Goodbye - 15 December 2011
The Countryman is gone but not forgotten and, whilst I’m not left pining for the little rhino, I may have developed something of a softspot for it.
I’m left with mainly memories of the positive attributes of this strange mutant Mini. The interior was always a delight, with the cream leather and headlining making the space feel instantly premium and roomy. Despite the percieved impracticality of the pale leather, it survived unblemished after nine months hard use, with just a hint of blue denim fatigue on the drivers seat.
The car was undeniably well specced- heated screen and seats and the Zenon lights made the Winter more bearable whilst Sat Nav, DAB and bluetooth phone connection made long journeys more fun.
The options took their toll on the original purchase price of £26,430, but according to Parkers the car still would fetch £21,660 on a Mini dealer forecourt which is an impressive retained value.
The germanity of the car shone through too, with everything feeling impeccably engineered. I would not expect any car to be falling apart after a year and 13,000 miles, but there was not a problem, squeak or rattle to be found anywhere. The only fault with the car was a flat battery, after running a power invertor from the cigarette lighter all day with the engine off. I would put that one down to driver error.
The practicality got me down a little, but maybe I just needed/wanted a big car and not a medium sized car. Once behind the wheel I soon forgot about boot space and enjoyed the drive. It never felt quick, but was always a pleasure on the road thanks to a good ride and grippy handling. The four wheel drive system obviously got me out of any bother with the snow, but for the rest of the year it just adds weight and cost to an already heavy and expensive car. Certainly with this engine you will feel no benefit unless driving on the white stuff.
The car has a lot going for it, and added to this there is the attraction of the Mini brand and image. I applaud Mini for making cars that stand out from the herd and, even with a low powered diesel, are great fun to drive, but this was just never quite my cup of tea.
By Mark Fagelson
Is the Mini Countryman roomy enough? - 14 November 2011
I wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with. Crawling through late-afternoon London traffic in the Mini Countryman after a 5am start and a photoshoot fraught with upsets. The climate control was set to a cool 17 degrees and I was fruitlessly searching the DAB radio station list for some music to match my mood when I spotted it.
Across the street stood a billboard 50ft wide: a new advert for the Countryman. The car was shown floating in space, with a spaceman similarly suspended in zero gravity next to the car. It was a rear view, with the boot open and a view in to the cavernous galaxy-like void that is the boot of the Countryman. I can’t remember the tagline. I think I was too angry. I would guess it was something witty about the word space.
I can imagine the meetings. ‘So,’ says the ad agency polo neck, ‘tell me about the USP of your new Mini model.’
‘Well,’ says Mini marketing Gmbh. ‘The Countryman is larger than the other Minis, with more room inside.’
So the advert would make perfect sense in a parallel universe in which Minis were the only car brand in existence. It is a roomier Mini, granted. In the same way that a 1982 Trabant could have been factory fitted with a sports exhaust and badged as the Trabant Super Sport F1.
Fortunately we do not inhabit that other dimension, nor communist East Germany 30 years ago. We have a free choice of medium sized hatchbacks to buy. Many of these have more ‘space’ than the Countryman.
By Mark Fagelson
What does a Mini obsessive make of our Countryman? - 1 November 2011
Sometimes on photoshoots an extra pair of hands is required and I employ the services of an assistant. One such assistant is Simon. In most respects Simon is a normal, pleasant kind of young chap. He is thoughtful, helpful, keen and eager to learn the ways of automotive photography. He is also an obsessive car lover, but his love of cars extends only so far as the products of MG Rover.
Simon's daily driver is a British Racing Green Rover 200, a 17th birthday gift that has since covered 180,000 miles. It's getting a little rusty and ripe for replacement now, but the prospect of selling fills him with such anguish that he is considering a ceremonial burning outside the gates of Longbridge.
In fact the only reason Simon is ditching the Rover is that his teenage dream sports car is now within reach- an MG TF. Tucked away in Simon's garage are a 1984 Mini and his beloved blue 1960 Mini. His final year photographic degree project lovingly documented this car along with the people and places that over 50 years ago were involved in designing, testing and building it.
Now Simon is not a big fan of BMW Minis. He thinks the Countryman looks ridiculous, that it is mainly bought by 'style conscious' women in their late 30s as a downsized Chelsea tractor and that Sir Alex Issigonis would be turning in his grave. It was, then, with some degree of trepidation that I handed him the key to the Countryman at a wet and windy Anglesey race track for a recent CAR magazine shoot.
His instructions from me were clear- to drive around the track at a steady pace whilst I, harnessed securely into the open boot, shot the two sports cars tailing behind. Nevertheless, as we set off my mind was filled with vivid images of being driven over the clifftop into the angry Irish Sea in a fit of anti-Germanic rage.
Later in the day he got a chance to drive some of the best roads North Wales had to offer, and he was slowly warming to my car, conceding that it handled well and had a nice interior, though maintaining that Mini shouldn't have bothered building it, and that it was 'all kinds of wrong'. Two weeks later Simon drove a new Mini Coupe JC Works on an epic three-day shoot for me.
And guess what? Simon loved it, raving about the engine, the handling, the looks. He later recalled the moment he got back into his Rover after the shoot to drive home. 'It felt a bit rubbish,' he said.
By Mark Fagelson
Points of contact in our Mini Countryman – 16 September 2011
As a keen cyclist, when I'm not reading CAR Magazine I will often be found lusting after a new ride in the pages of a bike magazine. The received wisdom on buying a new bike is to spend extra money on the contact points. The theory being that the bits where you touch the bike (seat, grips, pedals) make a big difference to the feel, comfort and control.
It got me thinking about the same aspects of our Mini. The main contact points in the Mini Countryman are quality items. The seats feel as good as they look, all tan leather and sports shaping. The steering wheel is chunky like a bumper car, and the leather is padded but firm.
The steering wheel controls I'm less keen on. They are quite unlike any other wheel-mounted buttons I've come across. The four-way swiches are very small and sit flush to the rest of the surface, so to push them you have to prod them hard from an angle that takes your hand from the wheel. Ladies report that if you are well endowed with fingernails you can jab at them firmly. Perhaps I should grow my scratchers.
I've now given up using the steering wheel buttons to control volume or change radio station - it's easier to reach down to the stereo itself.
I love some of the touch points, mind. The door handles are big and strong and made of metal. To open the door to get out there is a big half moon of the cold stuff that pulls with a solid action. The exterior door handle, too, is oversize and gun-like to touch and pull on. You feel like you're in a premium car every single time you step in and out. Nice.
These places you grip and grab several times a day really count, and Mini has spent its budget accordingly. Back inside the cabin the pedals have always bothered me. The spacing, size and rubber covers are all well and good, but the action is overly springy. I can see the logic: Minis are drivers' cars and a real driver wants some feel and progression in their pedal action. I've got no problem with this, except when it comes to the clutch pedal - I could really do without it.
Maybe I've just become used to automatics, but the heaviness and springiness of the Countryman leaves me cursing it on those long first-to-second M25 jam crawls that are an inevitable part of my working life as a photographer covering events the length and breadth of Britain (and Europe). Perhaps Mini could devleop a clever thumb-operated clutch on the steering wheel for lazy souls like me?
By Mark Fagelson
A mini crash – 9 August 2011
'That your car, the Mini?' asked the woman at the next table in McDonald's. I was eating a quick breakfast before a photoshoot at nearby Goodwood and flattered by the unexpected attention the Countryman was garnering. Yet there was something of a look of panic on the lady's face that unsettled me... 'Yes, why?' I responded. 'Er, I think someone's just crashed into it.'
I jumped up and ran outside to find copious amounts of blue paint down the driver's side door of my car, and the culprit driving out of the car park in a blue Mazda. I gave chase on foot, fumbling to get my phone out of my jeans and into photo-taking mode – maybe I could record the licence number at least.
By the time I got to the roundabout I was sweating and breathing heavily, but spied my quarry at the head of the queue waiting to pull out. Before I knew it I was with the Mazda and got a clear shot of the number plate. The rush hour traffic was heavy and they were going nowhere, so before I knew it I was at the driver's window, banging my fist and contemplating throwing myself on the bonnet to prevent any further escape.
The driver, a woman in her 30s, wound the window down. I was charged up and ready for a row, full of adrenaline from the chase, and filled with indignation and anger at the damage to my precious little rhino. 'Excuse me' I panted, 'I think you may have reversed in to my car.'
'Oh, I'm so terribly sorry. I'll drive back over and give you my details.'
At times like this I'm proud to be British. The lady duly returned to the car park, admitted liability for the damage, apologised profusely and offered her personal and company insurance details.
The damage to the Mini looked horrific initially, but back home the next day I carefully polished the damage away to leave a slight crease in the door panel and some light scratching – barely noticeable from a distance. The Countryman is a tough little rhino indeed.
By Mark Fagelson
Where to spend your money on a Mini – 18 July 2011
The cars we're loaned by manufacturers are inevitably stuffed to the gills with optional extras. And that does mean our average long-term test car does usually cost a chunky sum more than the OTR price. But if you are laying down your own money then options become a luxury rather than a given. I’ve written here previously about the £6500 of extras fitted to my £20,000 car, and after living with it for six months I feel better qualified to give my opinion on the best and worst of the Mini's options.
Three of the best...
1. Mini tlc Service Pack
A no brainer. Too good to be true: £200 gets you five years of free servicing at your local Mini dealer. Only an idiot would pass this one up.
2. Chili Pack
If you are keeping the costs down on your new Mini then by all means ignore the Chili Pack and just pick the bits you most need. And after you have tried this, you may come to the realisation that £2490 won’t actually stretch very far, and go for this bundle of desirable bits and pieces, including a leather steering wheel with multifunction swiches, an upgrade to full leather seats, automatic air-con, fog lights and better alloys.
3. Mini Navigation System
Ye,s you can just buy a Tom Tom for £130, but £995 buys one of the best systems around. Many manufacturers charge far more for far less. Did I really just recommend this?
Don’t waste your money on...
1. Voice control (£250.00)
Once the novely of speaking to your car and getting a vocal response has worn off, you are left wondering what the point is. If you have passengers in the car you will feel silly using it. If you are driving alone you will feel sad and lonely. Good old fashioned buttons perform the functions more efficiently and without leaving you feeling that your car is up to something behind your back.
2. White Indicator Lenses (£70.00)
White indicator lenses, as owners of late 1990s Porsche 911s will be aware, look better than orange indicator lenses. That being the case, Mini should just fit them as standard rather than charging you seventy quid.
3. Luggage compartment separating net (£145.00)
On the first day of Mini ownership you will unload the contents of the bag, fit it to the car interior and think to yourself ‘What a great idea. Next time I need to shift some furniture I will fit my luggage compartment separating net and I will be protected from that furniture shifting forwards in the event of sudden braking’
The following day you will put the net in the shed because it was rattling around in the boot, taking up precious space. You will never see the luggage compartment separating net again.
By Mark Fagelson
Mini Countryman build quality ahoy! – 16 June 2011
Build quality is a term beloved of automotive journalists. The problem is it's a broad term, easily applied to everything from the thunk of a German door shutting to the flimsiness of a French front wing. There you go - I've gone and done it again. Fallen into the usual stereotyping of nationalities' automotive products.
Which brings me to my Mini Countryman which, despite the Mini customers' love of Union Jacks, is built in Austria. The German BMW genes show through strongly in the car, which feels decidedly German, or at the very least bordering on it.
For a car that starts at £16,000 the Countryman is a strikingly well designed and bolted together product. If you start poking around the cabin you will find weaker, cheaper bits here and there, but the overall impression and perception is high grade. The seats wouldn't look out of place in a £50k car.
Everything works, nothing squeaks, nothing rattles and nothing gives you cause to doubt that's the way it will remain. Outside it's much the same story. The slabs of wheelarch plastics beloved of Mini designers are always a weak point. My rear wheelarch has already popped slightly out of place and after a few years this material fades, needing liberal applications of Back-to-black to retard the ageing process.
I know this because I've already owned my own Mini Cooper S for a few years. More noticeable on our Countryman are the larger panel gaps around the bonnet and headlights, but these seem to be a necessity of the ambitious design rather than any build fault.
Going back to my initial stereotypes, I have to admit to being rather impressed with the interior materials and finish on similarly sized Peugeots and Renaults recently. But oh those flimsy plastic front wings! The French could still learn a thing or two from the Germans, it seems.
By Mark Fagelson
Sat-nav success – 16 May 2011
Anyone who drives a lot inevitably has a love/hate relationship with sat-navs. Systems vary wildly in their design and usability; if you spend your working day jumping from car to car then it can be preferable to keep your TomTom close at hand rather than try and get to grips with yet another unfamiliar interface.
The Mini’s system is among the best on offer. The screen sits inside the large central speedo dial and has something of a Bond gadget look to it, perhaps because the tech is slightly at odds with the retro switches and dials. Inputting your destination is achieved using the tiny joystick down behind the gearstick. Imagine BMW's iDrive condensed into the lid of a biro. It functions fine and also looks after the stereo and car settings.
It says something about the nav’s clarity and usability that I have never felt the need to reach for my old friend TomTom even when venturing to the centre of Paris on a recent shoot. The display is big enough to use as a split screen, it reroutes quickly if you take wrong turn or choose to ignore a direction and it accepts postcodes without fuss.
I have no idea why some brands seem to struggle with satellite navigation, but Mini has got it spot on and for the time being the TomTom is gathering dust.
Downsides? It's £995!
By Mark Fagelson
Nice on the inside – 27 April 2011
The ‘on the road’ price for a Mini Cooper D ALL4 Countryman such as my long-term test car is £19,875. But I’m sure nobody ever bought a Mini without adding options and ours has £6555 of extra kit, most of it lavished on the insides.
This is far and away my favourite part of the Countryman. Here I warm my cheeks on heated seats (£250), defog my heated windscreen (£345), call up the sat-nav (£995) by using the trick voice control system (£250) and admire my little world of cream leather (£675 to complete the part-leather that comes with the £2490 Chili pack), tasteful trimmings of chrome (£90) and piano black door trims (a no cost option, this one).
As for that Chili pack, beyond the half-leather there’s a wealth of goodies including automatic air con, a better stereo system, inch bigger alloys (now 17s), sports front seats and steering wheel controls. It also adds in some basics you might be expecting to get as standard such as front foglights, floormats, a trip computer and passenger seat height adjustment.
The overall result of our options list bounty is a unique cabin that’s packed to the rafters with luxury, refinement and gadgets. The boxes ticked on the inside more than compensate for an exterior lacking in that Mini brand of style and individuality.
By Mark Fagelson
An unexciting exterior – 13 April 2011
Has a Mini ever left the factory with no options or upgrades? Parked down my street is a rare example of a bog standard Mini One: solid red paint with black plastic wing mirrors and steel wheels. The owner is a wise man – he got a great car for £12k – but it goes against the whole brand ethos. Picking your bells and whistles is a part of the Mini experience.
Alas I missed out on this part of the process: a bod at BMW head office specified my Countryman’s options so the car arrived ASAP. Low key, if not inexpensive, seems to be the order of the day when it comes to the spec. You can have a 2wd Countryman, but ours uses the ALL4 intelligent four-wheel drive system. This ups the cost by a little over £1000 and downs the official mpg figure by a little over 10%.
Our car, with its 110hp diesel engine, sits in the middle of the oil burning Countryman range, with an underpowered 89bhp base model below it, and the hot new 141bhp Cooper SD topping the range while still returning the same economy figures as the slower cars.
As for the rest, I generally slip by unnoticed in this curious looking vehicle due to the Royal Grey metallic paint (£385 – and not the most exciting colour on offer) and the matching roof (black or white are no-cost options our car doesn’t have). Ditto for the wheels – we have boggo silver. We do have white indicator lenses for £70, but have you noticed them?
Other exterior options fitted such as xenon headlights (£590) and folding, dimming wing mirrors (£215) add function if not flair. It’s all just a bit too grown up for a Mini. Is it possible to retro fit a Union Jack roof and wing mirrors, big black wheels and some body stripes?
Next, the leather-lavished interior...
By Mark Fagelson
Breaking the Countryman duck – 21 March 2011
Hadn't driven the Countryman before, so arranged a swap with keeper Mark Fagelson. It's a curious beast: all standing on tiptoes, familiar Mini motifs stretched into alien shapes, not all of them pleasant. I tried to cast aside much of the hate campaign, I really did. But it was still difficult to approach the Countryman with total neutrality.
Part of the problem lies in the curious package on offer. This car is 4097mm long – on a par with your typical supermini – so its boot is just 350 litres. Which makes life difficult for photographer Fagelson with his myriad boxes, rigs, bags and lengths of scaffolding. They call it the first four-seater Mini, and they're right: space is plentiful in the back seats, but the flipside is that the boot is slightly pathetic. Wouldn't you just buy a Golf estate or Panda 4x4, depending on your priorities of passengering and mud-slinging?
CAR’s long-term test Mini Countryman is an All4 equipped diesel Cooper and seems over-specced with 4wd. The basic FWD Mini hatches only struggle for traction in JCW form, so why should this chunky derv model need all-corner drive? Marketing waffle, I suspect (unless you live in hilly/snowy climes, accepted).
Still, you could level much of the above at the Mini 4x4's competitors. I drove CAR's Skoda Yeti more than most and came to love it. How so? The 300-litre boot felt more accommodating despite the figures and the Skoda's cabin was more premium too – I'm increasingly finding the Countryman's cockpit places cool over can-do. It's an ergonomic mess: you never look at the massive central speedo, whose ‘epicyclic’ needle helpfully obscures your speed and minor buttons are scattered everywhere.
The Countryman's not a complete disaster zone. Once you set off, you quickly realise they've kept the Mini zest intact. The steering is pointy and keen, making the Countryman an athletic partner, and while the ride is fidgety on urban bumps, it settles down nicely at higher speeds when you've snuck that trad Mini gearbox up to sixth. I suspect in petrol guise, or wanton Cooper S spec, the Countryman would drive phenomenally, whereas the diesel feels sporty but never quite delivers the thrills suggested by the chassis.
It's a curious beast, our Countryman. Wannabe hot hatch, yet with a 1.6 diesel that struggles to feel pacey with all that extra heft. The more practical Mini whose boot will struggle to match the load capacity of many small estates. And a poser's interior where the mask is just beginning to slip. I love most of the new Mini generation , but reckon the Countryman might not have quite hit the spot.
By Tim Pollard
Hello to our new Mini Countryman – 9 March 2011
hen my new long-term test car turned up on the Fagelson household’s doorstep I had yet to see a Mini Countryman at close quarters. Yes, I’d viewed the early press shots with curiosity, and even briefly caught sight of one on the road, but I really didn’t know what to expect. In photographs it's difficult to judge the scale of the thing: would it be big and high like a Freelander, or small and dinky like a Panda 4x4?
The reality was somewhere in between. Certainly it is more car-like than I had imagined, but park it next to a regular Mini and it appears far more brutish and pumped-up than its sibling. The styling is odd, with so many design cues lifted the Mk2 hatch that it’s difficult to judge the design on its own terms. I fear it may always just look like a bigger, uglier Mini, but then we all thought the same of BMW’s Mk2 Mini…
To make way for the Countryman we’ve sold our much-loved Golf GTI. The Mini is much the same size as the dearly departed VW, and the Countryman range is priced similarly to the Golf’s too. Expensive price tags will nothing new to current Mini owners, but this is the first grown-up Mini, a Golf rival for people in need of four doors and a boot. With the promise of Golf practicality, BMW build quality, Mini coolness, what’s not to like?
I’ll be putting all of that to the test. Besides the GTI, in the past I’ve also owned a BMW Mini in Mk1 Cooper S guise, so know all about the style and chic that the brand can offer. And beyond that, with a family and my life as a photographer, the Countryman’s load-lugging ability will be tested daily.
I don’t want to judge it too soon, but one thing’s for sure: it’s a strange beast, neither butch SUV nor clever MPV but undeniably different and unique. The Mini qualities of style and character are present and correct, but will the substance of the package leave me wanting my Golf back?
We’ll find out over the next six months or so, and in the next report I’ll be digesting the spec of my Countryman. Made the plunge and already bought one? Click ‘Add your comment’ below and let me know what engine, colour and options you’ve gone for.
By Mark Fagelson