► New Countryman is the biggest Mini yet
► Now a proper C-segment SUV. Is it a good one?
► Testing the top 2.0-litre petrol Cooper S ALL4
In the same way that even the most hapless handyman could improve on a room previously decorated by the simple expedient of dropping a live hand grenade into an open tin of paint and retiring to a safe distance, you would justifiably expect this second-generation Mini Countryman to represent a considerable improvement over its predecessor.
Because – with a special mention reserved for the cabin's ill-considered central accessories spine, complete with Christmas cracker contents-quality plug-in stuff you really didn't want – that first effort was something of a dog in every department.
Another month, another Mini...
Indeed. But Mini admits that, size wise, said predecessor somewhat crouched between segments, so this one is bigger in every department. It's taller, wider and 200mm longer. So if you think the previous effort already looked badly in need of a trip to matron for a good lancing, then you'll consider this one – now branded a C-segment car to rival Audi's Q2, the Mercedes GLA and BMW's X1 - worthy of a Jonathan Swift novel.
But at least, rather than just leaving the poor thing too long on the party balloon pump, they've tried a little harder with the styling. The new Countryman now has roof rails fitted as standard, and matching door sill trim, as well as a first Mini effort to shed those trademark circular headlamp units in favour of the uncomfortably-shaped blob.
The tailgate is smaller, but now benefits from power operation. You may also open it by waving your foot aimlessly around – like Carlton Palmer in his pomp – under the rear bumper. And there's a natty 'picnic bench' which folds out fuss-free from under the loadspace floor to provide a soft pad on which to sit under the shelter of the open tailgate, and a little extra flap of material to protect your paintwork work from scrabbling dog claws.
Surely the interior is better than before...
Yup; after a, decidedly Mini, fashion. A chunk of that extra length has gone into the wheelbase, and most of that extra 75mm has been donated to now handsome rear seat legroom. The rear seat bench is split 60:40 and slides fore and aft, whilst the seatbacks are split 40:20:40 for even greater flexibility, albeit folded by a humble loop of nylon strap. Astern, loadspace has been increased by 100 litres to 450 litres.
Mini says that there is still a strong degree of essential Britishness about the Countryman, with interior elements you wouldn't get on a German car, such as the toggle switches, upholstery stitching, knee rolls, and some badging.
That's all very well in maintaining perceptions of Britishness abroad, but doesn't detract from the fact that Mini interiors have always been somewhat bitty. And, though a considerable improvement over the previous model, this is no exception.
There's very little homogeny about the dashboard design, as if the various elements were produced - finished in all manner of shapes - by various stylists and then handed over to some poor sod with a hacksaw who had to fit them all in somewhere.
The central wok still dominates, but its days of serving as a speedometer are long gone. This one adopts the Mini-standard format; a panorama-sized multi-information screen incorrectly installed in landscape rather than portrait format so that, when navigating, you see little of the road ahead yet masses of adjacent countryside you're never going to visit.
This is now a touchscreen for the first time, which almost spares you having to reach too far backwards to operate the rotary controller while cursing the intrusion of an ergonomically catastrophic armrest only installed to appease Americans... But not quite.
And everywhere else is occupied by switchgear. Perhaps it's that lack of homogeny to the overall interior design, perhaps it's the bright chrome trim to each and every button and toggle switch, but the whole seems inordinately busy; A Pin-the-Toggle-on-the-Dashboard party game...
Fit and finish is generally of a high standard, but the overtly My Little Pony-quality plastics of the driver's instrument binnacle really let the side down. The speedometer is so woefully illegible that the optional Head-up display will become a must for most, and the fuel gauge is even worse, passing muster only as a NERF gun magazine status indicator.
For all that, the driving position is fine, the front seats comfortable, and the areas of the steering wheel not littered with buttons quite pleasing to grasp. The view out from that surprisingly vertical windscreen is okay too, once you've hiked the seat up to clear the massive dashboard.
Presumably Mini will make all its money on optional extras, as usual?
Well, the company claims that this offering improves on the standard equipment levels of the first Countryman to the tune of some £1900; new free kit including such goodies as the roof rails, sat nav, a rear clearance camera, 17" alloys, Bluetooth and DAB radio.
However, despite a range priced from £22,465 to a whisker short of 30 grand, you can bet that, as usual, Mini owners will be smearing Union Jacks on roofs, papering giant daisies onto doors and generally inhaling option packs for all they're worth.
Anything new in the engine room?
Nope. But every single Countryman variant is now badged 'Cooper', reinforcing the suspicion that – as Ford's Zetec moniker quickly metamorphosed from peppy, Yamaha-enhanced powerplant to mere specification grade – the same fate has befallen the once noble John Cooper name.
There's a choice of 1.5-litre, 134bhp, 3-cylinder and 'S' branded 2.0-litre, 189bhp, 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines, and a 2.0-litre diesel good for 148bhp in standard guise and 187bhp with the 'S' appended.
With the exception of the automatic-only Cooper SD, all powerplants may be mated to either six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmissions, and every variant is also available with ALL4 all-wheel drive capable of shunting up to 100% of torque to either the front or rear wheels.
The 2.0 litre, 189bhp petrol Cooper S ALL4 with an automatic gearbox was the only variant available to drive at launch. The auto box quite suits the larger, family oriented bulk of the Countryman, with smooth, fluid and relaxed changes. But, despite claims of a 0-62mph dash in 7.2 seconds, progress hardly feels rapid enough to justify the Cooper S suffix.
Engaging Sport mode and reaching for the optional flappy paddles does imbue proceedings with greater urgency, but the engine note is not a thing of much loveliness when pushed up the rev band. The Cooper S ALL4 purrs along convincingly enough in the cruise however, never feeling out of breath and usually travelling more quickly than a speed guesstimate suggests.
And does it still handle like a Mini oughter?
Hmmm... The first Countryman is not a hard act to follow. The ride's better than before, but not great. Though a hint more suppleness has been built-in, there's still a deal of bump-thump and the car never really settles.
Allied to inadequate ventilation from an air-conditioning system left in Auto guise, on poor back roads this correspondent as passenger became quite weary, and indeed queasy, at even pottering speeds.
The steering feels quite meaty and acceptably accurate, and, given greater bulk and ground clearance than the hatchback, the Countryman handles more or less as you'd expect... On a day so wet that standing water threw it gently off line on more than one occasion, all-wheel drive makes a useful addendum to the car's grip and traction armoury.
But it doesn't in any way feel small and darty enough to encourage throwing it around, and seems happiest – not least in the engine room – to biff along at a pace which could never quite be described as exhilarating.
Predictably expensive, but far better resolved than its predecessor, the Countryman has now become what its ancestor never was; a respectable C-segment offering rather than merely a brand extension mishap.
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