Winnipeg Free Press

Big fun found in Mini package

by Kelly Taylor . Mar 08 2019
Photos by MiniThe latest Mini Countryman isn’t huge, but it’s more than spacious enough for hauling people and stuff. And it provides quite a sprightly ride, too.

Photos by Mini

The latest Mini Countryman isn’t huge, but it’s more than spacious enough for hauling people and stuff. And it provides quite a sprightly ride, too.

When I reviewed the Mazda MX-5, I raved about its razor-sharp go-kart handling and spirited acceleration, but found in the company’s zeal to take out every ounce of weight it could, Mazda made the thing just a bit too small.

A helpful reader suggested trying the Audi A3 as a blend of go-kart nimbleness with a smidge of practicality, but most automotive journalists in Canada can only imagine what Audis are like, as the company has, apparently, a very limited scope of a public relations function.

Thanks to Mini Canada, however, I have found a vehicle that’s very nearly as responsive as the MX-5, but actually has space for people and stuff: the 2019 Countryman.

It’s not huge: you can still rub elbows with your passenger, but it has four seats and a cargo area good for more than a pair of tube socks, plus folding rear seats that make the latest Countryman’s cargo area approach that of another Mazda, the CX-3.

But it’s sprightly, this being the John Cooper Works edition, with a 2.0-litre turbo with 231 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque on hand.

In a car with only 1,657 kg of weight (1,639 with the manual), that’s sufficient power for some seriously fun driving.

Despite its size, it’s not much of a fuel miser, either, with the on-board computer reading a very SUV-like 13.6 litres per 100 kilometres, but as a friend pointed out, drive it like you don’t love it and that number will come down.

I’ll have to take his word, as the zippy acceleration was just too addictive to give up.

The price of love, I guess.

Since its inception, Mini as a brand has been about doing things differently. They’ve always had old-style toggle switches on the dash, and unusual treatments for the instrument panel and other displays. The latest Countryman is no different.

The car has a unique exterior styling, as if Herbie the Love Bug and Lightning McQueen had a love child, with a smattering, perhaps, of Bumblebee DNA.

It’s cute. Not so cute as to be effeminate, but enough so that it might be an acquired taste.

Inside, the speedometer and tachometer (and fuel gauge) are mounted on pods that move with the tilt and telescope steering wheel.

A large circle in the middle of the dash houses the information screen, where you have access to navigation, audio and general menu items with the joystick knob controller behind the gear shifter.

All hail the automatic: OK, any enthusiast driver is going to prefer the stick, but Mini gets full marks here for resisting the pull of the dark side. Instead of a fun-sapping continuously variable transmission, if you opt for a shiftless version, you get an actual automatic, all eight gears of it.

The JCW also gives you steering wheel paddles, if that’s your thing. Essentially, between a sport setting and the manumatic mode, you are given plenty of control over the transmission. If you find it lagging because it hasn’t downshifted yet for acceleration, that’s all on you...

As with most vehicles, the Countryman gets a little brick-like when cold, when the fluid inside the dampers isn’t as, well, fluid as usual, and the coil springs are a bit stiffer. Hard to fix winter, but when the mercury isn’t at subterranean levels, the Countryman handles very well.

Like the MX-5, the quick response of the steering might surprise you at first, but you very quickly come to appreciate the on-rails handling and razor-sharp steering response — which combine to make it enormously fun to drive.

What makes it fun in winter, as well, is a rather relaxed programming for the stability control nanny. It doesn’t step in right away, and gets out of the way if it senses you’ve caught the slide correctly. You can also turn it off entirely, something common on premium cars, less so on mainstream products.

The Countryman’s trunk (same size across the lineup) is a respectable 450 litres with the rear seats up and spacious 1,390 litres with the rear seats folded. A half-ton truck it’s not, but the cargo volume adds a welcome layer of practicality to a car this much fun to drive. You can get a passenger or two and their golf clubs out for a round, in other words. You might have trouble getting yourself and your own clubs out in a regular Mini Cooper.

If there’s one caveat for prospective Mini buyers, it’s reliability. According to studies in the U.K. and by J.D. Power, Mini has a rather undistinguished reputation, in both senses. It’s not the worst, it’s not the greatest, it’s average.

Good news, however, comes from the safety side of things: the Countryman earned five stars — the most — in Euro NCAP crash testing and a Good rating — the best — in all crash styles tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but a Marginal rating for headlights (certain equipment levels) and Acceptable for hatch usage kept it off the list of Top Safety Pick+ models.

Overall, the JCW Countryman is a ton of fun to drive, with the added practicality being a bonus.

Mini is known for its old-style toggle switches on the dash, and unusual internal panel and display treatments.

Mini is known for its old-style toggle switches on the dash, and unusual internal panel and display treatments.