Overall rating: 3.5/5
While the MINI Countryman naturally makes more sense than its oddball Paceman cousin, it's strangely not quite as likeable a car. However, it is absolutely huge inside and the latest mild revisions to the biggest of MINIs should ensure it continues to make up almost a third of all the marque's sales until a properly all-new model arrives in 2016 or 2017.
In the Metal:
The Countryman is popular; almost 33 per cent of MINIs sold globally are the big five-door machines, with more than 350,000 shifted since the model went on sale in 2010. And, given the compromises on space you have to make in the rest of the range (Clubman and Paceman excepted), you understand why it sells so well. Because it's not exactly pretty. It is, in reality, an imposing machine and the minimal changes on this facelifted model hardly transform it into a swan. To recap, it's basically black trim around the light clusters front and rear, and also on the sides of the car, some minor detail changing here and there, a chrome horizontal bar and red 'S' logo in the front grille of both this high-performance model and the diesel-fuelled Cooper SD. There are also some new body colours (such as the Jungle Green car in the pictures), alloy wheel designs and optional LED auxiliary lights to choose from.
What the Countryman must be commended for is interior room. There is no doubt that four proper-sized adults could fit in here, maybe even five at a push, while the boot is a sizeable 350 litres. The rear seats can also be slid forwards and backwards by up to 13cm, depending on what you need in the cargo area, and they move either all together or in a 60:40 split arrangement. Chrome on the ventilation controls and anthracite dials for speedo and tachometer are the visual changes within, while the MINI Connected infotainment system has extra functionality too.
The Cooper S is the model in the range that gets an obvious spec upgrade (it's the same for the Paceman line-up), now boasting an additional 6hp. OK, that's hardly a seismic increase, but the 1.6-litre turbo four doesn't labour under the weight of the Countryman and its lack of aerodynamic prowess. Performance is quick enough, although it feels markedly breathless when venturing beyond 6,000rpm, despite the claim that maximum output is available until 6,500rpm. Better to shift up a little earlier and use the MINI's torque to supplement performance.
It rolls the most of any MINI you'll encounter too, but the ride isn't overly wobbly. Actually, like its Paceman cousin, changes to acoustic damping seem to have blessed the Countryman with a decent level of refinement. It's not quite as smooth as you'd like, though, especially on the standard 17-inch wheels. The Cooper S isn't uncomfortable but there seems to be a bit more bounce to its steady-state cruising than there should be. It might be because the dampers are set up to work at their best with full loads on board, given the car's 'lifestyle' remit, but as MINI claims its suspension is almost identical to the more-comfy Paceman's calibration, we're not sure why the Countryman felt fidgety.
Otherwise, it's as you were - weighty but not massively communicative steering, good brakes, a decent soundtrack, the manufactured overrun pops from the exhaust in Sport mode and understeer-led all-wheel drive grip that's near un-stick-able in the dry with a useful extra amount of traction over a front-wheel drive model in the wet. As for its off-roading capabilities, we weren't given a chance to test them. Fair to middling would be our guess, looking at its sports tyres and only modest ground clearance; perhaps useful at the Ploughing Championships, but not so good in the high Andes.
What you get for your Money:
The Countryman has some tough rivals in the hugely competitive 'fashionista crossover' segment and while it is reasonably well-specified as standard in Cooper S guise, you can still fit plenty of options to it to bump up the list price. MINI will counter with the argument that none of the rival models can perform like the Cooper S Countryman, although Nissan's 200hp Juke Nismo is close enough. Still, the lure of the MINI brand and its predicted strong residuals will tempt enough people into refreshed Countrymans (Countrymen?).
We tested a manual Cooper S Countryman, but you can opt for a six-speed automatic too. Our advice is don't bother. The manual is great and the auto has quite an effect on performance and economy. The 0-100km/h sprint and top speed deficiencies, at 7.8 seconds and 214km/h, aren't that much of an issue on the auto, but the fuel economy drops from a quoted 47.1mpg combined to 41.5mpg, while emissions leap from 139- to 157g/km. That's a shift from tax Band B2 to D, meaning the auto will be €290 a year more to tax than the manual.
A solid showing from the revised MINI Countryman, although the revisions really are quite minimal throughout the range - even the most ardent MINI fan will struggle to spot a new car from a distance, short of checking the year of registration. The Cooper S is a game performer but given the existence of the slightly more focused Paceman, the five-door ALL4 MINI is better served by a diesel engine, as in the 143hp Cooper SD.