There’s certainly no shortage of choice for anyone in the market for a MINI. We now have the new MINI (would you believe it’s been 10 years since BMW brought the small car back to British roads?) the Cooper and Cooper S, the Clubman, a convertible, the Countryman in its four-wheel-drive and standard variants, various limited editions and soon a coupé.
None of them hold the same allure or sense of fun as the original 1959 model but the Germanic pretender has become the car of choice for Middle England from Surrey and Suffolk to Cheshire and the Cotswolds.
With the latest Countryman, the Cooper SD ALL4, the company has gone back to the wooden-panelled model of the 1960s, dosed it up on the steroids and launched it into the sporty crossover market to cement its suburban dominance.
Its bulbous exterior is certainly attention grabbing and it’s the biggest car to wear the company badge so far. Not that purists will like that. It’s so large that it hardly deserves the historic badge that graces its bonnet. That said there’s just enough trademark MINI styling (of the modern kind) to link it to its ancestor and it has buckets of the unique appeal that makes modern MINIs so desirable to some.
Inside it's hit and miss again. The control panel seems to have been afflicted by a particularly virulent form of automotive acne with too many controls, buttons, switches and dials squeezed into the central control panel (which itself extends too far to the floor to be practical). This may be because my test model was fitted with nearly £7,000 of optional extras, but it’s still confusing. And when I struggled to find the windscreen demister, window controls and hazard lights it verged (almost literally) on dangerous.
The Countryman’s ample space seems poorly utilised at first – there are only four seats – but they move forward sufficiently or collapse easily to allow for near saloon-like levels of storage. The trademark MINI configuration of a rail that runs the length of the cabin along the transmission tunnel isn’t for everyone but provides several handy storage spots.
On the road its four-wheel drive is more than at home in the urban shopping centre car park or pulling a horse box in the Home Counties than with any serious off-road action, but many drivers will find the plentiful torque useful and the relatively high seating position.
In town its diesel engine can be a little sluggish at slow speeds, which makes you wonder what the sport tag really delivers – it takes some work and some down-shifting to make the most of it. Many modern diesels, including many BMWs, have managed to square this circle of diesel power and sporty performance but the designers at MINI still have some work to do it seems.
But then there’s only so much need for a sporty drive in the retail parks of Surrey and affluent lanes of Cheshire. The petrol model gets nearer to offering the go-kart like handling that the company’s blurb suggests, but still feels like its sitting on stilts and fails to deliver the sense of fun a MINI should offer. While on the motorway the Countryman is an accomplished tourer at least and offers good fuel economy, a high degree of driving comfort and little by the way or road noise.
In all honesty the car’s performance is more than adequate for most drivers and its styling and historical purity are a matter of personal taste. But if you must have one, and can forgo the four-wheel drive and extra space of the Countryman, I’d suggest the Cooper D. It’s only slightly slower, handles just as well, is more comfortable and lacks the bulbous styling. Best of all it’s almost £3000 cheaper.
Price from £23,190 (£30,120 as tested)
Engine capacity: 1995cc
Power output (PS@rpm): 143 @ 4,000
Top speed (mph): 121
0-62 mph (seconds): 9.4
Fuel economy (mpg): 57.6
CO2 emissions (g/km): 130
The Nissan Juke isn’t exactly a direct competitor but is far cheaper at £12,795. It’s fun to drive and is aimed at the same well-heeled, iPhone owning customers. The Peugeot 3008 crossover is more practical, easy to drive and well-styled.