Mini isn't so mini anymore

AP News
Posted: Mar 16, 2011 1:27 PM
Mini isn't so mini anymore

The biggest Mini in new-car showrooms isn't so mini in size and price.

The new-for-2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is some 15 inches longer, from bumper to bumper, than the diminutive, 12-foot-long 2011 Mini Cooper hatchback. The five-door Countryman also is 6 inches taller and 4 inches wider than the three-door Mini Cooper hatchback.

The new size creates a roomier back seat area that's unheard of in previous Minis, and cargo space is larger than ever, too.

Still, all models of Mini _ even the Countryman _ still offer seating for only four people, and the Countryman's federal government fuel economy ratings are lower than those for some smaller Mini models.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $22,350 for the base 2011 Countryman with front-wheel drive, 121-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission. Starting retail price rises to $25,950 for a Countryman with 181-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder and manual transmission, while a Mini Countryman with all-wheel drive _ a first in a Mini _ starts at $27,650. All Mini prices are with six-speed manual transmission; a six-speed automatic adds another $1,250 to the price.

The Countryman prices compare with the starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $20,100 for a base, three-door, 2011 Mini Cooper hatchback and $21,800 for the three-door, 2011 Mini Cooper Clubman wagon.

Officials at BMW of Germany, which owns the Mini brand, said the Countryman is designed to compete with today's small crossover sport utility vehicles.

So, it would compare with the 2011 Toyota RAV4, for example, which has a starting retail price of $22,835 with 179-horsepower four cylinder, front-wheel drive and automatic transmission.

But at 5.2-feet tall, the Countryman rides lower than the RAV4 and many other SUVs and doesn't quite provide an SUV feel and appearance. Additionally, SUVs typically offer at least five seats.

Shoppers might readily compare the Countryman with 2011 Scion xB, which starts at $16,720 with 158-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission.

Also, there are other five-door hatchbacks, including the five-door, 2011 Volkswagen Golf which has a starting retail price of $20,525, with 170-horsepower four cylinder, and the five-door, 2011 VW GTI with 200-horsepower, turbo four-cylinder engine that starts at $25,065.

The test Mini Cooper Countryman was the top-of-the-line model with turbo four cylinder and all-wheel drive.

With options including Harman Kardon sound system, dual-pane sunroof and black-colored wheels, it topped out at a luxury car-like price of $35,400. This was without a navigation system or automatic transmission.

I never could quite picture the Countryman as an SUV. It looked more like a Mini Cooper on steroids, with a bulbous hood.

Pictures don't convey this appearance but it's evident in person, especially if you park the Countryman, as I did, next to a regular Mini Cooper in a store parking lot.

The smaller Mini had a cute, welcoming look. The Countryman comes off as brutish and substantial, which can appeal to some buyers who don't want a cuddly-looking car.

Designers faithfully kept the proportions and styling cues, such as wheels pushed far out to the corners, so the Countryman doesn't look like a car that has only had a nose job.

I liked how the extra weight of the longer car and the longer wheelbase made the Countryman feel stable. The car didn't bob up and down on highway expansion cracks the way a shorter-wheelbase Mini Cooper hatchback did.

And the heavier weight _ 600-plus pounds more than a three-door Mini Cooper hatchback _ was apparent as my passengers and I felt some body roll as the Countryman traveled on twisty roads. This isn't so noticeable on the smaller Mini Coopers.

Still, the Countryman, with all-wheel drive, tracked right along with confidence.

The tester had the standard suspension, which felt more compliant than that of many Mini Cooper hatchback models and provided a surprisingly comfortable ride. But it wasn't quiet. I heard road noise from the run-flat, 18-inch tires and had to turn up the radio.

The Countryman has the same two 1.6-liter engines that are in other Minis. The base engine is naturally aspirated and produces 114 foot-pounds of torque at 4,250 rpm. The tester had the turbo version with a more adequate peak torque of 177 foot-pounds starting at a low 1,600 rpm.

Moving through the gears via the rather ratchety-feeling manual, I got the Countryman moving easily into traffic and out on the highway. There was a bit of turbo lag, but the turbo is a good match for this 3,200-plus model.

Fuel economy for the test car was rated at 25 mpg in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway. I managed 28 miles a gallon in combined city and highway driving.

The tester was front-drive all the time, except when sensors detected wheel slip. Then, all-wheel drive engaged automatically. It can send as much as half the engine torque to the rear wheels.

The interior is like that of other Minis, with a large speedometer in the middle of the dashboard, not in front of the driver, and toggle switches serving as window controls. The center rail's storage spot, which was clipped in place, was flimsy.

The back seat offers 33.8 inches of legroom which is up from 29.9 inches in the Mini Cooper hatchback. Shoulder room is 52 inches, up from 44.7 inches.

Cargo space of 41.3 cubic feet maximum compares with more than 70 cubic feet in the RAV4 and other SUVs. There's a nice liftgate at the rear, not two small doors as on the Clubman.

The Countryman comes with many standard safety features, including electronic stability control, traction control and seven air bags.