When BMW announced that it was going to relaunch the iconic Mini as its smallest car, there were doubts whether it really understood what Mini was all about, whether it could recapture the essence of such an iconic brand and car. Fortunately, the doubters were proven wrong and the Mini turned out to be even better than the original - a lively, sharp-handling car that is a joy to drive and one that reinjects a sense of fun into the process. In short, BMW got it absolutely right.
Then the company announced the Countryman. It was to be everything the original Mini was not - the largest, widest, tallest, longest and heaviest Mini ever built, and with four doors and four-wheel drive.
What BMW came up with is actually a Mini-styled body sitting on top of its X1 small SUV platform. So it keeps the cheeky, chunky looks of its smaller siblings but gains a lot of practicality, which is precisely why it will appeal to those who can no longer live with the two-door's lack of space and storage. Sure, a new Mini may be great fun to drive but it's not so much fun if you have to squeeze in a growing family.
The Countryman was created to fill this niche for people who fancy a Mini but can't fit their lives, family and friends into the back seats or stuff into the boot. It is a Mini with all the size and space of a Golf, yet still a car to appeal to the heart rather than the logical and obvious alternatives. It says, "I am still spontaneous and fun, and bold enough not to go with the crowd." At the end of the day buying a Mini Countryman is very definitely a fashion statement.
Outwardly, the Mini family resemblance is strong but perhaps it's better to think of this as Mini's bigger, tougher brother. Powered by the same 1.6 four-cylinder turbo that's found in the Cooper S, the Countryman's extra girth gives it a lot more work to do.
Inside, it's as stylish and quirky as the rest of the range and even keeps the dinner-plate sized central speedo and display unit. Running lengthwise through the cabin is the clever Centre Rail System, an aluminium spar onto which you can clip cool accessories like cupholders and sunglass cases, moving them around so you can really customise the inside of your car. Finally, perfect.
In the armrest between the front seats is a docking station for your iPhone that when connected can be controlled through the easy-to-use multi-media display.
The Countryman offers the choice of bench-style rear seating or a pair of individual chairs that slide forwards and backwards. The bench offers seating for three small people, whilst the individual seats are more comfortable and accommodating for adults. Behind them, the boot is bigger than the regular Mini's and has a double-decker floor for extra flexibility. Better yet, you can fold the rear seats almost flat to free up even more space.
As for the driving experience, our smart black-striped Cooper S ALL4 version with its 182bhp turbocharged four-cylinder 1.6-litre engine was always up for the game - punchy around town, though slightly less sprightly on open roads due to the Countryman's extra weight compared with the Cooper S. The Countryman's greater height means the body rolls more effectively around corners, which is a big difference compared to the go-kart-like handling of the smaller cars.
Grip is abundant but feedback through the steering wheel is less so - it goes where you point it accurately enough but doesn't communicate much about what is going on under the wheels. As a city car, it is a bundle of fun and in its element on Beach Road or the JBR strip.
Things are very different when you take it off smooth tarmac. The same stiff suspension needed to keep body roll manageable and preserve the Mini-like chuckability count against it in the rough where the ride seems overly hard and teeth-chatteringly stiff over the sorts of gravel surfaces common in the UAE.
Sure, the electronically controlled ALL4 drive system means you can get to places an ordinary Mini can't but you won't necessarily enjoy the drive. Which is a shame, because the Countryman certainly looks the part, and limited off-road ability isn't likely to be a problem in many other parts of the world. Maybe they could do a Middle East specification version with longer, softer springs. There is always the Countryman World Rally Championship version to draw inspiration from and that becomes a very tempting prospect for a bit of sand action.
Something in between
So the Mini Countryman isn't really a mini Mini any more nor is it a proper off-road SUV. What it is, though, is a brilliantly practical and accommodating city car all dressed up with a sense of fun and amazing style. You can spec it almost any way you like with wheels, stripes and decals to make it completely your own and it certainly has the drive and attitude to conquer all that the city offers.
Valet parkers love it and adults and kids will appreciate the convenience of proper rear doors. Sure, there are more logical and sensible alternatives out there in the market but when did logic and sense ever define what you drive?
For those people with a sense of fun and adventure and a need for a modicum of practicality, the Countryman offers all the space and convenience you need combined with the grin factor that runs through everything Mini.
Few cars will even come close to putting such a big smile on your face.
Engine 1.6l four-cylinder turbo
Power/torque 182bhp/192lb ft
Gearbox 6-speed automatic, AWD
Acceleration 0-100kph in 7.9sec
Price From Dh160,000