As much as I detest the winter months here in Detroit, the truth is, I'm kind of bummed that we've only seen about a half-inch of snow so far this season. In fact, I was happy that our most recent snowfall actually started to stick to the parking lot across the street from my loft, simply so I could capture this photo of our long-term Mini Countryman with some powder on the ground. Two hours after I took this picture, it had all melted. Sigh.
So why, if I hate winter so much, do I wish there was snow outside my door? I'm extremely eager to see how our Countryman – now riding on winter tires – will fare in the slushy, wintry sludge. A proper set of snow shoes, relatively short wheelbase, decent ground clearance and all-wheel drive are a perfect combination for winter prowess, and darnit, I want to go play.
Still, in the three weeks that the Countryman has been under my watch here in Detroit, I've learned a lot about the big Mini since my first stint behind the wheel way back in August 2010.
While in California, associate editor Michael Harley had many a complaint about the stock wheel and tire package fitted to our Cooper S Countryman All4. The 18-inch Pirelli Cinturato P7 run-flats didn't offer much in the way of smoothness or quietness out on the road, and this was only amplified while driving along the roads of metro Detroit – surfaces that are commonly referred to with labels like "Post-Apocalyptic," "Third World" and "Pothole-Laden." Our first order of business after the Mini's arrival in Michigan was to ditch the run-flats in favor of some winter-ready Bridgestone Blizzak snows.
Less than one week after the Countryman's arrival, our friends at Tire Rack sent over a set of Blizzak WS-70 (225/50R17) winter tires mounted on 17-inch Sport Edition ten-spoke alloy wheels. Even before our winter rollers arrived, we were able to use Tire Rack's Shop By Vehicle page to see exactly how the set would look on our Countryman. And while we'll admit that the ten-spoke alloys do look rather ordinary, they almost look like a set of wheels that could be offered directly from Mini. We like the way our stock 18-inch wheels fill out the Countryman's large wheel wells, but with the higher sidewalls of our 17-inch winter rubber, the car still looks great with the new rolling stock.
We had the tire swap done at the only Mini dealer in southeast Michigan – Motor City Mini – and the whole process took about 30 minutes. A word to the wise, though: If you purchase wheels or tires from Tire Rack, you can have your goods sent directly to one of the company's recommended installers, and all you have to do is drive in for the service. Piece of cake. Of course, we weren't that smart, and had our new shoes clogging up a corner of the office until we could schlep them over to the dealer. We (hopefully) won't see the Motor City Mini folks again for a few more months, since the Countryman's first scheduled maintenance appointment isn't slated to occur until the 15,000-mile mark.
Until we actually get some hefty snowfall in Detroit, the true performance of our winter tires is still yet to be seen. In the meantime, I can say that the softer rubber has improved the ride quality immensely, and even if there's no white stuff on the ground, the winter rubber compound is better suited for these temperatures anyhow. The factory 225/45R18s coupled with our car's optional sport suspension made for a poor ride over rough pavement, so the more pliant rubber of the Bridgestones is actually improving the car's day-to-day livability, as well. It's a shame to be wearing down the beefy tread of our Blizzaks on dry asphalt, but after three weeks of Mini driving, I have yet to grow tired of the big Countryman's tossable antics. It is, hands-down, my favorite of our long-term cars.
Other things of interest? Harley wasn't kidding when he told me that the Countryman has some of the hottest bun-warmers he's ever used, and they're seriously quick to heat up, too. Next, from the "Way To Lead By Example, Fleet Manager" files, within 24 hours of having the Countryman in my hands, I managed to snap the plastic phone holder off of the Mini's center storage rail. It didn't break, but it goes to prove that while cool, the center rail isn't always as functional as it might seem. Sure, you can slide the phone dock, cup holders and sunglasses holder back and forth, but the actual act of movement is anything but fluid. That, and the center armrest gets in the way.
My only real issue with the Countryman concerns its fuel range. According to the EPA, I should be getting up to 31 miles per gallon on the highway, and combined with a 12.4-gallon tank, I should be able to go about 380 miles between fill-ups. But the truth is, my observed fuel economy has been in the low-20s. I'm not lead-footing the Countryman around town, so I've been rather shocked that my best recorded economy number was 27 mpg, all of which was on the highway. I'm more frequently seeing numbers around the 22-mpg mark, and as some of my recent logbook entries will prove, I'm only traveling about 230 miles between fuel stops. We've got about 8,100 miles on the car already, so the engine isn't green. Perhaps things will improve as the weather warms.
Next month, we'll be putting the Countryman to use as the Autoblog mobile office for the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, where we will be running to and from the airport, local events, and of course, Cobo Hall. As is usually the case, we're bound to get some sort of horrendous blizzard either directly before or during the show's press days, so hopefully, I'll be able to talk about the Mini's snow prowess in one month's time. Stay tuned.