"The biggest MINI yet is still undoubtedly a MINI, boasting a fun driving experience and stylish retro cabin. It's still not the most practical crossover in the world, though."
The first four-door MINI, the MINI Countryman, has introduced a little extra practicality into MINI's usual blend of fun and driver appeal. The Countryman's dimensions offer prospective buyers a new MINI that can seat four adults in relative comfort and take their luggage in the usefully sized (if not exactly enormous) boot, too – which is a first in the MINI range. You can get MINI's first foray into the crossover market with either two or four-wheel drive, with the latter giving the Countryman some limited off-road capability. More unusually, the Countryman can be chosen with either a four or five-seat interior layout. We’d recommend the five-seat model, but the four-seater does offer individual sliding rear seats that usefully open up extra space in the boot, which will be appealing for big shoppers. And while it is by no means a cheap car, the Countryman does offer a luxurious high-end alternative to other crossovers such as the Nissan Qashqai or Skoda Yeti. The MINI Countryman is available in six main specifications – the entry-level One, then the Cooper, Cooper S, Cooper D, Cooper SD and top-of-the-range performance-focused MINI Countryman John Cooper Works.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
Given how expensive they are to buy, it's surprising that all MINIs offer decent fuel economy across the range - and the Countryman carries on the tradition. The Diesel Cooper D and One D models return 64.2mpg in fuel economy, boosted in part by stop-start technology that switches off the engine when the car is stopped in traffic. Unlike the MINI hatchback, none of the Countryman models qualify for free road tax because of the car's extra weight and the option of a four-wheel-drive system, but the diesels engines are cheap to tax at £30 per year anyway. Running costs over its “new car” lifetime will definitely be low, but we’d still recommend MINI's TLC package, which offers three services over five years for only £200, which should add up to a considerable saving for many owners.
Interior & comfort
MINI is a brand that values form over function, so you shouldn’t be surprised that the MINI Countryman's style has resulted in some comfort being sacrificed in may places. The most obvious example is the retro-style front seats, which are comfy over short distances but prove too firm and unsupportive over longer journeys. Combine this with a firm ride and an unexpected amount of noise inside the car, and the Countryman isn’t always the nicest place to be, especially when travelling any real distance. On the flip side, the Countryman does have the familiar MINI layout inside, with the signature large central speedo and high-quality switches that are logically located and make the car easy to use and live with for daily use.
Practicality & boot space
The Countryman is easily the most practical car in the MINI range, offering a decent amount of room inside (which most of them don’t) and enough space for four adults (of normal size, maybe even taller people, too) to sit with relative comfort. It also has a usable boot that has 350 litres of space, which addresses one of MINIs many shortfalls and that expands to 1,170 litres when the back seats are folded down. The four-seat option allows the rear seats to slide individually on rails, which creates much flexibility to either increase legroom for the passengers or free up boot space if required. It also comes with spaces to fit cup-holders, sunglasses cases or even a smartphone holder - so anyone in the back will be entertained on whatever length of journey you set out on. The three-seat rear bench option also slides to create more space in the boot and obviously provides more space in the rear, too. The back seats are all supportive and comfortable, whichever layout you choose. The four doors, high ride height and tall roofline all combine to make this the most practical MINI yet.
Reliability & safety
Both parent company BMW and MINI itself aren’t as reliable as their reputations suggest, with both underperforming in the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey. BMW slipped down a spot to 15th in the manufacturers rankings, while its adopted brand, MINI, fell a wince-inducing seven places to skirt the bottom of the list at number 28. Let down primarily by poor practicality and questionable reliability, there are no MINIs in the top 100 cars in the Driver Power poll, with the Countryman itself coming 125th, so clearly there is a lot of room for further improvement. It is worth us pointing out, however, that our experience in the car hasn’t matched that kind of doom and gloom. Switches and fittings are made of a high quality, and the electronic hiccups that plagued the early MINIs have been ironed out. All the engines are used across the whole MINI range and have generally proved to be reliable. It's the same story goes for all the major mechanicals, which are backed up by BMW's know-how. The Countryman has also been awarded the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, though in some areas, notably adult protection, the Countryman hasn't done as well as some of its rivals. It's not all bad, but anyone thinking about buying a MINI needs to go in with their eyes open.
Engines, drive & performance
MINIs are pretty much defined by being fun to drive and the Countryman certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Accurate and precise steering keeps you in control, providing plenty of feedback, and the car remains steady when driving through the corners, with very little body roll for such a tall car. The Countryman may lack the famous go-kart handling of the smaller MINI hatchback but it still offers lots of thrills, with the added benefit of a higher driving position that offers a good, commanding view of the road ahead. The trade off for any good handling is always a firm ride, which makes the Countryman less comfortable than many of its rivals, such as the Skoda Yeti. The engines that are available are also used in the rest of the MINI range, so have plenty of performance on tap. The performance-focused 215bhp four-wheel-drive John Cooper Works (JCW) model will go from 0-62mph in seven seconds if you need some speed in your life. The diesels feel just as speedy, however, only with added economy. So overall we’d actually recommend the Cooper SD for its good blend of fuel economy and speed.
Price, value for money & options
First off, standard equipment levels on the Countryman are low, so you’ll undoubtedly end up dipping into the long options list, so while the entry-level model may seem competitively priced that could well prove deceptive. You do get air-conditioning and a CD audio system in all Countryman models, so that's a start – but you can see how easy it would be to get carried away personalising your Countryman, which will cause the price to rise dramatically. In fact, we’d recommend getting the Chili pack, which adds automatic air-conditioning, xenon headlights and sports seats. MINI does offer a discount if you choose these extras individually, but it still comes in at around £3,000 for the lot. The top-spec Countryman models, such as the Cooper S and John Cooper Works, do work out as more expensive than their rivals but also offer more in terms of driver engagement and outright speed, if that's why you’re looking at a MINI. Due to the popularity of the MINI range it's difficult to get discounts from MINI dealers, but the flipside of that is that resale values on the used car market will be very strong so you should be able to get some money back on a second-hand deal.