Welcoming Mini's Burly Uncle into the Family

2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4

The idea of a maxi-Mini runs counter to everything we love about the brand. But despite our misgivings, our own Steven J. Ewing came away suitably impressed with the Mini Countryman when he drove it this time last year. How much did he like it? He insisted we add one to the Autoblog Long-Term Garage.

And here it is.

Coated in two-tone True Blue Metallic (as voted by our readers) and tricked out in Cooper S ALL4 guise, our long-term tester is as maxed out as they come – with the exception of an automatic transmission, natch. We think we ticked all the right boxes, including Sport and Premium packs, Xenons, Sport suspension and Mini Connected with Navigation, to get the full Countryman experience. And to kick things off, I headed north for a two-day, 500-mile trek up the coast to put our newest family member through its paces.

The good news: Mini's made one of the most entertaining cute 'utes in the world. The bad: You've got to shell out a heap of coin to enjoy it.

So let's get this out of the way now: Our 2011 Mini Countryman S ALL4 tester rings up at a cool $38,000. That includes all of the aforementioned kit and what's listed in the spec page on the Countryman Long-Term hub page. Yes, that's a metric ton of cash for a small crossover and we wouldn't expect anything less from an automaker run by ze Germans. But then again, we're an odd use case.

2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 side view2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 front view2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 rear view

Our long-termer is going to spend time in California, Arizona, Michigan and Ohio. Do I really need the $750 cold-weather package (heated mirrors, washer jets and front seats)? Not in Northern California. But EIC Neff and our Detroit team will. Is the Mini Connected system ($1,750) a necessity? No. But we also want to test out the latest and greatest apps and infotainment functionality, along with a guided tour of the system from BMW's R&D tech center in Mountain View, California.

So it's a pricy compact CUV, but premium build quality and a commensurate amount of luxury doesn't come cheap. Nor should it.

Mini has proven that consumers are willing to pay a premium for a compact car with high-end amenities and solid driving dynamics. The only problem – aside from the barrier to entry – was that a diminutive hatch and a long wheelbase variant left a massive chunk of would-be buyers out in the cold. The Countryman stands to rectify that. And our first test would be trying to get an 85-pound LabPointerPitDaneSpaniel comfortable for the 165-mile drive north.

2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 headlight2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 wheel2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 roof spoiler2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 exhaust tip

The chances of wedging said puppy into the 16.5 cubic-feet cargo area were... nonexistent, particularly with the subtle slope of the hatch. Thankfully, the two rear buckets fold flat, allowing the trunk to expand into a 41.3 cubic-foot dog house. It'll work, but it's also the Countryman's first Achilles heel. For a family of four to take a vacation, little Jonny and Jane will be carrying luggage on their laps. So it's best to think of the Countryman as a maximized daily driver and occasional weekender for a couple and their only child.

With all our assorted sundries packed up and the navigation system set for the Mendocino Coast, we headed out for the first of two long stints on the freeway and quickly found ourselves stuck in late afternoon traffic west of Berkeley. The combination of stop-and-go, all-wheel drive and a fresh clutch gave me a chance to get intimate with the six-speed manual gearbox. The clutch uptake is on the light side, with the friction point further up the pedal travel than I'd prefer. It's defined, but a little squishy, and the occasional shutter through the ALL4 system makes frequent starts and stops a jolty affair. The six-speed transmission, however, is just as good as any other Mini, with short, chunky throws and a softball-sized shift knob that plunks reassuringly into your palm.

2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 interior2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 front seats2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 rear seats2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 rear cargo area

With traffic finally clearing up once we reached 101, it was time to find out if the additional 400 pounds of weight saddled into the Countryman would be too much for the miserly four-cylinder to handle. Naturally, we opted for the S, which tacks on a turbocharger to the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, boosting horsepower to 181 ponies and torque to 177 pound-feet. A deliberate mash of the gas delivers an additional helping of compressed air into the engine, increasingly torque to 192 lb-ft from 1,700 rpm for a few moments.

As this is the same engine fitted to every S-equipped Mini, we weren't expecting horizon-come-hither acceleration, and the Countryman responded in kind. Forward thrust comes on predictably and smoothly, with just a hint of lag below 1,300 rpm as the turbo catches its breath. After that, it's a long, continuous wave of torque until the twist begins to bleed off around 5,000 rpm, necessitating a quick shift to keep things on boil. It's not slow, but the Countryman is suitably quick for something topping out over 3,000 pounds, particularly when you consider we averaged a 25.8 mpg – on the low side of the EPA-estimated 25 city/31 highway – during our two-day stint.

2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 engine

While the combination of the Sport suspension and 18-inch runflats (Pirelli Cinturator P7s sized 225/45 R18 at all sides) have the potential on paper for a rough ride, it's anything but on the freeway. At a comfortable cruising speed of 75-80 miles per hour, ruts and divots in the road are felt, but not endured, and there's an overall sense of sure-footedness that you just don't find in most barely burly crossovers.

The major demerit, though, comes in the form of darty steering that's in need of perpetual corrections. On-center feel is slightly dulled at speed (the electro-hydraulic rack is partially to thank/blame), but the moment you dial in the slightest hint of lock, you're off into the next lane. And it's predictably worse in the tightened Sport mode. But while it's a chore to keep up with on the open road, the Countryman's steering found its home when we broke off onto Highway 128 and headed towards the coast.

The sun was setting, the dog was curled up in back and the wife was rustled from her nap when I jumped off the throttle and a quiet cackling emanated from the duo of chromed muffler tips. "What was that?" she asked. I went off on a lengthy explanation about unburnt fuel igniting in the exhaust. "Can you make it stop?" Yes, but I wouldn't. It's part of the throttle remapping in Sport mode, but if I'm honest, it's a novelty that wears thin after a few miles.

2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 rear 3/4 view

What doesn't annoy is the Countryman's remarkable body control. That touchy steering is part of a greater whole, which, combined with the stiffened suspension, tweaked throttle and better-than-expected rubber make for an entertaining, encouraging drive. Yes, it rolls, and yes, it's not millimeter precise, but tearing along one of California's great backroads, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're behind the wheel of a top-heavy sports sedan, not a high-riding hatch.

But just as I leaned into the throttle and lined up for the next set of bends, the wife chimed in with a buzzkilling suck of air through her pursed lips. I would have to wring the Countryman out later. And on my own.

That's fine. I've got another three months and an endless assortment of roads to enjoy while the Countryman is in my possession. There's plenty to look forward to, but with one trip down and the three of us no more worse for the wear, our newest family member is already impressing. Next up, a thorough review of the Mini Connected system and a look at the interior. Oh, and proper flogging sans the fam.