The largest member of the Mini family has been updated. We spent a few days driving the Countryman on some spectacular roads in Mpumalanga and Limpopo to find out if it's retained its fun-to-drive nature and charm...
This author can recall the South African launch of the 1st-gen Countryman in 2010; traditionalists weren't happy because the Oxford-based firm's crossover was anything but "mini". The lineup was fascinating: the naturally-aspirated Cooper (with a lethargic motor unable to provide much in the way of driving thrills) was best avoided, the Cooper S boasted All4 – the brand's all-wheel-drive setup – and a JCW version rounded out the range.
The 2nd-generation model landed in 2017 and, thankfully, the 1.6 petrol motor was replaced by a turbocharged motor. Interestingly, Mini continued to offer a manual gearbox on both Cooper and Cooper S derivatives. There was a turbodiesel version too, as well as the 225-kW JCW flagship.
For 2020, the Mini Countryman has been given a facelift and a mechanical upgrade, but the SA line-up has been trimmed to Cooper, Cooper S and John Cooper Works (JCW). All derivatives feature turbocharged petrol engines and automatic transmissions, while the JCW range-topper is offered in conjunction with all-wheel drive. The Countryman is an important model for Mini; the brand claims it accounts for almost 30% of global sales.
You can spot the new model with its UK-flag tail lights. Cooper S derivative gains twin exhaust pipes.
The cosmetic changes are quite subtle – in fact, you have to look closely to spot them. There's a new-look front end with redesigned headlights and radiator grille, while the rear gains Union Jack-inspired tail lights and an updated bumper. LED headlights and fog lights are standard, plus there are new exterior colours and alloy wheel designs to choose from. Inside, the Countryman's cabin gains a new compact digital instrument cluster, while a sports steering wheel is standard equipment and the Mini Connect infotainment system benefits from upgraded functionality and connectivity.
The engines have been carried over, but Mini says they're now Euro 6d compliant. The Mini Countryman Cooper features a turbocharged 1.5-litre 3-cylinder petrol engine, delivering 100 kW and 220 Nm, while the Countryman Cooper S adds 500 cm³ and another cylinder to deliver 141 kW and 280 Nm from its 2.0-litre 4-cylinder motor. The Cooper is good for a 0-100 kph in a claimed 9.7 sec, while the Cooper S is said to reach the same speed in a spirited 7.5 sec. Both derivatives feature 7-speed dual-clutch transmissions and steering-wheel paddles are optional on the Cooper S.
The updated Countryman cabin gets a refresh', with the key change being the new minimalistic central speedo/rev counter.
What's it like to drive?
We had the chance to drive 2 derivatives of the updated Mini Countryman range over a 2-day period. First up was the Cooper and, despite it being the entry point to the range, its 3-pot motor offers up plenty of excitement. Granted, it does have that trademark rough idle, which is typical of 3-cylinder engines, but once you're climbing through the rev range, things smoothen out appreciably. There's a lovely engine note, which inspires you to use the throttle pedal enthusiastically. With 100 kW and 220 Nm on tap, the motor's more than sufficient to propel the large Countryman briskly.
We suspect that despite the 3-cylinder Cooper's charm, the Cooper S will attract the bulk of Countryman customers. With a 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder motor packing 141 kW and 280 Nm, it certainly is the faster of the 2 derivatives on paper, and yet... it doesn't feel that much quicker than its 1.5-litre sibling. It may produce 41 kW and 60 Nm more (and should feel substantially quicker), but that doesn't translate into real excitement.
A close-up of the new all-digital speedometer.
Mini has given the Cooper S some aural theatrics in the form of an assortment of exhaust pops and bangs on the overrun, as well as a delicious turbo flutter when you ease your foot off the accelerator. Strangely, these sounds are hard to hear from inside the cabin, which is a pity. In Sport mode, the Cooper S gets some synthesised engine noise piped into the cabin, which sort of makes up for it (unless you are a diehard purist).
The real star of the show here is the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Not only is it quick to react, but each shift is silky smooth and unlike some rivals, which are programmed for efficiency at the expense of experience (they tend to change up too quickly), this transmission will hold on to those ratios a touch longer so you can make the most of the engine. It's a pity shift paddles are optional, because the Cooper S is better for having them.
In terms of ride quality, Mini suspension setups are traditionally on the firmer side and the Countryman is no exception. It's particularly thumpy at low speeds and on bad roads, but as the speed picks up, things improve. It's happiest at the national speed limit on a highway. Be aware that ride quality will suffer further if you decide to opt for larger wheels. Not that many buyers will mind all that much... the larger alloys really look the part.
The Mini's overly quick steering is also a minor annoyance. We understand that Mini has tried to make the Countryman as nimble and fun to drive as its smaller siblings, but the laws of physics still apply and you're quickly reminded that the Countryman is a sizeable car. You'll learn to adapt to the steering setup eventually and when you get it right, the Countryman is one of the more entertaining vehicles in the segment to "fling around".
The Countryman does not have a spare; it relies on run-flat tyres and a repair kit. That's alright if you pick up a small puncture, but should you hit a bad pothole, which can split the tyre's sidewall (it happened to us on a bad section of road during the launch), you'll require roadside assistance.
Many have suggested that the Countryman is a pointless vehicle, but we disagree. Not only do the sales figures easily justify the Mini crossover's existence, but there are bound to be die-hard Mini fans who are reluctant to trade in their Coopers on bigger BMW-branded SUVs when they want, or need, to "upsize". The Countryman is ideal for Mini customers who need a bigger car to accommodate a family and its associated paraphernalia.
To put it another way, the Countryman is those who want a vehicle with a modicum of practicality, but have no appetite for mainstream compact crossovers – staid "shopping trolleys" or "school-run 'mobiles" that cannot offer an immersive driving experience. Does the target customer care that the Countryman and BMW X1 are mechanically similar and share the same UKL2 platform? Unlikely. That being said, if you find the Mini too predictable and need the space, the funkier Clubman is more than up to the task of ticking the practicality and fun-to-drive boxes with ease.
The recent update adds some exterior flair to the Countryman range, while the new-look dashboard is easy on the eye. The engines are as punchy as ever and the biggest Mini still manages to be pleasant and enjoyable to drive. At the dawn of the electric era, Mini finds itself is in an interesting position... The Mini Cooper SE, which recently went on sale in SA, is the cheapest electric vehicle in our market. In the next few years, the entire Mini lineup will be overhauled and new models will feature electrified powertrains. Get your petrol-powered Minis while you still can...
Mini Countryman Price in South Africa (November 2020)
Cooper Countryman R599 624
Cooper S Countryman R631 004
John Cooper Works ALL4 Countryman R867 890