Rating: 9.0
Bottom Line:
Bigger but not big, the Countryman is the most useful and comfortable MINI yet. The rear seat can accommodate two adults, and the cargo area is large enough for a trip to Home Depot. On the road, it retains enough of the brand’s fun-to-drive character to appeal to customers graduating from smaller MINIs, and the available all-wheel drive adds a measure of security on slick roads. All of these factors should make the Countryman another success for the MINI brand.
  • Sporty fun
  • Roomy enough for passengers and cargo
  • Razor-sharp steering
  • Confusing ergonomics
  • Bigger but not big
  • Seats four, not five

View Pictures:  MINI Countryman

How big can a MINI get without losing its charm and unique appeal?

When it first appeared on our shores, the MINI Cooper was the smallest car offered in the U.S. It wasn't the most versatile, the fastest, the roomiest or even the most fuel-efficient machine on the road. But it was fun to drive and a breath of fresh air in a market filled with homogenous, bigger-is-better designs, which made it an immediate hit with American car buyers looking for something different.

But its appeal has waned over the past couple of years — U.S. sales of the Cooper fell from a 2008 peak of 54,000 to 47,000 last year — causing some skeptics to wonder if MINI could continue its winning ways stateside. Looking for a way to not just keep its product fresh but also acknowledge American market realities, the cheeky British automaker decided to bulk up its mighty mite just a bit.

In early 2011, MINI will introduce the Countryman, the brand's first 4-door — well, for the modern MINI brand, anyway. Compared with the Cooper, the Countryman is a giant. It offers more rear cargo space, more room for passengers and, thus, more utility than either the Cooper or Clubman.

While the extra size might make this MINI appeal to more Americans, we were concerned that the Countryman wouldn't have the same fun-to-drive factor as other MINI models. Boy, were we wrong.

Model Lineup
The 2011 MINI Cooper Countryman will be offered in three models: base, S and S ALL4. Standard equipment has yet to be determined, but it should match that of the smaller MINI Cooper Clubman, which comes with vinyl upholstery, tilt/telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power mirrors, power door locks, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD stereo, auxiliary input jack, trip computer, cooled glove box and 17-inch alloy wheels. The S model should add sport seats and fog lights. MINI will also offer about 100 factory options and 200 dealer-installed accessories.

Standard safety features will likely consist of dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, tire-pressure monitor, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, traction control and electronic stability control.

Under the Hood
The Countryman will be offered with two upgraded versions of the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine found in the current MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper Clubman. The base model will produce 122 horsepower and 118 lb-ft of torque, four more horses and four more lb-ft than the current offering. The Countryman S gets a turbocharged version of the 1.6 that produces 184 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. An overboost feature increases torque to 192 lb-ft for short bursts when accelerating.

Fuel-economy estimates have not yet been released, but they should be slightly less than the numbers for the Clubman, which are 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway for the base model and 26/34 mpg for the S.

The Countryman comes standard with front-wheel drive, but the S ALL4 model gets MINI's first all-wheel-drive system. It runs with a little less than 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels during normal driving, but it can send up to 100 percent of the power to either axle when it detects slip.

Inner Space
The question on most people's minds is sure to be, "Does the Countryman have enough space for my needs?" Well, that depends. It's larger than other MINIs, but seats only four. By comparison, it's about as large as a Honda Fit, and it is much smaller than any compact crossover SUV. There is plenty of room for two adults in back, even behind two larger adults up front, thanks in part to rear bucket seats that recline and slide forward and aft. However, no three-passenger bench is offered, a fact that may turn off some customers.

Buyers will like the unique center rail system, though. It is designed to offer driver and passengers more storage options, and is offered in two configurations: a one-piece unit that runs the full length of the two seating rows, and a two-piece version with shorter rails front and rear. The rail system can be outfitted with numerous modular accessories, including cupholders, sunglasses holders, smart-phone receivers and a storage box.

The rear bucket seats are far less bolstered than the fronts, a concession that was necessary to allow them to fold almost flat. There is also no rear center armrest, so rear riders are likely to slide around a bit during hard cornering.

While those seats fold down, they don't fold flat, and the gap between them precludes a constant load floor. There is a decent 18 cubic feet of room behind the seats, enough space for you to go grocery shopping with a full car. With the seats folded, the Countryman has 40 cubic feet of space, about the same as a Mazda3 hatchback.

Up front, the Countryman is like other MINIs, with its unique and hard-to-read large central speedometer, center-mounted window controls and a steering-wheel-mounted tachometer with a digital speed readout that makes up for the central speedometer. The materials are appropriate for the price and a cut above most small cars. The seats are supportive, and front passengers have plenty of headroom and legroom.

New to the brand is MINI Connected, which provides infotainment features via owners' iPhones. Those features consist of Internet radio, local Google search, Twitter access and RSS feeds. Listening to any of 25,000 radio stations, including your local favorites when on the road, is pretty cool, but it requires an iPhone, and reception is restricted by the limits of your AT&T signal.

On the Road
Much of the success of modern MINIs can be attributed to their fun-to-drive nature. MINI calls it go-kart handling, and it's hard not to smile when you get behind the wheel of any MINI. But the Countryman rides on its own, much larger chassis, and it weighs about 240 pounds more than a Cooper hatchback. Given the extra size and weight, it's not likely that the Countryman could be as fun to drive as its smaller siblings.

Well, that's at least partially true. The Countryman doesn't quite have go-kart handling. Its raised ride height makes it lean in turns a bit too much, and the tires squeal notably when the car is pushed near its limits.

Nonetheless, the Countryman is still quite fun to drive, thanks in no small part to its razor-sharp steering. The car responds quickly to steering inputs, and the driver gets a good feel for the road through the steering wheel. The steering is weighted a little lighter than in the other models, but it has that same pleasing feel. S models also have a Sport mode that firms up the steering, increases throttle response and holds gears longer when the automatic transmission is ordered.

On the flip side, the Countryman offers the most pleasant ride of any MINI. We tested only the S model, and found the ride to be forgiving over even sharp bumps. It's not nearly as busy as in the smaller MINIs, and passengers will be far less likely to complain about being jostled around.

The Countryman gets the next versions of MINI's 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engines. Only the S model's turbocharged version was made available for testing, and only with the 6-speed manual transmission. With 177 lb-ft of torque on tap from 1600 to 5000 rpm, the turbo four gets the Countryman moving briskly from a stop and it has plenty in reserve to make passing a worry-free proposition. MINI says zero to 62 mph takes 7.6 seconds, which is about 1.5 seconds quicker than the base engine.

In our experience in other MINIs with the base engine, the car is still fun to drive, but passing power is lacking.

The all-wheel-drive system is meant mostly for slick roads. MINI did have journalists drive "off road," but that amounted to a camping ground's dirt road. You won't want to take your Countryman on any rigorous off-road trails.

Right for You?
The Countryman's four doors, available all-wheel drive and increased passenger and cargo space will make the MINI brand viable for more customers, including small families and active-lifestyle types who might carry a few friends on occasion. Plus, it offers a more engaging driving experience than almost any other utility vehicle on the market. However, it's still small — smaller than even the most compact SUV or any of the boxy city cars introduced over the past few years.

(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, MINI provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.