Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2011 MINI Cooper Countryman

Every luxury automaker, except for a few exotic holdouts, now builds a crossover vehicle. MINI joins the group in 2011 with the Countryman, a pint-sized cute-ute that's a good compromise for families that want some driving fun along with their all-weather, tall-wagon capability.

We're rating the 2011 Countryman a 6 here at FamilyCarGuide. The Countryman has a surprising amount of room in the back seat, and it's pegged the safety needle, but the cargo area is small and for now at least, MINI only offers the crossover in a four-seat edition. It's entertaining to drive, but it also gets pricey with all the customized graphics and add-ons MINI offers buyers.

A "big MINI" sounds like an oxymoron, but in the Countryman's case, there's real adult room to be found inside. This MINI's been planned out for more all-around utility than the smaller, three-door Cooper Clubman. It's taller, wider and longer, and it shows up inside particularly in the rear seats. Up front, the decent knee and leg room are a footnote compared to the cathedral-like headroom, with some to spare even when the optional sunroof is fitted. It's the same in the back seat, where grown-ups will touch their knees to the front seat backs, but won't hit the headliner even if they're tall. The downside: MINI only offers a pair of bucket seats split by a console in back, but there may be a five-seat version coming soon. The cargo hold is just 12.2 cubic feet, big enough only for a few roll-aboards, limiting the Countryman's use as a people-and-cargo hauler.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says the Countryman's a 2011 Top Safety Pick, and backing up the scores are standard features like curtain airbags and stability control, with all-wheel drive available as an option.

For all it's given up to become a bigger, more useful MINI, the Countryman surely looks the part. All the typical MINI cues are present, or available from the order sheet. The grille and headlamps are immediately recognizable as a Cooper. The roofline jogs down at the rear, and when the roof is painted white (one of the hundreds of styling options), it's unmistakably a MINI. The interior's a bit less retro-tinged than other Coopers, and that's a good thing--there's less chaos in its controls, fewer toggles and switches to memorize.

On the road, the front-drive and all-wheel-drive Countryman both have the essential feel that MINI prizes in its cars. The steering's quick--maybe a little too quick--but the handling isn't like any other luxury crossover we can name. It simply begs you to wind up its free-revving four-cylinder engine, whether it's a turbocharged version or not, and even the optional automatic six-speed gearbox knocks off clean shifts willingly. Fuel economy of up to 35 mpg highway is a highlight.

You'll find power features, air conditioning and cruise control on every Countryman. From there it can be a dizzying, expensive walk through the options sheet. You can opt for leather trim; a sunroof; all-wheel drive; audio systems with navigation, satellite radio, and apps for connecting portable music players; and Bluetooth connectivity. Then there are dozens upon dozens of choices for wheel styles, paint colors, interior trim, add-on decals and graphics, cargo accessories and the like--almost guaranteeing that no two American-market Countrymen are alike.

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