The international launch took place on winding English country lanes, providing the perfect opportunity to test handling and suspension. The chassis has been reinvented and proved supple and compliant. In SA, this should see the Countryman faring well on our unpredictable roads. The steering is well weighted and precise and sharpens up noticeably in sport drive mode. This also gives a better engine note and more immediate response from the loud pedal.
The model we drove around the Cotswolds was the Cooper S All4 — a derivative we unfortunately won’t be getting in SA. Mini SA has elected to offer their all-wheel drive system only on the JCW, which will make its entrance here later in 2017.
There will also be a diesel derivative joining the range a few months after local launch in March and greenies can look forward to the electric Countryman in 2018. The S offers 141kW and 280Nm from its 2.0-litre twin turbo. It is not a large improvement on the outgoing model but the engines are all new for the model — using BMW architecture but packaged specially for Mini. It was mated to a new eight-speed Steptronic gearbox that gels beautifully with the engine. Changes are seamless, particularly when using the paddles, an optional extra in SA.
The most exciting derivative is the new 1.5-litre three-cylinder in the entry-level Cooper. The old Cooper version battled to lug its weight around with the 1.6 normally aspirated powerplant.
It must be fun being an engineer at Mini. Like Apple or Google, I imagine it is a free environment where anything goes and there are no limits to what you can create (except Paceman, they hit the limit with that). Every day you get to rummage through the BMW parts bin and play Tetris reinventing the wheel.
That is exactly what they have done with the all-new for 2017 Countryman, which boasts fresh engines, a redesigned chassis and much more space.
Size matters — that was the primary feedback from Countryman owners when Mini was in research and development with the second generation. As such, the new model is 20cm longer and 30mm wider than its predecessor, making it the largest Mini in the company’s 57-year history. Sir Alec Issigonis might roll in his grave, but Mini is confident the new dimensions will move Countryman up a segment truly to compete with premium compact SUVs such as the Mercedes-Benz GLA and the Audi Q3 (and upcoming Q2).
That may be a stretch, but the new model has palpably more legroom in the back seats and there is extra shoulder width up front. In the boot, they have added an extra 100l thanks to a false floor compartment.
Designers have worked their magic with the new vital stats to make the Countryman look more masculine and chunky.
Interesting geometric crease lines have appeared on the side and although it is not a huge departure from the first generation, it gives it a bit more presence. Roof rails enhance that crossover look, although it still appears more a blown-up Mini than an organic SUV.
At the wheel, that is perhaps not such a bad thing. Although the seating position is elevated, the Mini-ness is all there in terms of the car feeling planted and solid on the road.
Hopefully, with this impressive lump under its hood, the entry-level model will now be a more feasible option for those looking to get into a bigger Mini.
It is not cheap, mind. In the UK, the new Countryman has a 20% premium over the old model. The company justifies this by saying it is better specced and reminded us it is now a bigger car. In SA, the range will start at R420 000 so it will need to be packing a bucket load of spec to make it a viable alternative to the many options available in this segment of our market.
Despite its already hefty price tag, the outgoing Countryman has been a stellar performer for Mini globally, making up almost 25% of its sales annually, with more than half-a-million units sold to date.
Apart from the extra practicality it offers over a standard Mini, would-be buyers of other brands might be won over by the customisation it offers. You can now make your Countryman even more personalised by hooking it up to your digital life through Mini Connected.
The updated system in the 2017 model allows you to do things such as integrating diary appointments with Mini’s open mobility cloud, so now your Mini can remind you that you have an appointment in Bryanston at 9am and traffic is bad so you’d better leave now!
Another new feature is Mini Find Mate, which sees owners receiving two wireless tags which they can attach to a set of keys or a handbag and if you forget them, Mini will remind you where they are.
You would have to be a real tech geek to pay the premium for these features. The new touchscreen is a nice addition and Mini’s iDrive theft from BMW is user friendly.
Driving the new Mini Countryman is like being an adult reminiscing in a candy store. Inside, it is more refined, more premium, more mature almost, until you see the colourful changing lights and the dinner plate interface.
Behind the wheel, it is composed and listens to orders, until you drive it a little harder or switch it over to sport mode — then it reveals its cheeky side.
Like its engineers, the Countryman has a serious, important job to do, but it has a great amount of fun doing it. – Lindsay Vine-Smyth