What's common between Stephane Peterhansel and Dani Sordo? Yes, they are both international rally drivers. But what else? Well, Peterhansel had a commanding win in the grueling 2012 Dakar rally and Sordo finished an impressive second in this year's first WRC round at Monte Carlo. But the commonality was the car they drove, a Mini.
Mini made a comeback to rallying almost 50 years after its first rally victory and these two drivers made it a memorable return. But unlike the original rally car, a Mini Cooper S hatch, the new rally car is based on Mini's first ever all-wheel drive model, the Mini Cooper Countryman. We got behind the wheel of this road going model to see what this (not so) Mini has to offer.
The Mini has grown, literally speaking, ever since it was first introduced. The original Mini was a cult car and the more modern one also has an ardent fan following keeping itself in the black. The original Mini was a very small car, even smaller than the Tata Nano. The new Mini Cooper is now on par with most current hatchbacks. The Countryman however is the largest Mini ever made. It is longer and wider but most importantly taller than the regular car. The higher ground clearance and all-wheel drive in fact makes the Countryman more of a crossover. Though it's an all-new design, one glance and you know it's a Mini. It's now large enough and imposing to stand out in a crowd.
The signature big frog eyes and inverted front grille has evolved from the standard Mini. It's a very unique design and yet instantly brings to mind the characteristic Mini look. The front bumper is similar to the hatch while the front fender features a more prominent chrome diagonal band that's seen on most Mini Cooper models. Even with the addition of two rear doors, the Countryman looks quite proportional to the regular Cooper while the roof design is smart and slopes down to blend well with the rear quarter glass.
The outer mirrors too are similar to the other Mini models. The rear is dominated by a big plain looking door and has a big Mini badge sitting on it that also doubles as a boot release handle. The smart chrome outlined taillamps are vertically mounted like in all Minis. The rear window though is quite small for a car this size and offers a very narrow view of the outside world. The Countryman overall is bit quirky yet interesting enough to attract attention.
India gets the turbocharged Cooper S Countryman that is thankfully more appealing to look at. The front grille is split to accommodate the air scoop, bigger and sporty rims are standard while the rear bumper houses twin exhausts and a mock diffuser. Step inside and the all-black interior follows the same circular funky theme from the existing Mini Cooper range. It's evident everywhere, from the dashboard to the door pads to everything. The frisbee-sized centre-mounted speedometer catches one's attention instantly. It not only displays speed but cleverly houses the car's entertainment and navigation screen as well. The quality of materials used are slightly better than the Mini Cooper hatch which itself is a class apart. The three-spoke steering wheel is similar to other Mini models and features stereo and infotainment controls. Climate control buttons are easy to use and is easily accessible too.
Since the Countryman focuses more on space and utility, the car gets unique centre rails that run from the back of the shifter rearward accommodating cup holders, sunglass cases, mobile phone and MP3 player holders and a myriad of other accessories. With the optional light package, the interiors liven up in the dark. Indirect lighting is used to illuminate the centre console and the entire length of the centre rail. A clever idea since the rear passengers get two captain seats. The seats slide letting owners adjust between passenger room and cargo capacity. One can also opt for a rear bench seat as a no cost option that also slides forward and backward. Rear passenger space is much more spacious than the Mini hatch and more on par with C-segment sedans. The boot is quite spacious and roughly can hold twice that of the standard Mini. The seats can also be dropped to offer extra room and comes in handy while carrying cargo. Minis are fun to drive and have always been dynamically strong. So how is the Countryman to drive? Since BMW is Mini's parent company, the Countryman is based on the same platform as the BMW X1. It's only slightly narrower and higher but much shorter, 344mm to be precise, than the X1.
It features MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension. It handles quite well but cannot be compared to the Mini Cooper hatch. The go-kart feel is missing and it doesn't seem to deliver the sense of fun a Mini should offer. It is heavier than the hatch too making body-roll evident, especially through tight bends. The electric power steering however is precise and well weighted. At cruising speeds on the highway, the Countryman shines and does a good job when it comes to driving comfort. However over rough roads and potholes the ride gets hard especially due to a slightly stiff suspension setup, 17-inch wheels and runflat tyres. The variant we drove featured all-wheel drive that Mini calls ALL4. The Countryman is primarily driven via the front wheels but the electronic differential can send 50 per cent of the engine's power to the rear wheels when extra traction is needed and up to 100 per cent should the diff sense excessive loss in traction up front. However this doesn't make it a hardcore mud plugger, it's a capable soft roader. The Indian variant though does not feature all-wheel drive and instead feeds power to the front wheels but retains features such as brake and hill assist.
Coming to the engine, the Countryman D we sampled was powered by a BMW-sourced 1.6-litre common-rail diesel. The engine produces a maximum power of 112PS at 4000rpm and a healthy peak torque of 270Nm available from 1750-2250rpm. This motor also does duty in other Mini models but since the Countryman is heavier, performance is blunted by the 250kg weight gain. There isn't a scintillating turn of speed, a complete contrast to the Mini Cooper D hatch equipped with the same engine. The time taken to reach 100kmph is 11.6s (1.9s slower than the diesel hatch). What it's good at though is cruising, it pulls well from lower down and feels relaxed on the highway thanks to tall gearing and torquey nature of the engine.
However, time to rub hands in glee, the Mini Countryman in India will be fun to drive since it's powered by the same twin scroll turbocharged petrol engine from the Mini Cooper S hatch. The engine produces a jaw-dropping 184PS at 5500rpm and 260Nm of torque from 1700-4500rpm and is mated to a six-speed auto. The 1.6-litre mill propels the Countryman to 100kmph in just 7.9s and maxes out at 210kmph. In terms of safety, all the Countrymans offer six airbags, ABS, EBD and DSC.
No Mini is sold without the option of customising it. The Countryman is no exception and comes with a whole array of optional add-ons such as a panoramic roof, mirror caps, bonnet stripes, union jack roof flag, Harmon Kardon sound system with ten speakers and a 480-watt amplifier to name a few. To go with the utility theme you can also opt for a bicycle rack, universal carrier and a roof box. The Mini Cooper S Countryman is priced at Rs 31.99 lakh, ex-Mumbai. Putting it into perspective, that's an additional Rs 6 lakh for two extra doors, extra cabin room and a bigger boot. If you're carrying passengers all the time, it's money well spent but if you don't then it's quite an amount to ask for a car that doesn't handle like the Cooper S hatch, drinks more fuel, has no all-wheel drive option in India and is a bit quirky to look at.