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2017 Mini Countryman review

The new Mini Countryman has grown considerably in size, possibly to the ire of some fans of the British brand but probably to the liking of most potential clients

Photos: Guenter Schmied

If you happen to be one of those people who insist that Minis should be all about ultra-compact dimensions, lightness and sheer driving fun, think again because that's not that future for the iconic British brand.

Under the guidance of BMW, Mini's parent firm from Germany, development of current and pending models will have to revolve around ever-stringent crash test legislation and the need to satisfy market demands.

Driving cockpit feels more natural thanks to logically placed instrumentation.

That's why the latest Hatch has now become a properly sized hatchback and the Clubman a decently practical estate. And now there's the new Countryman that has grown in practically all dimensions to evolve from a low-slung crossover into a reasonably versatile SUV.

According to people at Mini, the decision to pump more air into the Countryman is due to customer requirements in major markets like the US and China where there have been suggestions that the first-generation model kind of lacked the practicality for holiday-making.

Longer wheelbase helps yield better space for passengers and their belongings; seats can fold flat in three parts.

Overall length of the second-gen Countryman, for one, has grown substantially by 200mm. The wheelbase itself has been elongated by 75mm to help yield better occupant and boot space. As ever, the rear seats can fold flat in three parts to increase cargo-carrying versatility.

These improvements can immediately be noticed when hopping into the Countryman's cabin. Rear legroom is quite generous this time round, while you can throw in bigger stuff into the boot. As SUVs are relatively tall in height, head room isn't an issue. In fact, it wasn't one in the preceding model.

Speaking of the interior, the Countryman has now dislodged some emotional ideas like the centrally-placed speedo by moving it to where it should logically be: behind the steering wheel.

In the process, Mini has made the middle, circular display as a touch-screen to operate functions for audio, navigation and other infotainment. It's a first for the brand and could serve as a template for other Minis in the future.

The Countryman’s increased proportions always can be felt on the move.

Some trendy details remain in place, though, like the toggle switches ahead of the gear lever and on the ceiling. It appears some German logic has emerged into the Countryman while maintaining some playful flair a Mini needs to stand out as a fashionable icon.

Another notable improvement in the Countryman is perceived quality. Various trim and materials feel more premium now and sassy at the same time, such as the use of more solid plastics, meticulously stitched steering wheel, integration of suede and leather on the door panels and incorporation of the Union Jack emblem on the seats.

Despite all the enhancements in interior aesthetics, the same could not be said for the exterior which looks too much the same as before. The hexagonal grille up front and jagged roofline above the C-pillars, for some, appear virtually untouched, although Mini may argue that evolutionary design must remain the game in the new Countryman.

The 192hp 2.0-litre engine feels rounded rather than fire-cracking.

Technically speaking, the new Countryman sits on the same UKL2 platform as the Clubman and the X1 SUV and 2-series Active/Gran Tourer MPVs from BMW. The floor plan is actually a development of UKL1 used in the three- and five-door Hatch and Convertible models of Mini that can accommodate front- or four-wheel drive and conventional engines or electrified propulsion.

Despite the myriad of drivetrains announced including a plug-in hybrid, shared with those in the 2-series and the China-only X1 hybrids, the only engine variant available for the international media to sample in the UK last week was the 192hp 2.0-litre petrol-turbo of the Cooper S guise.

With the new Countryman having grown considerably in size and weight (by around 100kg model on model), you might question whether performance has been blunted despite the slightly more powerful engine (the old Countryman Cooper S had 184hp 1.6-litre turbo power).

Styling-wise, the Countryman looks too much the same like before.

If you've never driven today's Hatch Cooper S, which stands out with a punchy performance, you won't be disappointed with the Countryman.

Of course, it isn't as fire-cracking as in the Hatch, but driving oomph is never lacking in the Countryman. Power feels tractable and rounded at all times, and the eight-speed automatic transmission that comes with it adds up to linear responsiveness.

Toggle the drive mode into Sport and power becomes even more readily available. As well, the engine note emits more bass on the ears, if sounding a little too artificial.

Whatever the merits of the Cooper S's performance, you still can't help thinking that the more suitable drivetrain for an SUV and, in this case, the Countryman, is the 190hp diesel of Cooper SD form. In theory, this particular oil-burner should be an ideal choice for an SUV subject to holiday-making.

But as many Mini owners, especially those in Thailand, tend to use them as toys for the daily grind, the alternative that probably might make more sense is the plug-in hybrid (see sidebar for details) because of its ability to drive silently and cleanly for short distances. But we'll have to keep our verdict for another time when test cars are available later this year.

As for the driving characteristics of the new Countryman, it's quite easy to sum up that it's now more mature on the road -- just as what has happened in all other existing Minis. And because of the taller height, and more suspension travel that comes with it, the Countryman is probably the most comfortable Mini to be in. Almost.

The ride, for instance, is plusher and more absorbent than in the previous Countryman, yet it doesn't feel totally controlled at all times, particularly over undulating country roads outside of London. You can sense the excessive amount of head movements of occupants inside the car.

In terms of handling, the Countryman is more intuitive to drive than before, aside the fact that all test cars came with ALL4 all-wheel drive to increase traction on occasionally icy road surfaces in the UK at this time of the year.

The steering is lighter than before, yet it still feels crisp upon turn-in and nicely weighted on motorways. One small quibble, though, are the brakes that don't appear to have a progressive pedal action.

And generally speaking, you always feel (and see from the driver's seat) the increased proportions of the Countryman while driving which somehow takes away some agility. This is certainly no super-agile Mini some aficionados of the brand may come to expect of. And to top it off, the Countryman is not exactly a genuinely fun car to drive, if that's going to matter to potential buyers.

But when Minis have become so successful among modern-day punters new to the brand, it won't be surprising to see the Countryman remaining the bread-winner in terms of unit sales.

And now that it comes much closer in having a proper SUV package, many people will go for it without really weighing it against other potential rivals in the premium car market (two million baht and over). What just awaits for further rationalisation are the other engine variants available as they will certainly make -- coupled with Mini's Asean assembly plans -- the Countryman cheaper in price after it is being introduced in completely built-up forms this March.


NEXT PROGRAME

Mini has announced a wide range of drivetrain options for the second-generation Countryman including everything from a petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid, front- and all-wheel drive, and manual and automatic gearbox options.

Plug-in hybrid can travel 40km in EV mode at no more than 125kph.

While performance-minded buyers may find the 192hp Cooper S a decent bet, on the top of the range actually sits the John Cooper Works version sporting 231 ponies that can crack the 0-100kph time in 6.5sec. Coping with such power is standard all-wheel-drive, sports suspension and Brembo brakes.

The more sensible choices in the SUV fashion are the diesel versions comprising of the 150hp Cooper D and 190hp Cooper SD, both using the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine (as in the BMW X1 18d and 20d, accordingly). Both get eight-speed auto.

Price-conscious buyers may also have a look at the petrol-powered Cooper model which comes with a 136hp 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo engine. But if opted without ALL4 all-wheel-drive, you have to be content with just a six-speed auto.

JCW model is fastest Countryman with a 0-100kph

But probably the most crucial variant for the Thai market in the long run is the Cooper S E ALL4 running a plug-in hybrid because it can take advantage of the low 10% excise duty (the others face at least 30%).

The Cooper S E ALL4 combines the 1.5-litre triple with an electric motor, the latter component driving the rear wheels to essentially make the car all-wheel-drive. Some startling facts include a 6.8sec 0-100kph time making it the second fastest-accelerating Countryman after the JCW thanks to a combined output of 224hp.

And despite being armed with a less fancy six-speed auto, it can achieve average CO2 emissions of just 49g/km under the debatable New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) test.

The Cooper S E ALL4 can drive in pure electric mode for 40km at speeds of no more than 125kph. Charging times via a 240V socket requires two-and-a-half to just over three hours, according to Mini.

Expect Thai sales of it to follow the regular petrol and diesel models, which will launch initially at March's Bangkok motor show in completely built-up forms at circa-3 million baht prices.

At the moment, BMW Thailand is still contemplating which model will be made at the Thai and Malaysian plants; the first-gen Countryman sold in Thailand only came from Rayong.

Sources say there's a high chance that the plug-in hybrid will be bolted together in Rayong, while the factory in our neighbouring country would handle the diesel models. Both markets can swap cars tax-free courtesy of the Afta trade scheme.

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