Good: quality, practicality, cross-country pace
Not so good: price, choppy ride, lack of involvement compared to smaller siblings
The biggest MINI ever, the Countryman SUV, has been reinvented for 2017 in an attempt to reaffirm its status as a premium alternative to the ubiquitous Nissan Qashqai et al within the packed crossover class. It might look similar to the old model, but it's a brand new vehicle. Here we test drive the Cooper SD ALL4 model on Irish roads for the first time.
The most noticeable change over the original MINI Countryman is the elongation of the car by a whole 200mm. The wheelbase is 75mm longer too and, combined with a slightly wider body, the result is more room in the cabin and a bigger boot. As we commented on in our first drive of the Cooper S Countryman earlier this year, the car does look rather substantial, and while the front and rear pull off the corporate MINI appearance well, in profile the Countryman can't help but look slab-sided. The 18-inch wheels of our test car are lost in the arches, a point that reinforces just how big this crossover is.
While the Countryman range starts at €33,580, the Cooper SD comes in €44,157 before any options are ticked, and our car has had the full complement thrown at it to come in at a scarcely believable €59,040. That €15k of extra equipment includes the John Cooper Works Chili Pack (which brings numerous aesthetic changes inside and out), MINI Navigation System XL and the useful head-up display, while a reversing camera and parking sensors for both ends of the car also appear among the upgrades.
Fifty-nine thousand euros? For a MINI? What would Alec Issigonis make of that? To be fair to the car, the quality of the cabin is absolutely exemplary, and the brand's German parentage is evident on every surface you touch (apart from the Union Jacks embroidered on the back of the front seat headrests, of course). A pity, then, that the rotary control knob for the 8.8-inch central navigation and infotainment touchscreen is slightly counter-intuitive to use and doesn't seem optimised for right-hand drive cars, but the head-up display is excellent. The seats are comfortable and supportive on long journeys, although rear seat passengers did complain about the intrusion of road noise coming from the boot area. The Countryman seems to pull off a quasi-Tardis effect, in that it feels even bigger from the driver's seat than it looks from the outside, an illusion no doubt aided by the curve of the windscreen and the long prow of the bonnet stretching out in front.
The fitment of sports suspension and run flat tyres contribute to a ride that gets rather choppy on uneven surfaces and, despite the body control and damping being well resolved at most speeds, the Countryman's 1,500kg-plus weight is hard to shake off. The 2.0-litre, 190hp turbodiesel engine fitted to the Cooper SD produces its maximum torque of 400Nm at just 1,750rpm, but a satisfying initial surge of acceleration is quickly followed by a wall of noise as the engine note becomes a typically uncouth diesel as it climbs up the rev range. Gearchanges on the eight-speed automatic gearbox are nice and slick, though it does seem to hang on to ratios for a little longer than is absolutely necessary in Sport mode.
MINI's front-biased ALL4 all-wheel-drive system does a good job of providing a sense of security and stability, but that's as far as it goes. Those accustomed to the company's smaller hatch offerings will be in for a bit of a shock, as fun doesn't seem to be on the list of priorities. The steering is nice and direct and has good weighting upon initial turn-in, but it lacks any real feedback. The wheel-cocking antics of its hatchback siblings are most certainly off the menu here, not helped by brakes that begin to complain after a few hard stops. Despite this, as a car in which to cover ground relatively swiftly, it's a nice place to be, even if the quoted economy figures might as well be pie in the sky unless you drive with kid gloves.
This seems to be a bit of an own goal for MINI, as to justify the premium over its rivals there needs to be something that stands out about the driving experience. Making it sensible and grown-up to drive like its competitors takes away one of the brand's key strengths, and despite the high level of quality and equipment fitted to the car, it's difficult to see many people scrambling to their local dealer for the chance to buy a Cooper SD. Those that do will get a high-quality cabin, the MINI brand prestige and some useful extra space over the outgoing model, but then again, so will those that buy the entry-level, €33,580 Cooper Countryman. It's the one we'd recommend.