I have always been a fan of the Mini brand and the cars they produce. I know a lot of purists out there will claim that BMW have watered down the Mini name and will argue that they are not “proper” Minis, but it’s now been 18 years since the original new R50 Mini hit our roads, so it’s probably time people got over it.
The truth is the new Minis are fantastic little cars. They are full of character and an absolute blast to drive, adding some much-needed colour and excitement to the sea of dreary hatchbacks that swarm our roads. The big question here though is, is the Countryman Cooper S a proper Cooper S car? What I mean by that is simple, does it have the same amount of childish humour the Cooper S hatch has or is it just another small family car with some extra shiny bits added on?
Straight off the bat, I personally think the Countryman looks great. The old model looked good but a little bit bloated but the new model just looks a bit more aggressive and just a bit smarter. I’m personally not a fan of these small SUVs but if you’re going down that route, I really don’t think there are any better-looking ones at this price point. The good looks continue on the inside as well, like the rest of the Mini range. You have the classic big dial in the centre housing the Infotainment screen, a nice chunky leather sports steering wheel in front of you with a speedometer and then some classic toggle switches in the centre console including that brilliant red Engine Start switch. It’s all a bit of an event which never ceases to put a smile on my face. If you’re going to do away with turning a key and replace it with a button, it may as well be a big red toggle switch!
I was also pleasantly surprised by the overall feel of the interior fixings. Everything felt pretty solid and there was very little creaking which is a pleasant step forward compared to previous BMW Minis. I actually thought the interior of the Countryman felt better than that in the BMW i8 I drove a few months ago, which is both great and very disappointing for BMW as the i8 is over a hundred grand…
The cabin is full of little typical Mini quirks which are a really fun touch like the coloured LED band that surrounds the central infotainment screen changes colour depending on what you are doing – for example, when reverse parking, the light changes colour depending on how close you get to an object and when turning up or down the music volume, the light moves around the screen accordingly. This particular model also had a lot of LED mood lighting. Some of it looked good, but they may have gone a tad overboard with it, especially with the wing mirrors that project the Mini emblem onto the floor when you unlock the car at night. Fun and different, but also quite naff.
So what’s it actually like to drive? Well, I really am in 2 camps with this one. As a car, it really isn’t bad. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s pretty good. You sit nice and high up with bucket loads of visibility out the front, but you’re not too high that the ride feels wallowy and unstable and the turbocharged, 190bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine has plenty of power to get you up to speed. The steering is also nice a weighty, which seems to be rare these days, especially in these types of cars – they always have super-light and a completely detached feel through the wheel, but the Mini is heavy and you still feel like you are in control of where the wheels are pointed. The gearbox isn’t bad either, it’s not as good as the Hatch and it feels a bit light and easy, but I guess that’s kind of the point with this car. My main issue with the drive of the car isn’t actually that I think it’s a bad car, I really do think it’s great and perfect if you’re after a small but practical “starter family car”, my issue is more with the “Cooper S” element of the car. Many years ago I owned an original R53 Mini Cooper S and since then I have driven just about every model of Mini built carrying the Cooper S badge and the one thing that always kept a smile on my face was that slightly silly and slightly childish attitude the cars had.
The Hatchback Mini is such a little Go-Kart of a car and it makes such a great sound as you bang through the gears and build up the revs which leaves you feeling like a boy-racer again everytime you get behind the wheel, but the Countryman feels a little bit too grown up and serious. The engine still makes a fairly decent sound with occasional pops and such, but it’s all a lot more muted. It feels like catching up with your old college mates for a heavy night out, but when it gets to 10:30pm everyone starts to make their excuses to go home because the in-laws are over for the weekend, or they’re picking out new bathroom tiles tomorrow. It has all the want determination to still be that fun, careless and exciting 21 year old it once was, but now it has a mortgage and has to take the kids to football practice in the morning…
Like I said though, there isn’t actually anything wrong with the Countryman Cooper S, and if you have a small family or are looking to go down the mini-SUV route, then I genuinely think this is the best of the bunch with regards to fun-factor and build quality. However, I was test driving this car with the plan to possibly buy one and as I am 31-year-old with no kids, no dog, and a passion for driving, I would personally save the extra couple of thousand pounds the Countryman costs over the Hatch and put it towards a JCW kitted Hatchback model.