Our cars: Mini Countryman - April
Week ending April 27
Driven this week: 210 miles
Mini Countryman review
My nine-month-old son has a current favourite toy that’s covered in plastic knobs and shapes. I have been reminded of it every time I have stepped into the Countryman this week.
The Mini's switchgear is a riot of buttons and toggles scattered confusingly and randomly throughout the cabin. As with all Minis, the buttons that operate the electric windows are down by the gearstick, but I'm indoctrinated to expect them on the door. I have to stop and think 'where are they?' rather than instinctively find them.
The sat-nav display is fantastically clear to read, mounted in the middle of the dash, and it also has an ornamental halo... No that's actually the all-important speedo, that has hardly been glanced at all week because I find it too distracting to actually find it.
Happily, there are plenty of positive features, too. The bucket-style seats are excellent, offering the right balance between sport and support, yet are not so stupidly sculpted that they make getting out of them an embarrassment. The driving position allows excellent visibility (the same can't be said about the too-small mirrors, though.).
The Mini is great to drive, with crisp steering and a responsive engine, and it also just about qualifies as a practical family runaround. The Isofix brackets are super-simple to find, while the boot (just about) fits Junior's pram.
It's just that interior styling I can't get on with. I realise that's part of what attracts people to Minis, and indeed Countrymans, in their droves, but while Junior loves being dazed and confused, I prefer things a bit more straightforward and to keep my attention where it should be, on the road.
Week ending April 20
Driven this week: 1355 miles
Writing for What Car? sister site PistonHeads.com, I don't often get a chance to drive cars that aren't out-and-out performance models, so when What Car? kindly loaned me the Countryman for a few days I was genuinely excited. I wanted to see if the whole Mini brand idea could be upscaled successfully into a small SUV.
Sadly, my enthusiasm was quashed after only a few miles, because something is lost in the translation from Mini hatch to mini-SUV. Where the Mini Cooper hatch feels cute and cheeky, the same styling cues applied to a 4x4 to turn it into The Countryman make it feel – to me at least – a little ungainly inside and out.
Fortunately, the Countryman's lively dynamics and drivetrain do feel more appropriate to the effervescent Mini brand, making it a fun car to throw about. However, it's a shame that the Countryman also shares the unyielding ride of its smaller cousins.
Week ending April 20
Driven this week: 452 miles
Like all Minis, the Countryman’s cabin borrows design cues from a bygone era. The great thing about that is its dashboard is heaps more interesting to look at than the banal layouts found in most modern cars. However, there is a major downside.
You see, cars of 50 years ago were simple; many didn’t even have stereos, let alone sat-navs, Bluetooth system or climate control. So, the fact that the control layouts weren’t always brilliant ergonomically didn’t really matter.
Our Countryman, on the other hand, is crammed with the latest gadgets, so matters a lot. In fact, I’d happily sacrifice a bit of retro charm for a user-friendly interface for the main functions. Even the climate control system is tricky to operate at a glance, because there are too many different shaped buttons which are poorly labeled and positioned.
Maybe it’s time for a rethink, Mini?
Week ending April 13
Driven this week 120 miles
While the poor fuel economy and lack of low-down torque means the 1.6-litre turbocharged Cooper S engine in our Countryman is probably not everyone’s first choice for an SUV, it has one unexpected upside – it sounds great.
On more than one occasion I have darted away from standstill and the resultant noise from the engine has caught me by surprise. It comes with the same growly note as the hatchback version, which is genuinely pleasing.
However, if it is continually catching the driver by surprise, then perhaps it is not the ideal engine for a family car, and it makes the Countryman seem like it is trying a bit hard to impress in an area that is not really important.