2011 MINI Countryman 1.6 Cooper D (GB)

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Here’s a car I was eager to try. Since its launch last year the MINI Countryman has been the subject of mixed reviews from the motoring press and I was keen to try it for myself – as a staunch fan of the established variants I thought that the characteristics that make those so good could make for a compelling larger car. This was my chance to find out. My car was in for a service and I’d asked if I could have a Countryman for the day; there wasn’t one on the loan fleet but the service department at the excellent Rybrook MINI arranged for me to use its Cooper D sales demonstrator in front wheel drive flavour.

Like all MINIs before it, the Countryman is available with a bewildering array of personalisation options and someone had gone to town on this one. Many of the Countrymen I see on the roads are actually turned out in fairly staid colour schemes but this one looked suitably snazzy with its red bodywork and black roof, mirror caps and wheels – the latter of which also sported a small red rim – topped off by black bonnet, boot and door stripes. Such decoration would look ludicrous on a Golf but the Countryman manages to pull the look off. And it certainly catches the eye – it’s a long time since I’ve been in a car that caused so many turned heads and double takes. It was especially apparent that drivers of ‘normal’ MINIs would have a good old gawp. Whether you deem it to be a pleasant thing to behold is entirely down to personal preference. I happen to think this example looked very smart but others I’ve seen with poorly judged colour and wheel choices don’t hold the same appeal.

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The exterior does manage to retain a few MINI styling cues – it’s clearly one of the family – but the transition to fully fledged five-door hatch has meant that the iconic silhouette is no longer present, especially given the semi-tall proportions. What has made the jump is the interior styling. Again, whether you think this is a good thing or not is down to individual taste but for those used to MINI cabins there is plenty of familiar ground as the layout is very similar to that of the hatch and Clubman, with round air vents, a large central speedo and a lone instrument pod ahead of the wheel carrrying the rev counter and digital displays. The quality is nothing to write home about. The materials used on the main mouldings for dash and doors are okay but no better than in the Astra I drove recently. There’s a curious hollow feeling to everything, as if what you’re touching is shelled polystyrene. It’s not bad but lacks the feeling of dense, weighty quality you’d expect in a Golf. That said, it is all tightly put together and all the switchgear works with that beautiful oily precision that only the Germans seem to be able to manage.

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Although the Countryman is a reasonably tall car, you don’t feel like you’re stepping up into it; nor do you initially feel like you’re sitting high when you’re in it – that sensation comes when you move off and realise you’re eyeballing Freelander drivers. The seating position is easily tailored and very car like in terms of the where your hands, feet and backside end up relative to one another. The controls all fall easily to hand, with steering wheel and gearlever identical to those in other MINIs and a handbrake that isn’t – more of which shortly. The seats are a little flat and short in the squab, so I’m not sure how they would fare for long distance comfort. There’s no shortage of space, though, for front or rear passengers. In every direction room was generous, with boot capacity quite alien to any current MINI owners. This car had the five-seat layout but even with this set-up, the rear seats would slide individually to enable either rear room or boot space to be prioritised. It’s a flawed arrangement, though, because there is a chunky bulkhead right behind the rear seats which means you get the same amount of flat boot floor no matter how far forward you pull the seats.

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Still, the driving experience is where the MINI has always excelled so it was time to find out if the Countryman lived up to my high expectations. The disc like key fob is the same as on every other MINI, with the same push button start arrangement. The 1.6 diesel engine isn’t one of those that successfully conceals its appetite for the black stuff – it fires up with a rough clatter and settles to a rattly idle. First gear snicks home via a slightly notchy shift that could be difficult to slot home, but it’s when you come to move off that the handbrake catches your attention – and possibly your fingers as well. The lever is an inverted L shape, and to release it you grip the horizontal part and press a switch underneath. Think of it like pulling the rear brake on a bike. I found this an awkward and poorly conceived arrangement. I never managed to get it to release first time, and the cheap feeling button could pinch unwary fingers. A normal lever, or even an electronic parking brake, would have been preferable.

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Once you’ve got past the handbrake, the rest of the controls are thankfully more user friendly. The pedals are typically well laid out, with a floor hinged throttle and a nicely weighted clutch that required little acclimatisation. The brakes were fine but shared a strange characteristic I’ve experienced on other (but not all) MINIs whereby there is no travel in the pedal and everything seems to happen in an arc of about 1mm. Considering its relatively meagre 112bhp and 199lb/ft of torque, the DERV motor manages to propel the heftier Countryman body along with a decent sense or urgency. You wouldn’t call it quick but it moves smartly off the line and overtaking holds no fear although, unusually, you do need to keep it stoked up with revs in a way you’d expect more of a petrol powered car. This peaky nature means you can’t just schlep along on the torque – you do need to make some effort. While the engine is willing and doesn’t mind revving, you are acutely aware of its every exertion – this is not a refined device. As the needle sweeps round the dial, the cabin fills with a coarse rash of diesel roar that would be more at home in a van, and at steady motorway speeds the noise never entirely subsides, leaving an all too noticeable grumble percolating beyond the dashboard. The Countryman didn’t blow me away with its NVH suppression in other regards, either. Wind noise seemed quite high around the fairly upright front end of the glasshouse and the modestly sized 205 section tyres seemed to kick up a disproportionate amount of road din. This is a real shame, meaning that the big MINI trails conventional family hatches in the refinement stakes.

I was hoping that the Countryman’s tall posture and plump sidewalled, 55-profile tyres – 17-inch Continental Premium Contact 2s which I was interested to note were not runflats – would endow it with a serene secondary ride. First impressions weren’t bad. It dealt easily with sunken manholes and small potholes in the road surface in town but seemed to stumble slightly over larger obstructions such as speed cushions, particularly at the rear, where it felt like the damping was a little too keen to rebound. Out of town, the ride retained a slightly nuggety quality that relayed possibly a little bit too much detail to the seat of your pants – more so than I’d expected. I wasn’t expecting magic carpet but I had anticipated a more isolated ride. It struck me as feeling rather unresolved.

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Thankfully the consequence of this was good control of body movements over dips and crests – there was no unseemly lurching here. In the twisties the Countryman needed a modicum of getting used to. Unlike in any other MINI, on the move you are aware of sitting somewhere above the centre of gravity rather than it sitting above you. The front end tacked in with plenty of bite and held on well, but the body leans as you turn in and can take a moment to settle, which feels initially disconcerting and can make progress on a sinuous road feel a bit disjointed. In short bends where lock went on and off quickly, the car could be caught out before it had adopted its comfortable cornering pose, which made it feel like it was still setting up for the corner when you were now moving in a straight line again. However, it probably feels worse than it is because of where you’re sitting; learn to trust it and the Countryman turns in and holds its line neatly and tidily, although that initial moment of settling can require you to have to make small adjustments at the wheel. It’s not a car you take by the scruff of the neck and chuck about, that’s for sure. It never threatened to drift into screechy understeer, though. The electric steering, while quick, precise and free of stiction and slack, doesn’t convey one iota of information back to the tips of your fingers and often I found myself grasping the rim unnaturally hard, as if waiting for some textural feedback or even some delicate shifting in the weight that never came.

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There wasn’t any torque steer to speak of – even though this was purely a front wheel drive model and not an ‘All4’ four-wheel drive variant – but you are occasionally aware of some torque causing a slight disturbance at the steering wheel end when accelerating hard. Traction was good although on one occasion I did get away from some lights with an embarrassing amount of tyre squeal when a combination of the unwieldy handbrake and a stutter by the stop-start system caused a bit of a lurch through the transmission when I went to move off.

So the Countryman rides with reasonable aplomb and tackles the bends in a secure way, but… what was wrong? As I was driving it, I asked myself the question. It wasn’t actually doing anything wrong; indeed, it was doing most things well enough. But the ‘but’ lingered and wouldn’t go away. And then I realised what it was: I wasn’t having any fun. That magic ingredient that has made so many of the other MINIs I’ve driven – especially the fabulous Cooper S Clubman – such exceptionally capable and enjoyable cars was, I concluded, not part of the recipe here. The Countryman was merely obeying inputs. I turned the wheel; it turned in to the corner. I kept the lock on; it kept going round the corner. No more and no less There was no interaction, no give and take, no sense that the car would reward pressing on by demonstrating ever greater dynamic focus. I felt it would probably take what was thrown at it but would be casually looking at its fingernails as it did it rather than punching the palm of its hand and demanding more. This wasn’t the MINI I know and love.

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Maybe I’m missing the point, and this MINI is meant to be more grown up. But with its red and black war paint, this one had led to me to expect more zest. I’d taken the keys with great excitement in the morning, hoping that I’d find a car that could be a serious contender as a potential replacement for mine. When I gave them back in the evening, I didn’t feel a single pang of longing to keep them. In some ways I’d liked the car – the looks, the novelty value, the excellent DAB radio – but the bits I found not to my taste outweighed the positives. These were the unrefined engine, the ever so slightly disappointing cabin quality, little things like the fact that a chunk of the nearside door mirror is concealed by the door itself and – most disappointingly of all – the colourless dynamics and lack of entertainment. I told the salesman at the dealer that it wasn’t the car for me, but added that I would be interested to try a Cooper S. He’s said he can get hold of one for me if I’d like, and at some stage I might take him up on his offer. That might well put a whole new perspective on things – indeed I’m hopeful that it will – but on this occasion the MINI Countryman in Cooper D guise failed to convince.
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2011-06-06 20:51:50

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Home Forums 2011 MINI Countryman 1.6 Cooper D (GB)

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    Here’s a car I was eager to try. Since its launch last year the MINI Countryman has been the subject of mixed reviews from the motoring press and I wa
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