"Big Mini” sounds as contradictory as “jumbo shrimp,” but here it is.
The new Mini Cooper Countryman will be the first all-wheel-drive-optional four-door model to wear the automaker’s winged crest when it arrives in early 2011.
It will also be the biggest.
Yet when compared to any other similar-sized sport utility vehicles on the market (say the Honda Element or upcoming Nissan Juke and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport), the Countryman will still be the smallest of this funky bunch.
Luckily, small doesn’t mean crowded or cramped, which is how anyone in the six-foot-plus range is made to feel when climbing aboard or extricating themselves from the basic Mini or even the extended-length Clubman.
The Countryman is about six-inches taller than its siblings and is also four-inches wider for added shoulder and elbow room. The rear doors are generously proportioned, allowing easy access for two adults perched atop flat-folding bucket seats. A three-place rear bench will reportedly be a no-cost option.
Opening the big rear hatch accesses a decent-sized storage compartment. With the back seats folded, there’s about 25 percent more capacity than you’ll find inside a Mini Clubman.
Both rows are divided by a full-length console that Mini refers to as a “Center Rail.” Here, the cupholders, USB plug-in ports (for your portable music player) and arm rest slide fore and aft along aluminum tracks
Each back seat can be adjusted forward or back up to five inches, whether you need to max out passenger leg room or cargo space.
The control panel will be familiar to anyone who has been in a Mini, especially the large circular display pod in the middle of the dash that contains the speedometer, fuel gauge, audio controls and the optional navigation system.
Fans of the Mini’s retro design will appreciate the Countryman’s overall shape and proportions. Even the grille and headlights are familiar, which is obviously the point. However, the 17-inch wheels that appear just fine on other Minis seem a bit small for the Countryman.
The two powerplants are the same upgraded units that are headed for the entire 2011 Mini fleet. Base models run with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that delivers 122 horsepower, an increase of four from 2010. The Countryman S has a 184-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder, up 12 from the previous turbo engine.
The Mini Cooper is often praised for its fuel economy, but there’s no word yet how big a hit the Countryman will take in comparison, considering its taller ride height, extra heft and all-wheel-drive option.
On all models, a six-speed manual transmission is standard, while a six-speed automatic is optional. The manual benefits from new synchronizers as well as a special friction coating on the linkage cables for smoother shifts.
Ordering the Countryman S is the only way to add on the available ALL4 all-wheel-drive system. During normal driving conditions, the rear wheels are simply along for the ride, but under hard acceleration or when encountering slippery surfaces, up to 100 percent of the engine’s torque can actually be diverted to the rear wheels.
Exact trim, features and pricing haven’t yet been released, but the base Countryman will likely be reasonably well equipped with power windows, doors and locks, as well as air conditioning. Expect a base price of about $24,000.
The higher output John Cooper Works package that’s optional on the Mini Cooper S and Mini Clubman S won’t be available — at least initially — for the Countryman, but a Sport option with a lowered ride height (for improved handling) and unique wheels will be offered.
This type of variety is just what the Countryman needs to reach a wider audience than either the Cooper or Clubman. With more size, room, seating and all-wheel-drive capability, it is, quite literally, a big step in a whole new direction to become a Mini for the masses.