Driving the Countryman
Befitting Mini tradition, the Countryman sliced through a winding, wet road along the Columbia River in Oregon with aplomb. All of our driving at Mini's press event east of Portland was in all-wheel drive models with the optional 18-inch wheels, although we did sample both the standard suspension and one with extra-cost adjustable dampers.
Regardless of specification, the Mini's electrically boosted steering transmits a terrific amount of road feel, albeit with a slight nervousness off center. Heft builds quickly and confidently as the Countryman enters a curve, its firm suspension keeping it feeling planted. With the optional (on base models) 18-inchers, potholes are jarring, but there's none of the crashing feel found in the last Countryman.
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We spent more time in the base car with its thrumming 1.5-liter 3-cylinder engine. Aside from a little roughness from underhood at initial throttle tip-in, the base model is refined and delivers reasonable grunt with a light load aboard thanks mostly to its 162 pound-feet of torque. The Countryman S with its extra 45 pound-feet and additional 55 horses, predictably, is much stronger across the rev ragne, and it's a little smoother, too. It mates well to the $1,750 "sport" automatic, an 8-speed provided by Aisin that fires off quick, firm shifts and responds rapidly to inputs from the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The less aggressive automatic saves $250 but dilutes some of the Countryman S's personality.
2017 Mini Cooper CountrymanEnlarge Photo
Flick a ring around the Countryman's gear lever into Sport mode and you're rewarded with snappier throttle response, more steering heft, and, when adjustable dampers are fitted, a taut ride that verges on too firm without quite reaching that point.
BMW's latest all-wheel drive system delivered terrific traction on a snowy and icy road around Mt. Hood. It disconnects the rear wheels automatically to save fuel to the tune of 22 mpg city, 32 highway, 26 combined for the base model with its stick shift. That's not class-leading, but it's also hard to say exactly what class the Countryman competes in.
Is the Countryman a better BMW? Well, it depends on your definition of what a BMW is today—especially considering the brand's unorthodox decision to switch its X1 crossover from a rear- to a front-drive platform last year. Compared to the X1, the Mini's ride is busier and firmer, its steering sharper but also more nervous on center, and it seems to let in more rumble from the road. It's more fun, but also less relaxing. The two cars have distinctly different personalities despite their shared heritage.
For enthusiasts, it may be a little tough to digest the idea that not only does a Mini version of a BMW exist, but the Countryman is the one that will put a smile on your face.