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MINI COUNTRYMAN

The MINI brand is steeped in history but remains an innovator in its field. As the brand keeps growing, so does its vehicles, and the new Countryman is no exception. Hanging out with the even bigger MINI, BERNIE HELLBERG reports from the launch.

If there are any motoring enthusiasts or even casual observers out there who have never heard the names Mini, Austin, or Cooper, we pity you dearly.

Few brands have attained, then lost, regained, and ultimately reimagined its pop-icon status as successfully as MINI. Created out of virtually nothing, using a bit of steel wool and a steering wheel, the first Minis were rudimentary, miniature motoring dots, but everyone loved them and wanted to see more of the little cars.

Enter the Austin Seven Countryman, an extended Mini with a versatile interior layout that attained the instant cult status that it enjoys to this day. The original Countryman was tiny yet handy, and around 108,000 of them were produced between 1960 and 1969.

MODERN SUCCESS STORY

In 2010, the BMW Group relaunched the Countryman as a four-door hatch, igniting a traditional deference to the little van of yore, and it was an instant hit. No less than 540,000 (five times as many as the original) new Countrymans were sold worldwide since then, with 3,744 finding their way into South African garages, and hearts.

Barely five years after being reborn much much bigger, and much much faster, it was time for the most popular MINI in the entire line-up (one in four sold is a Countryman) to grow up and become a real crossover-SUV. So the MINI engineers got to work, stretching the wheelbase, widening the chassis, and ballooning the interior so that three adults could sit side-by-side in the rear.

We wouldn’t quite go that far, but during our launch drive in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, the new Countryman made it abundantly clear that it means business in the premium compact crossover segment, taking aim squarely at the likes of the new Audi Q2 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA.

HOW DOES IT STACK UP?

Nailing my colours to the mast, the Countryman represents the best value proposition in entry-level manual 1.5-litre Cooper guise, with the manual 1.0 TFSI Audi Q2 coming in a close second.

At R423,824 it is cheaper than both its rivals, while it offers more power than the Q2 and better fuel economy than the GLA200 with its 1.6-litre turbo engine. It also plants 20 Nm more torque on the road than the Q2 with its 200 Nm and, is markedly roomier inside than either of the other Germans.

Ultimately, though, the purchasing decision is likely to come down to intangibles such as brand loyalty and your quirk-to-sensibility ratio. The MINI is more of a lifestyle statement than its rivals, and shoppers are likely to buy into the brand as much as they are buying into the machine itself.

THE RANGE

Countryman is available in three derivatives from two engine options. Six-speed manual transmission is offered in both the 1.5-litre Cooper (with a seven-speed auto available as an option) and the 2.0-litre Cooper S. Should you want the latter in automatic, it is available with an eight-speed Sports Steptronic with steering-mounted paddle shifters.

Driving dynamics on both models are classic MINI, despite the new car’s physical dimensions. It retains the single-joint spring strut axle and multilink rear axle set-up of its predecessor and is tuned to adapt to the requirements of the different models.

Electromechanical steering with Servotronic function is one of the new Countryman’s best assets, engaging the driver with direct steering feedback that never seemed dull or distant during our Midlands drive. When combined with the optional Dynamic Damper Control and MINI Driving Modes, you can customise the driving experience to suit your mood. Feel first-hand how your Countryman’s personality changes, as the throttle response, steering curve, engine sound and Steptronic shift characteristics, even how the electrically powered comfort features inside the cabin work.

DRIVER ASSISTANCE & CONNECTIVITY

Besides driving enjoyment, safety and comfort play a huge part in the MINI experience. Several standard driver assistance systems are included from the entry-level Countryman. The standard collision warning with city braking function can be extended to include the Driving Assistant system with camera-based active cruise control, pedestrian warning with initial brake function, high beam assistant, and road sign detection. In addition to this, Park Distance Control, rear-view camera, Parking Assistant and Head-Up-Display are available as options.

Dual-zone automatic air conditioning, a panorama glass roof, and an alarm system with a red LED status indicator in the fin antenna are available as interior options. The optional lighting package – comprising LED interior lighting and LED ambient lighting – is part of the MINI Excitement Package and offers continuously variable interior colour adjustment.

Exterior options include a tow hitch with the removable ball head that, depending on the engine, allows you to tow a braked trailer between 1,500 and 1,800 kg.

Connectivity takes centre stage in the new Countryman, going beyond infotainment, and into the realm of the personal assistant. Based on a flexible platform – the Open Mobility Cloud – MINI Connected integrates the vehicle seamlessly into the MINI driver’s digital life via her digital devices.

Through MINI Connected, the personal mobility assistant available to MINI drivers, individual mobility planning enables timely, stress-free arrival at appointments. Now your car can tell you when to leave for your next appointment, or learn the routes you travel most often, so that it can monitor and keep you abreast of changes in the traffic conditions along your route.

LAST WORD

The MINI brand has reached a new level of maturity with the arrival of the Countryman. And while some lament the fact that cuteness is no longer a major MINI characteristic, even more potential buyers will likely begin to see the Countryman for what it intends to be – piece of serious driving tech that delivers a premium driving experience for a new generation of performance motorists. The Mini is dead. Long live the MINI!

Report by BERNIE HELLBERG | Images © MINI SOUTH AFRICA

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