The maxi Mini's mixed messages

Price: £19,875
Top speed: 115 mph
0-62 mph: 10.9 seconds
Consumption: 57.6 mpg
CO2 emissions: 129 g/km

The original 1959 Mini was a brilliant concept let down by imperfect execution. When BMW reinvented the Mini in 2001, the car was great and the execution, thanks to quite a bit of German money and engineering input, was superb too. The Mini Countryman is something else again; what, on the face of it is quite a silly concept, but one that is almost redeemed by very thorough execution. The silly concept? An enormous Mini. And why is that a silly concept? Well, the clue, as the annoying but apt expression has it, is in the name. And while we're on the subject of names, I'm not sure I understand why BMW chose Countryman, either; that's a badge that had its last outing on the not-too-bad but hardly magical Austin Montego estate.

So what's it like? Well the Countryman may not exactly be mini in size but there's a great deal of “Mini-ness” in its detailing. All of the Mini elements are there; the “floating” roof, the grille and so on, but they're applied to a crossover body which at first sight looks too big, and and too upright – although you do get used to it. One of the few departures from established Mini themes lies in the treatment of the C and D pillars, which incorporate a darkened third rear side window. These appear to be a straight lift from the Fiat Panda – although I'd never have noticed the similarity if I hadn't by chance seen the two cars parked together.

The really obvious difference between this Mini and all others, though, is that it has four doors – and as car doors go, they're great. They're very deep so they offer extremely easy access to the Countryman's surprisingly roomy interior, which in other respects is precisely what you'd expect. All of the Mini detailing that made the 2001 car so distinctive is there; if anything, BMW has laid it on even thicker than before. I have mixed feelings about this. I was a big fan of the 2001 Mini's interior but the Countryman's cabin hardly seems to move the game on at all - even if it is beautifully made. And there's another issue. Designing the dashboard around a single central “dinner plate” instrument panel inspired by the original Mini's speedo, and rows of identical cute retro toggle switches, is an approach that works well on a small car but on a bigger, better-equipped model such as the Countryman, more and more information has to be channelled through the display and the number of switches has to be increased. The result is confusion, and particularly at night, I found that more than once I had to pull over to the side of the road and turn on the interior light in order to find the right switch or mess about with the radio. The only elements of the interior that seem to be new are a clumsy handbrake handle fitted at right angles to the main lever, and some strange rails between the seats which appear to be designed to take optional equipment; the car would be better without them. Time for a rethink, I think.

This car is a slightly mixed bag on the road as well. First the good bits. My test car was a diesel and this had an excellent drivetrain. In the past, BMW has bought in diesels from Toyota and Peugeot, which did a perfectly good job, but has recently switched to using its own. This does a very good job here of combining performance with economy thanks to generous torque, long gearing and stop-start, which is now an established Mini feature. It feels a lot quicker and stronger than BMW's somewhat indifferent (and not very Cooper-like) official performance numbers suggest. The Countryman has Mini-style sharp steering but slightly stodgy handling, an incongruous combination that seems to exercise the professional testers a bit but won't bother most likely buyers.

When I was out and about in the Countryman it attracted a great deal of attention. That surprised me; this may be a new model but the styling is hardly adventurous and the BMW Mini look is now very familiar. One pedestrian in North London waved in order to attract my attention, then pointed at the car and delivered a big “thumbs down” gesture but most of the glances and head-turning produced by the Countryman seemed to reflect either approval or curiosity.

Overall, the Countryman is pretty practical, and I'm sure it will sell well to, and be liked by, some existing Mini fans who will be relieved not to have to abandon their favourite brand as their families grow. It's not too pricey, either. What I suspect it won't do is win lots of new converts to Mini. And personally, I prefer the often over-looked, but zippier and nippier Clubman estate as a solution to the tight rear legroom and lack of luggage space that are the only real drawbacks of the standard Mini.

But if there isn't really much wrong with the Countryman, it's also a bit of a missed opportunity. It's a curiously tentative thing that can't quite work out what sort of car it is. I have no detailed knowledge of its development history, but if I had to guess, and it really is only a guess, I'd say that it feels like it started out as something intended to occupy a position closer to the SUV end of the crossover spectrum, but was shifted quite a bit to its present position towards the “car” end of the scale later in the process, perhaps as a response the high fuel prices and SUV backlash (now largely subsided) of 2008. If BMW had really set out from the beginning to produce a mainstream Golf-class competitor, it would surely have produced something lower, with much sharper Mini-like handling. Perhaps there is still room for such a car in Mini's range; it could be very good.

The 2001 BMW Mini succeeded because it was either a very well judged or a very lucky combination of the best elements of the British and German automotive traditions, with none of the weaknesses; it was a distinctive, characterful “British” design but the German input ensured that it was developed thoroughly and made properly. Here's another guess. If the Countryman's great build quality, good ground clearance, 4x4 option and slightly unimaginative, heavy-handed adaptation of the 2001 Mini look are anything to go by, this thing was conceived entirely in Bavaria. It's a Mini that will take you into the snowy Alps when you want to escape from Munich to do a bit of ski-ing at the weekend. That may be a car a lot of people sitting in BMW's headquarters think they need but it's probably not the car that most of the punters are looking for – or one that remotely chimes with Mini's urban roots.

That precious Anglo-German balance badly needs to be restored, although not in order to assuage wounded British pride; most Brits neither know nor care where their cars are designed or made (the Countryman is actually assembled in Austria), and the “British” thing itself is as much of a negative as a positive in many markets. It's just that with a bit more quirky fizz, the Countryman would be a lot better.

BMW should, perhaps, have taken a look at what BMC did in the Sixties when it decided to expand its range of front-wheel drive cars beyond the original 1959 Mini; it produced new models that were, in concept and space-saving mechanical layout, big Minis, but, and this is the important bit, never felt that these cars necessarily had to look like Minis as well. Sometimes that worked, as in the case of the attractive 1300, and sometimes, as in the case of the awkward-looking 1800, it didn't. But at least BMC, for all its failings, didn't get into the design rut that BMW seems to be getting into. If it had to produce a big Mini at all, why didn't BMW just give some young British designers a clean sheet of paper and tell them to come up with an exciting new Maxi for the twenty-first century? If the Countryman name has been de-toxed with the passage of time, then so, surely, has that one.

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