x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Road test: Oddball Mini Countryman Cooper S woos with charm

It may not be perfect, but you can't get annoyed a car that is so cute.

The Countryman gives smiles for miles. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National
The Countryman gives smiles for miles. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National

And then there were four. Ten years after successfully reviving the Mini marque, BMW has driven the brand into hitherto uncharted territory with the launch of the Countryman, a four-door, four-seat, all-wheel drive, go-anywhere variant of the cute city car.

The Countryman represents a sizeable risk for Mini, which now stands accused of losing sight of the compact beauty that made the original so desirable in the first place.

Although the German-owned British car maker has consistently made a decent fist of remixing the past with each of its new product launches - the new Mini, the two-door Cabrio and latterly the Clubman estate - the Austrian-built Countryman cannot rely on simply tearing another page from the small marque's book of greatest hits. It is a car without historical precedent. All of which makes it perfectly reasonable to ask whether the Countryman is really a Mini at all?

And the answer is: it's not and yes, of course it is.

At more than four metres long and close to 1.4m tall, the Countryman Cooper S cuts an imposing figure. Its proportions are more akin to a mid-size SUV like, say, a VW Tiguan or a Nissan Qashqai, rather than a dinky little runabout. In spite of this, its exterior design language and exquisite interior are so distinctively Mini that you quickly forget about its overinflated dimensions.

The Countryman's body style is muscular to say the least. A basking shark front grille and low-riding spoiler lend a touch of evil to the nose, while big alloy wheels, slab sides and a nicely rounded rump complete the look. Altogether, it's a delicious blend.

Things are equally impressive inside. The cockpit is classic Mini: big dials, faux chrome-clad switchgear and rock-solid build quality - a visual and tactile joy from head to toe. The large centre dial, which on previous models used to house only an oversized analogue speedometer, is now almost entirely given over to an integrated in-car entertainment and navigation system called "Connected", a platform that naturally bears a strong resemblance to BMW's easy-to-use iDrive hardware. Keeping a toe in the past, a retro-styled speedo still clings to the rim of this unit.

Elsewhere, a striking centre rail runs from a point between the cabin's front seats to its back, effectively dividing it into quarters and housing cup holders, your clutter and, in another wonderful piece of detailing, a branded case to stow your sunglasses in.

This rail also allows Mini to install two generously proportioned individual seats in the rear. Naturally, these benefit from significantly improved legroom and sit in front of a decent-sized boot. The extra size (and those extra doors) also make the Countryman far more liveable for back-seat passengers on a long car journey.

On the road the car uses the Mini's standard-bearing 1.6L four-cylinder engine married to a six-speed automatic gearbox. It's here, perhaps, that all that extra size and additional weight start to betray the Countryman.

Jam your foot on the accelerator from a standing start and the car will squeal nicely towards 100kph in a perfectly respectable 7.6 seconds and will, when further pressed, crack on to a top speed in excess of 200kph. Neither figure is particularly shabby, but the Countryman does feel underpowered in the mid-range, especially when you need that bit of extra grunt to get you out of trouble on the Sheikh Zayed Road.

There are other issues: the back window is tiny and when combined with large back-seat head restraints, it makes rear visibility a real issue. This situation is compounded by the car's ovoid-shaped wing- and rear-view mirrors, which are a triumph of form over function. They look great and are an important part of the Mini design language, but severely restrict your peripheral vision on the motorway. Elsewhere, the driver's seat adjusts manually rather than electronically, which seems odd for a car with such a hefty pricetag.

Nevertheless, it's hard to stay too cross with the Countryman for too long. I'd happily trade these relatively minor quibbles for the smiles per mile it consistently manages to deliver. Somehow, too, the designers have managed to maintain the trademark go-kart handling of Sir Alec Issigonis's 1950s people's car.

That smile won't be wiped out when you visit a petrol station either. The manufacturer claims the Cooper S needs just 6.3L of fuel to cover 100km. Pretty decent figures for what is notionally a small performance car.

Altogether it's an impressive package. I have to confess I had been a Countryman-sceptic, but was largely won over by its considerable charms. The car has been warmly received elsewhere in the world and rumour has it that Mini now plans a longer, seven-seat version of its latest offering. On face value that would seem a stretch too far, but don't bet against the car maker's talented team pulling that one off as well.