Overall rating: 4/5
MINI decides to see how it could turn its current models into camping vehicles and comes up with a styled caravan, two camper vans and a Countryman with a tent on the roof as concept cars. Our man beds down safari-style for a good night's sleep under canvas.
In the Metal:
The bottom half of our test car is a MINI Countryman All4, in Absolute Black metallic with black alloys, front spotlights and twin white bonnet stripes. So far, so MINI. Perched on the roof, however, is a slim line silver roof box attached to a roof rack; unclip this and pull up the lid and you have a tent capable of sleeping two adults in an elevated fashion - for example, were you on the Maasai Mara with a pride of lions circling the car, you'd hopefully be OK up on the roof. It's one of a range of three MINI camping concept vehicles, showcasing how you can achieve "maximum touring pleasure with minimal footprint".
The benefit of this arrangement is that the car bit of this union is unaltered from its more regular sibling, meaning you get all the practicality of the biggest MINI with the added bonus of a 'whenever, wherever' bed on the top. The overall appearance of the Countryman with the tent in a stowed position is purposeful and well-balanced.
Also present are two Clubvans that have been turned into tiny campers, but externally they look like nothing more than plain cream Clubvans with a couple of canoes on top. Which is not a bad thing; rather, it's simply stating the fact that you wouldn't spot them externally from a standard car. The final concept is a small, teardrop caravan that is a mere 12cm wider than a Clubman is mirror-to-mirror, and which weighs less than 300kg - finished in red with black stripes and small MINI alloys, it's a beautiful little piece of design and looks fantastic behind a Clubman wearing the inverse paint scheme in contrast.
Actually driving the Countryman Camp is the same as the standard Countryman Cooper S in many ways as the mechanicals have been untouched - so think good four-wheel grip, a reasonably entertaining chassis that's not as sparkling as the smaller MINIs and blunted by said all-wheel drive, and a ride that separates into two classes: good when on a motorway, not so good on slower roads with imperfect surfaces.
The tent and its housing itself are not a huge addition weight-wise up top, but the eagle-eyed among you will have noted that the spare wheel is mounted atop the roof box in a Dakar Rally style. The preconception before firing up the MINI is that it will feel a bit more top-heavy when cornering, yet in practice this unwieldiness never arrives, the Countryman remaining composed through tight mountain twists despite everything.
On the motorway at 130km/h there's quite a bit of wind noise from the addenda above, but it's no worse than a normal car wearing a roof rack - think of a Volkswagen Touran passing you on a motorway with one fitted and you'll have an idea of the muted whistle that permeates the cabin. It's not unbearable, though, and the bigger impact seems to be on fuel economy. The Countryman Camp was hovering around 28mpg during a steady 70-kilometre motorway run, well short of the quoted extra-urban figure of 48.7mpg. However, in mitigation we were three-up in the MINI and all of us were six-foot-plus men.
In what must be a first for CompleteCar.ie part of the 'Driving It' section involves what it's like to sleep in. And the good news is that there's plenty of space up on the second level of this Countryman hotel, with a useful big storage net attached to the roof of the bed area for watches, wallets, phones etc, a wardrobe with remote central locking downstairs and the ability to sleep practically anywhere the MINI can drive to.
The bed is comfortable too, with padding filling the whole solid bottom half of the clamshell roof box. In the very warm weather of our night in the roof tent, the canvas construction allowed welcome breezes to filter in, resulting in a good night's sleep. I'd never slept on the roof of a car before, but if they were all as pleasant as this I wouldn't rule it out again.
What you get for your Money:
Umm... technically nothing, as the Countryman Camp (not a great name if it was to go on sale in this part of the world, but I digress) is a concept and not scheduled to go on sale. If it did, all you would get over a standard Countryman is the pop-up tent in its roof box, a ladder with which to access it, an LED lamp for reading/locating errant items and a minuscule roof fan that seems to serve no purpose other than emitting low-level white noise.
The other two concepts go further, adding kitchen facilities, TV/DVD systems and even a shower between them, albeit at the expense of interior practicality in the Clubvan Campers - they're strict one-seaters.
This is not the first time a MINI (or a Mini) has been converted into a camper van; back in the 1960s, a company in the south of England modified Mini vans into the intriguing Mini Wildgoose, which featured a four-seater dinette and a double bed. One of these very rare machines is preserved in the BMW Mini Plant museum at Oxford.
There's no doubting that - with fans of the marque demanding ever more personalisation of their MINIs in the face of increasing competition from other car makers - these MINI camping concepts possess huge appeal. The Clubvans drew constant admiring glances during our time with them, and you can't help but marvel at what has been crammed into 860 litres of boot space. The Cowley is a wonderful design and again good packaging, but the Countryman Camp - daft name aside - seems to present the most realistic combination of sleeping accommodation with a useable car. It wouldn't even need to cost much either, given it is little more than a fancy roof box addition; all that's needed now is for marque fans to convince MINI to put it into official production in time for the third generation car in 2014.