Badge engineering may be a smart way for carmakers to maximize profits, but often, the products that spawn from it are a mess. There was a time when General Motors would sell us three, sometimes four versions of the same car. They were all bad. And the whole Mercedes/Infiniti love affair including a GLA and a QX30 proved that platform sharing can in fact go too far.
But the MINI Countryman is different. Even if, mechanically, it’s essentially a rebadged BMW X1, it comes through as its own, unique product. If anything, I’d even go as far as saying that the Countryman is even better polished than its corporate cousin.
The largest MINI yet
The fact that MINI will sell you an SUV that weighs nearly 4,000 pounds is an irony. While the original 1960s MINI was all about minimalism and simplicity, the Countryman is only related to it in styling. There’s absolutely nothing mini about this MINI.
It is a cute SUV, I’ll give it that. After all, that’s part of the MINI promise: to think outside the box, be cheerful, exciting, and engaging to drive. And in those respects, the Countryman, especially in its sporty S and John Cooper Works versions, fulfills its mission. Furthermore, although this is the largest MINI ever produced, it’s currently the brand’s best-selling machine.
The Countryman receives some welcoming updates for the 2021 model year. There’s a cleaned up-front fascia which gives it a tad more maturity while keeping its cheerful looks intact. There are standard LED headlights and cool Union Jack motifs inscribed in the taillights. The entire lineup gets new wheels, colors – like this sweet Sage Green Metallic – and trim options as well.
While power outputs are unchanged for all available engines, MINI has upgraded the turbocharging systems so they can withstand more heat and be more reliable. There are neat cabin updates as well, like new available textures and colors, as well as a new gear lever and a fully digital gauge cluster.
The Middle Child
See this Countryman S as the mid-level performance variant, a bit like how a Golf GTI sits halfway between a the Golf and the fire-breathing Golf R. While entry level cars rely on a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder, the S upgrades the hardware to a 2.0-liter four that’s good for a stout 189 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. Suspension, brakes and chassis were also retuned for improved cornering grip.
The S trim represents the sweet spot in the Countryman lineup as it remains well priced (as long as you don’t pile on too many options) but still rewards its driver for spirited driving. Sure, it’s less quick off the line than a Cooper or even a Clubman S powered by the same engine, but it’s no slouch either, sprinting to 100 km/h from a standstill in about 6.6 seconds. The fact that its turbo four makes more torque than horsepower, and that most of it is generated down low in the rev range, means you’ve got plenty of oomph on tap for overtaking.
There’s a solid and well-planted feel in the way the Countryman drives, a now expected MINI and BMW trait. It also somehow executes its driving dynamics in a more sorted out and playful manner than a BMW X1. The Countryman’s suspension remains stiff on beaten roads, but road noise is kept low. The entire chassis is rock solid, and build quality is impeccable. Enter a corner too quick with it, and the high levels of grip will quickly bring you back in your line.
This is arguably one of the best interpretations of electric power steering currently on sale. The wheel is small, thick, quick to react and has just the right amount of weight when set to Sport mode.
In S form, the Countryman doesn’t drive like a little crossover. It drives like an overweight MINI Cooper. And there’s a lot to like about that. It’s just oozing with character. Punch the accelerator pedal in automatic mode, and there’s an irritating delay before it gets up and goes – caused by turbo lag, an electronic throttle and too many gears –, but downshift the gears yourself, and an adorable surge of low-end torque overwhelms you and urges its upright body forward. It’s never fast, but power delivery is eager. It also sounds rather mean, especially when it’s shuffling through the gears.
Inside, the Countryman carries over the Let’s Motor Hard theme, with its gigantic circular central command screen that houses a version of BMW’s iDrive system. Just like in BMW vehicles, you either manipulate it using touch controls, or a console-mounted knob dial. It’s all easy to comprehend, with clear menus and an intuitive interface. But the lack of Android Auto in a $47,000 vehicle remains a mystery.
Seating position is fantastic in a Countryman, and the S sports seats are properly bolstered, even for a big guy such as me. You sit low in a vehicle that has a high ceiling, making you feel like you’re driving a small cargo van. I’m however a tad disappointed with the new shift knob. It’s just too low in the cabin. The old one was set up high and felt like a Dog Box unit taken out of a rally car. It made the Countryman S that much more fun to drive. This new one slightly distills the experience, in my opinion.
Rear head and legroom in a Countryman are surprisingly good considering its dwarfed proportions. The high roofline certainly helps at adding practicality, but while it shares a platform with an X1, total cargo space is considerably smaller in the MINI. Lower the rear seatbacks, and you’re left with 1,390 liters of available space, compared to 1,662 liters in the BMW.
The 2021 MINI Countryman S is the oddball of the subcompact luxury crossover segment. But in a world of lookalikes and wannabes, MINI’s utility vehicle remains the more cheerful one. It’s a fresh offering that also happens to be a heck of a lot of fun to drive and well put together, while still offering its owner real-world practicality. Add to that a reliability record that has improved exponentially in the last few years, and it’s hard to look past MINI’s cheerful bundle of joy.