it would to show it.
Being substantially bigger than Otto, the standard Mini Cooper I usually drive, it was the body roll we noticed first. Fling the Countryman around a few tight bends and it’ll give you more than a little lean. Fine if you’re the driver, not so fine if you’re in the back seat trying to eat some Bakewell Pudding without getting crumbs everywhere.
That said, it’s not unstable: in ‘Sport’ mode everything felt tight and responsive, with the gearbox surprisingly rapid and the fast pedal giving more than enough grunt on tricky slopes and unexpected crests. Which is probably why the John Cooper Works World Rally Car was (loosely) based on the Countryman.
Grip was rarely an issue, either. Sure, flooring the throttle on loose dirt and twigs meant a nice whack of wheelspin, but there was no need to hold back on rain-slick asphalt when shooting through a 90-degree right at the bottom of a hill.
There’s no escaping that it still felt less connected to the road than your average Cooper, but for a high-rolling wagon it was hardly lacking in laughs – even if the only real engine noise came in first gear. Barrelling between hedges with half of Derbyshire stretching out ahead of me, the Countryman felt like a bounding Labrador that had been let off its leash.
Much like a Labrador, it had an unexpected turn of pace and, much like a Labrador, it would still prefer to sleep at home in the evening than beside a tent in the hills.
For proper country folk, the Countryman undeniably lacks the raw mechanical build of proper pared-back off-roaders. This thing was obviously not designed for farm life, and it’s unlikely to be taken seriously as real rural machine.
Did it look out of place in the shadow of Stanage Edge spattered with mud from its tree-fringed journey? No – but it was more ‘break from the city’ than ‘life in the country’. And that’s fine, because it’s all the Countryman ever claimed to be.
It’ll also do practical better than many might expect. Stuffed full of, well, stuff – boxes, bags and more – it still handled well and had enough puff to out-gun lorries off Lincoln’s ring road roundabouts. 450 litres of luggage space won’t rival the boots of proper 4x4s, but with the seats folded down it’ll easily help your siblings move house. Trust us, we tried it.
Economy is decent, too. We weren’t driving, shall we say, conservatively and still managed to eke out more than 500 miles from a single tank.
So, yes, it’s a bit high up for your nan (and, if she’s anything like mine, she won’t like the electronic parking brake or the limited view of the reversing camera), but chuck your Mini-branded picnic rug in the boot and it soon becomes the quintessential crossover SUV.
How? By being a jack of all trades – and, yes, a master of none. It’s stylish like a Mini, but a little boxy. It’s nippy in the city, but too big to be perennially convenient. It’s handy in the hills, but can’t hit the fields.
For a town-to-country machine that’ll go the distance, then, you can do far worse than the Cooper Countryman. In fact, if you’re a Mini fan with a need for something muddy, it won’t disappoint. Provided you’re willing to hear the phrase, “Gosh, that’s a big Mini!” almost everywhere you park. It is 4.3m long, after all.
A stylish urban runaround with plenty of trimmings, the Mini Cooper Countryman is a city machine that can more than hold its own on country roads – and might just get you home without a fuel stop.