Mini Countryman turns on the style

I never warmed to the previous generation Mini Countryman, the largest model in the company’s portfolio. It was ungainly, cumbersome and simply had none of the brand’s inherent qualities – design and go-kart dynamics – which left me rather underwhelmed.

Granted, the company was clear who the target market for the model was: a fan of the brand who now has a growing family.

It was a great business case, but I am not convinced that the design execution was particularly flattering.

Of course, at the time the crossover market was growing and many a buyer could own a Mini that made sense to the head rather than the heart. Even with its design anomaly, the model went on to sell 540000 units globally and 3744 locally, which when combined are healthy numbers indeed.

Now Mini has introduced the second-generation Countryman and, while I approached the model with much trepidation, any preconceived ideas were quickly allayed after 400km at the helm of the model at its media launch in KwaZulu-Natal.

From a styling perspective, there is more of a family resemblance to the rest of the model range and the rear, in particular, echoes that of the hatch.

The model has increased in length (measuring 4.299m) and is now built on the company’s variable UKL platform, which underpins the BMW X1, 2 Series Active Tourer and the Mini Clubman.

This also means that it shares engines. These include the fantastic 1.5l, three-cylinder turbo engine making 100kW and 220Nm and a 2.0l TwinPower Turbo making 141kW and 280Nm. The former is available in either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, while the latter can be had with either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic.

Cabin appointments are what we have come to expect of the model, including a dinner-plate sized infotainment system, while overall passenger space has swelled considerably thanks to the 2.67m wheelbase. Boot space is a useable 450l, sufficient for a small family’s weekend getaway.

At launch we spent time in both the Cooper and Cooper S variants on various roads, including gravel. The Cooper six-speed automatic was decent, if a little underpowered – particularly when summoned to make an overtaking manoeuvre where the weight of the vehicle meant the engine ran out of puff. This would be to the detriment of fuel economy, which is claimed at 6.0l/100km, but a more realistic 8.0l/100km is to be expected.

Handling has been markedly improved, with the vehicle feeling less top-heavy than before. It is no petit hatch but now fits the crossover role to a tee, thanks to some SUV plastic cladding both front and rear.

The Cooper S felt the more complete package. The extra urge from the more powerful engine meant it was more convincing when overtaking long trucks along meandering roads in the Midlands. Then it was onto the gravel roads, where the vehicle’s 165mm ground clearance came in handy. While the models are only front-wheel drive (four-wheel drive will be reserved for the John Cooper Works model), traction was not an issue, with the back-end slightly shimmying around corners where the dynamic stability control simply gathered everything up. Spend time in the model, particularly on some pothole-strewn roads, and the car starts to make an even better case for itself.

The all-new model might share a great deal with its BMW siblings, but it now has a much cooler character than the model it replaces. It might still be my least favourite model in the Mini range (my favourite being the Clubman) but the new Countryman has improved in just about every area compared with the previous model. There is now a sense of coherence with the entire package, and the model has finally found its identity in the portfolio.

While I could not previously recommend the model for reasons stated at the beginning of this article, the latest generation is a different case altogether. I really like the feat that Mini has achieved with this one. It is less ungainly and decidedly less cumbersome than the model it replaces, which should bode well for those who are still looking for those Mini traits.

There will be a diesel variant coming to our shores in September, which should prove thriftier than its petrol siblings, while the high-performance JCW (John Cooper Works) is earmarked to arrive in June.

Pricing runs from R422000 to R509500, which is not cheap, but it seems that all the compact premium crossovers are all in the same boat – the Audi Q2 and BMW X1 being prime examples. If you are looking for an alternative crossover in the premium segment, the new Mini Countryman is definitely worth a second look.

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