The big new MINI Countryman crossover is usefully more spacious inside and has great handling, but you'll need to dig deep to afford it.
In the metal
It's massive, there's just no two ways about it. OK, so the 2017 MINI Countryman isn't quite as gargantuan as a Hummer or a Mercedes G-Wagen, but it's not as far away as the brand values might make you think. It has certainly long since left behind the sub-three-metre length of the original 1959 Mini and in fact stretches now to a full-on 4.3 metres. In this Cooper S ALL4 auto form it also tips the weighbridge at a very hefty 1,530kg so there's genuine mass to go with the size.
All of which makes the new Countryman much more practical than it used to be. There's an extra 100 litres of space in the boot, compared to the old one, bringing it to a seats-up total of 450 litres (or 1,350 litres with the seats folded) and you can juggle that around a bit because you can (optionally) have a rear bench seat that slides back and forth by up to 30cm. Those back seats are more than decently roomy for kids and adults, and there are now three ISOFIX points (two in the back, one in the front) to underline the fact that this really is a family crossover.
That boot springs a small and clever surprise too, with a flip out cushion that sits on top of the back bumper and makes a neat little picnic perch or shoe-change spot. Simple but really rather charming.
Up front, the dashboard architecture is all new and although there are very familiar carry-overs from other MINI models, there are new touches such as the vertical air vents (which are supposed to emphasise the more upright, SUV-ish nature of the car) and some seriously high quality plastics. Actually, the disappointment in the cabin is common to all MINI models, and it's that attempt to cram a rectangular infotainment screen into the dinner-plate-sized hole that was previously occupied by the old speedometer. It just looks really awkward and forced to me and kind of ruins what is otherwise a practical, comfortable and spacious cabin.
You would not think that a tall, spacious, 1,530kg four-wheel drive crossover could feel like a proper MINI - and you'd be right. The fact that the Countryman Cooper S does a reasonable impression, a sort of Gift Grub MINI if you will, is quite impressive. The steering has a meaty, fulsome weight and some little bit of road feel, while that tall, bluff nose can be flicked into corners with surprising élan. The rest of the chassis follows neatly and precisely, although with the streaming wet conditions of our test drive it's a little difficult to tell how much of that was down to the contribution of the very slick ALL4 four-wheel drive system, which is both lighter and faster-responding than that of the old Countryman ALL4. It will even handle some mildly squelchy off-roading with ease, although the limited ground clearance and low-dangling bumpers mean you shouldn't get too carried away.
Engines basically mirror those of the existing MINI Clubman estate, with the 136hp 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo Cooper footing the range, followed by the Cooper D 150hp diesel and Cooper SD 190hp diesel and then the Cooper S with its 192hp four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, which we've tested here in ALL4 four-wheel drive form.
The limiting factor here is the performance, or more accurately the effect of that ballooned weight figure on performance. A car with 192hp and 280Nm should be sparkling to drive (and the standard MINI Cooper S hatchback is), but with all that heft, the Cooper S engine is just smothered here. Speed can be unlocked, and thanks to the chassis maintained, but it doesn't have a definitive sharp kick of performance to go with that legendary badge. It's also a bit of a noisy and gravelly engine when you extend its revs for longer periods, which puts you further away from enjoying the performance.
Refinement could also be better. The ride quality is actually not bad at all, considering that all MINIs are firmly sprung and ride on run flat tyres with stiff sidewalls, but as well as the noisy engine there's copious road noise leaking into the cabin from the boot, which would make longer journeys rather tiresome.
What you get for your money
No MINI is ever going to be the bargain alternative in its class, but some of the Countryman's pricing really does cause a sharp intake of breath. The new Countryman is larger, roomier and most certainly of higher quality than before, and comes as standard with more than €2,000 worth of extra equipment, including collision warning with city braking function, 16-inch alloy wheels on Cooper and Cooper D models, rear parking sensors, MINI Connected and Bluetooth connectivity and satnav on a 6.5-inch touchscreen. All of which sees an extra €3,000 added onto the entry-level model price tag, bringing it to €33,580 for a basic 1.5 Countryman Cooper and a staggering €43,400 for our Cooper S ALL4 test car, without options. Those are values that can buy you a much bigger, more practical car from rivals, even if those have to make do without the badge appeal (and impressive residual values) of the MINI brand.
While those buying with more level heads should shop elsewhere, if the requirements of children and your expanding lifestyle necessitate a move to a bigger car, but you can't bear to leave behind the MINI brand, then the Countryman is the expensive answer to your dreams.