Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bucket Seat: Mini Countryman - First Impressions

This week saw the launch of the all new Mini Countryman in South Africa, now while the Countryman defies every aspect of the name Mini, it still has the trademarks that help its cause in being what a Mini is all about. The launch took place on my doorstep in KZN and saw us driving through the canelands of the coast and eventually venturing into the midlands of this magnificent province, perfect territory to test the new Countryman out. Some facts I got to learn about the Countryman during the launch was that the original Countryman was called the Austin Seven Countryman and the British manufacturer felt that the hatch needed a more versatile interior and hence it was born. It phased out thereafter but was later revived in 2010 after the BMW over Mini and while that one wasn't the best car to drive, it did leave a lot of room for improvement which this new model seems to have filled up. There were a lot of firsts for the outgoing Countryman, it was the first Mini with a large tailgate, the first Mini with four doors and it was the first to have 5 seats as well as the first to offer all wheel drive. Thus making it quite popular and in such selling over 540,000 units worldwide. 

The new Countryman boasts a host of changes from the old, its bigger, bolder and more powerful. The first thing that strike you is the large square headlights, a big change from the oval we're used to seeing on the other models. The car is also ever so taller but still doesn't have a lot of ground clearance to go properly in the bush. As morning broke, we set off in the Countryman Cooper first, which is powered by a  1.5l Twin Power Turbo, 3-cylinder petrol engine, pushing out 1100kW and a max torque of 220Nm. While the engine is practically identical to the one found in the BMW 318i, you'd expect it to have a bit more grunt in the smaller chassis of the Countryman. It packed plenty of punch that's for sure, I'm not sure if it was the coastal air but the car was pretty responsive and handled like a dream through the many twists and turns of the KZN North Coast and Midlands. 

The other option offered in the Countryman is the Cooper S which has the slightly bigger 2l, 4-cylinder petrol engine, with an output of 141kW and max torque of 280Nm. I had this on the journey back to Durban and got the chance to test this cross over on some gravel roads. While the previous Countryman wasn't the best in handling even on tarred surfaces, this new one is so much more refined that it felt almost at home on loose gravel. At once stage I felt like Colin McRae speeding down the gravel while leaving clouds of dust in my back. The Cooper S is seriously becoming one of my all time favourite engines. It has that burst of power that just puts a big smile on your face when driving a Mini. They try their darnedest to give the driver that "Go-Kart" feel and while many enthusiast might disagree that it doesn't, I still feel like it is there and even with the bigger Countryman, the perfect weight distribution, smaller turning circle and other elements do add to that feeling.

Both cars cabins are pretty much the same, it borrows a lot from the smaller Mini hatch but on a slightly larger scale. It comes with the Mini iDrive interface which is as user friendly as the BMW's, it also has Mini Connect offered which enables so much possibilities for the infotainment unit the in the car. The funky chrome switches are a personal favourite of mine as well as the red start/ stop switch perfectly positioned in the middle of it all. The cars came with the optional split glass sunroof which for me is a must in a Mini, it just gives the car that extra room feelings and connects you well with the outdoors. With the cabin being bigger than the norm there is a lot of room and can quite believe that that five adults can sit comfortably in the car. So when it comes to space, this new Countryman has plenty of it, with the luggage space able to accommodate 450 litres, which is increased when the rear seats are dropped and can be shifted to increase space even more! The tailgate is now also electronic so you don't have to worry about pulling a muscle when pulling the heavy lid down to close.

While the Mini Countryman isn't classified as an SUV, it still fits into that premium small SUV market with its competition being the Audi Q2, VW Tiguan and so on. The price tag might deter many but as always, I encourage people to see if it is really worth the tag and for what you getting in this car, and the quality of the product it really has come a long way. While there are only two engine variants offered, none of which come with the All Four option, there are plans to launch a diesel and the range topping JCW variants later this year. The JCW will come standard with All  Four. Pricing for the Countryman Cooper is R422,000* which comes with a 6 speed manual, the 6 speed auto starts off at R440,000*. The Countryman Cooper S with the standard 6 speed auto starts off at R490,000* and the 8 speed auto Cooper S is R509,500*

*C02 emissions applicable and not accounted for.

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