At what point does a Mini stop being a Mini? You could argue quite reasonably that the 'new' Mini as we all know it is not really mini at all; it's easier still to suggest that the oddball Mini Clubman is even further removed from the 'less is more' ethos that made the original car such a legend over 50 years. Perhaps they should have called it Maxi.
Then there's the Countryman, which takes the BMW-spawned Mini and pushes it to new extremes, being both wider and taller than many a five-door family hatchback. It's designed to appeal to a generation of 'new Mini' buyers who loved the nippy performance and pointy handling of the car, but then had to give it up because, in most cases, a little one (or two) turned up.
The target customer still has money to spend, clearly, because the Countryman is not cheap. Our four-wheel-drive 1.6-litre Cooper S petrol had a list price of £22,605 last autumn, but by the time custodian Alex Newby had been near the options list, adding the Chili, Media and Vision Packs, plus the electric sunroof, heated front screen, flat boot floor (shouldn't this be standard anyway?) and sun-protection glass, the final bill was a frankly eye-watering £28,515. Perhaps she shouldn't have gone for the funky bonnet stripes (£95).
In any case, Alex soon started putting the Countryman to the very task for which it has been designed: family life. Almost immediately she found that while this Mini does have a little more practicality than its smaller brethren, it's still not entirely perfect for those with babies.
In fact, Alex really struggled to get her double buggy into the boot, let alone the assorted other clutter that comes with a young 'un. This is definitely a family car suited to toddlers and above. Boosters seats and shopping bags are fine; full-size, Group 1 chairs are a struggle.
It's little wonder that many of the blinged-up examples you see in posher areas of London have precisely nothing in the rear seats.
Urban life also proved more difficult than Alex had expected. The 1.6-litre petrol engine was hard to fault, with strong performance throughout its rev range, but it liked a drink. The Government fuel economy figure is 42.4mpg, but with many of our miles racked up at very low speeds in the suburbs, we struggled to crack 30mpg.
The ride was another curious area; Mini appears to have tuned the Cooper S in the same performance-oriented vein as the regular car, so urban potholes and poor road surfaces often resulted in the occupants having a bouncy ride. The kids might have thought it was fun; the grown-ups were less amused. Indeed, by eight months in, Alex admitted that it was driving her mad.
Despite these bumps and thumps, the cabin stood up pretty well to a year's abuse, although its design and functionality split opinion regardless of mileage. This is perhaps the best indication of who Mini wants this car to appeal to, because the fascia is every bit as 'retro' as those you'll find on regular three-door Minis.
We could forgive the huge central speedo and 1960s-style toggle switches, but gave a thumbs down to the bizarre positioning of the electric window controls (as far away from the windows as you can get) and the laborious sat-nav system.
The conclusion, then, has to be that the Countryman is indeed a Mini. It has the same opinion-splitting fascia as the regular car, the same focus on aggressive steering and ride quality (out of sorts though they are) and only a modest nod in the direction of extra practicality.
If you're desperate to stay with the Mini brand as you move into family life, it might well fulfil your requirements. Just don't expect it to be a true all-rounder.
Our reviews are based on hard data and thorough testing in the real world.
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