When MINI set out on the road to building a bigger, taller crossover, the car world's ears perked up--and if they could have, they'd have formed question marks. A big MINI? Isn't that like jumbo shrimp?
The oxymoron from Oxford's ready now for all critics, and after our first drive of the 2011 MINI Cooper Countryman, we can tell you that the alarm bells should be silenced. Turn off the emergency-alert system. Put the red phone down. The Countryman's still a MINI in feel and fettle, even though there's barely anything related to the current MINI Cooper other than the name badges.
The Countryman, you see, is spun off the same platform that BMW calls the X1. There's real all-wheel drive baked in, and a BMW-ute-ish ride height and stance to give away those light German roots. The Countryman's assembled in Graz, Austria, where its real countrymen have included other contract-manufactured cars screwed together by Magna Steyr including the Chrysler minivans, Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, and formerly, the BMW X3. Not an Oxford spat in sight.
It's almost undetectable, the way the Countryman feels more international and global and less distinctly MINI. It's so faint a sensation anyway, it hardly matters--whether you're driving the normally aspirated Cooper Countryman I strapped into, or the heavier, more powerful Cooper S Countryman and its Cooper S Countryman ALL4 kin.
What it boils down to, mostly, is the size and softer profile of this SUV. Take a look at a three-door MINI Cooper Clubman and it's clear where it came from; it's practically the limousine version of the essential Cooper hardtop hatchback, with just a wheelbase implant. The Countryman's less clearly delineated, particularly at the rear. The front end wears correctly shaped headlamps and the horizontally ribbed grille, the front fenders have the chrome band-aids to fit in the family, and color-friendly roof and mirrors can ape the shape of the smaller Cooper. The rear's more amorphous and soft, the clear compromise in the design. Call it a 50-footer: your brain would think "MINI" at that distance, while up close it would parse it and sniff out the curvy X1 hiding underneath.
The Countryman cockpit feels even more German, especially in the lighter grey plastics in the prototype handed over to High Gear Media. Big round gauges and a near-Frisbee-sized central circle, with both navigation and speedometer framed by it, evoke the shapes you'd find inside a Cooper--but the dash itself is a continental-looking piece that could find its way into any soft-roader from Nissan or Skoda or Jeep. The window switches, an L-shaped parking brake and half-moon door handles dress it up to something like MINI spec. A jet-black interior would bring things in line with heritage nicely--and even in prototype form, the trim inside this Countryman would embarrass a Ford Escape, for example.