We attended the 2013 International Mini Meeting in Italy - here's our MSN Cars Mini Mania mega gallery
Summary: You can't argue with the practicality or the drive, but will the controversial looks help or hinder it?
We like: Much-needed practicality boost for MINI range, great to drive, super-efficient engines
We don't like: Extremely controversial styling and proportions, boot practicality less impressive in reality, a stretch too far for the brand?
Welcome to the MINI that makes the MINI look mini. And the original Mini seem, well, nothing more than a child's toy car. The BMW-controlled brand has long yearned for a genuine five-door, five-seater, to cater for MINI owners who outgrow the cars and move elsewhere.
The Countryman is it. It's MINI's answer to the Nissan Qashqai and the VW Golf; for those seeking passenger and boot space, but still yearn for something leftfield. And MINI's taken the crossover route for the first genuinely new MINI new car. Posh ones even offer 4WD (though most will be front-wheel drive).
Your first impressions will match ours: it's big. Eye-rubbingly big; this is a MINI with remarkable height, prominent front end, bulbous rear; from the roofline to the lights, everything about it is, well, big.
Yet, at the same time, still 'MINI'. Just as Porsche has done with the Cayenne and Panamera, MINI's taken all the cues it's famous for and enlarged them. You be the judge of whether it works or not.
MINI at last fits its own BMW-designed engine, rather than using a Peugeot-Ford unit. It is a cracking motor, much smoother and free revving. There's a bit of clatter at low speeds but it smoothes on the go. The installation soothes out vibrations better too.
For a diesel, it is revvy and quick in throttle response. This suits the sporty ideal of the MINI well, while the 112hp Cooper version does an ample job of shifting the Countryman's 1,455kg heft. The ALL4 is a bit slower than the front-driver, but allows you to use more of the shove in slippery conditions.
Ride and handling
The Countryman is a more family-orientated motor so is not as tautly set up as other models. The ride has more cushioning at all speeds; you feel this in the form of roll at low speeds, because the springs are softer.
Good damping means the Countryman still handles well, though. There's more body motion but it never heaves or wallows. And although the steering is less direct, it still carries a strong sense of the MINI immediacy; it's much more direct than regular family hatchbacks.
The ALL4 four-wheel drive of upper range MINIs is one that draws from BMW's own xDrive setup - but is even more 'intelligent'. It balances eco front-wheel drive with more drive to the rear when necessary quite brilliantly; stable traction is assured.
It has handling benefits too, in helping the rear end 'push' you round corners. No, it's certainly not as fun as a MINI Hatch, but the ride improvements mean it's arguably better set up for British back roads - and the chassis' tenacity gives confidence to enjoy them.
Visually, it is very similar to the regular MINI, even down to the round speedo and toggle switches. Don't be fooled. To sit in, it's been transformed. For one, there's space; high-set seats which give a commanding view out too; oh, and (ahem) space in the rear.
This is the first MINI that's not mini by nature for the rear trio. The back bench seat offers loads of head and legroom, and is fully adjustable. If you only carry two, you can choose a dual-seat option for free - the buckets are comfier in return.
Choose two seats and the metal centre rail extends all the way back - MINI says this makes it long enough to house seven cupholders! AUX and USB sockets in the rail mean a deluge of further MINI-branded accessories are expected for it.
The boot says 350 litres but it's not as flexible as a Golf; that space comes from boot height rather than length, and the floor is an awkward shape, too. Even so, it's ample, and seats fold in a flash to make it a MINI you can - shock! - get loads of stuff in.
Economy and safety
The new diesel is not only better in use, it's better at the pumps, too. Even the ALL4 model we tested averages 57mpg; eschew all-wheel traction and it improves to a fantastic 64mpg. That's Golf 1.6 TDI level and should maximise its family sector chances.
4WD is a relative rarity for family cars (if not crossovers) and remains a boon to driving security, particularly in the winter. With standard ESC, plus the unspoken benefits of high seats and a lofty view out, it helps MINI claim good levels of active safety.
And prices? Our test Cooper ALL4 diesel was up at the hefty-sounding £20k mark. That's posh Golf money - and a VERY posh Qashqai price. Eschew ALL4 and it falls to £18,800: Nissan will sell you a seven-seat mid-spec Qashqai diesel for that. Even so, by MINI standards, that's still compelling.
Buyers generally seem more willing to spend big money on MINIs. As the big new MINI is not a big jump up, and standard kit is good, we reckon the £16k petrol Countryman starter tag will be easir to swallow. After all, it's only entry-level Ford Focus money...
The MSN Cars verdict
The MINI Countryman is an able family-car extension for the brand, that's roomy, great to drive and comes with all the desirable benefits associated with cool crossovers. But, it's not MINI: how will this fact, and the associated controversial proportions, go down with buyers? Time will tell...
|Need to know|
|Engines, diesel||1.6-litre turbodiesel 4-cylinder|
|Torque, lb ft||199|
|Top speed, mph||112|
|Rating||MINI Countryman Cooper D ALL4|
|Ride and handling||****|
|MSN Cars verdict||****|
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