When Porsche unveiled the Cayenne, we thought the world had finally gone mad. Fans of the storied brand burst into tears at the idea of a Porsche SUV. It didn't go down too well at all.
That it's now arguably the best thing since sliced bread is testament to the fact that carmakers know what they're doing and if one of the most famous names in the motor industry can create something as audacious as the Cayenne, then what's all this palaver over the first four-door, all-wheel drive Mini? It sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
So, off I went to put it to the test for an afternoon of wadi bashing and rock climbing. In a Mini. It may sound wrong, much like a Ferrari shooting brake sounds wrong. No wait, they're making one called the FF. OK, how about an incy wincy Aston Martin designed for the city? Hang on, that'll be the Cygnet. Even my beloved Pontiac came out with a downright ugly looking station wagon for the muscular Trans Am. And that's the point. Carmakers are always toying with new ideas, no matter how weird, and Mini has joined the party. But, has it stolen the show with the Countryman?
All growed up
Change, they say, is good. But, is this a step too far? In fact, can it still be called a Mini? It's certainly not miniature any more. At 4,108mm long, 1,789mm wide and 1,561mm high, it's bigger by 383mm, taller by 154mm and fatter by 104mm than the standard hardtop but most important of all, its increased ground clearance helps peg it as a crossover.
In Cooper S guise, the Countryman's figures speak for themselves. 184bhp and 240Nm of torque is produced by a peppy 1.6-litre four-pot with a twin scroll turbocharger. And with its exceptional ALL4 all-wheel drive capabilities, it has terrier-like grip and performance. It is still cute, though there is a bit more to cuddle.
But point that refreshed front, with its bigger headlights that stretch back onto the fenders and a new chrome grille towards a gravelly incline, hit the sport button, flick the lever into manual mode and brace yourself. With its new-found strength and go-anywhere attitude, the Countryman tackles the rough like it's been doing it since Mini's inception back in 1959. You never feel that the technology is taking over — you are always in control and best of all, it all feels totally natural. It may struggle on more treacherous terrain, but it isn't intended to go over mountain-sized dunes, not with 16- to 19in alloys and run flat tyres.
Rough and tough
During the test drive on a dirt road off the Maleha highway, the Countryman was impressive to say the least.
I expected it to take one look at a 10 metre foot hill, turn around and run the other way, finding a bush to cower behind. But the all-wheel drive system proved to me that it's not just a marketing gimmick. I had doubted its ability on the makeshift test track, which cambered all over the place, had pockets of soft sand and chunky rocks. It would have been a stern test for an SUV, but the Countryman took it all in its bigger than usual stride.
The All4 system has a 50:50 torque split but when it detects the wheels slipping, as much as 100 per cent of the power can be transferred to the rear.
For those of you worried about the performance of this car, you can relax for there's good news. The Countryman doesn't lose much in the "fun-to-drive" department you normally associate Mini with. Yes, the extra 227kg it's now carrying over the three-door, giving it a total weight of 1,361kg, make it a bit less energetic. That it now has a higher centre of gravity also slows it down, but not by much and the Mini DNA is alive and well which means it is still playful at speed. It still corners enthusiastically and thanks to a longer wheelbase, you get a far more comfortable ride quality than the standard Mini which is often criticised for its harshness.
The steering is nicely weighted and has a crisp feel at turn-in with immediate response from the wheels, while the All4 setup seems to have eliminated the torque steer that the turbo Minis suffer from.
I found that keeping the car in sport mode — which tightens up the steering, throttle response and stiffens the suspension — makes for an engaging ride and most important of all, makes it feel like a regular Cooper S with three doors and not the five we get here. The car seems to shrink a little with this mode engaged, so my advice would be to keep it on at all times.
The six-speed automatic, with paddle shifters, helps to keep the driving experience lively, swapping those oily cogs with minimal fuss while fuel economy is quite impressive too, getting 25/31-mpg.
Space, comfort and utility are the main reasons people buy crossovers — not their driving dynamics. But a fun-filled drive is high on the list for those wanting a Mini and the Countryman doesn't let up on this. It trades off little performance for a lot of utility — as long as you're only carrying four adults.
It has two separate chairs at the back that slide forward and back on rails by almost 127mm. This, of course, increases leg room or cargo room, of which there is 348-litres, that's almost twice that of the standard car. It can be expanded up to 436-litres if you push the rear seats all the way forward. If that is still not enough room to get your flat-pack furniture in, then you can drop the seats down and that will give you an incredible total of 1,169-litres. If that isn't enough then there's no pleasing you. Packing all your luggage is easy thanks to a liftgate, which you have to lift and shut manually, rather than press a magic button on the key fob. Oh well, you can't have everything.
The interior retains the basic design but feels less cluttered and yes, it still features those massive dials. However, the quality of the materials feels better while a new integrated sat-nav sits inside the speedo, and is easy to use.
If you were one of the millions who punched their monitors when they saw the first images of the new Countryman on the internet, just remember the success story of the Cayenne. Porsche is now selling more of those every year than it does the Cayman, Boxter or 911s.
So, even if you can't accept a Mini with four-doors and all-wheel drive technology and feel like washing your eyes with soap and water each time you see one, I'd suggest you take the Countryman for a drive and give it a chance. You'll find it still drives like a Mini should and the bonus is that you and three of your mates can get down and dirty with it — in great comfort.
In essence, it still is a Mini but it's finally grown up. Otherwise, it'd be called the Countryboy.
Mini's story is much like that of Elvis. When it arrived on the scene, it was something of a trendsetter. It went on to steal the hearts of millions worldwide with its cheeky character and nimble moves and though it's now bigger and bloated, there's no denying it is still producing the goods. But, for how long? We'll just have to wait for the sales figures.
But, I suspect, the Countryman will be just the sort of crossover people are looking for — one with space, performance and plenty of character.
The Countryman features the unique Mini Centre Rail system which allows the driver and passengers to keep their belongings exactly where they need them. The rails also form a visual and functional connection between the front and rear seats.
Specs & ratings
- Model Cooper S Countryman
- Engine 1.6-litre four-cylinder
- Transmission Six-speed auto, AWD
- Max power 184bhp @ 5,500rpm
- Max torque 240Nm @ 1,600rpm
- Top speed 215kph
- 0-100kph 7.6sec
- Price Dh160,000
This compact crossover vehicle seats five and is powered by a 200bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder motor. The Tiguan can be had with either front- or all-drive. It features a sat-nav with rearview camera, sunroof, and a 30GB hard drive.