2011 Mini Countryman

When you've been test-driving nearly every new vehicle on the market for as long as I have, you get to the point where you mostly know what to expect. Not that I or most other veteran car reviewers make up our minds about new products before we drive them, but certainly we formulate theories to go about testing once a new car lands in our driveway. More often than not, our experiments confirm our hypotheses. This can be a great triumph or a crushing let-down, but rarely does a vehicle manage to be both so completely as the Mini Countryman.

I expected the jumbo, four-door Countryman to be overkill.

In advance of my stint with our long-termer, I fully expected to be disappointed by its size. I am one of those people who can go on the road for a week with a small duffel bag, and as such, have never found the limitations of the tiny Mini hardtop particularly challenging. The Mini Clubman solved my only problem with the hardtop by affording me a bit more room for my daughter. Thus, I expected the jumbo, four-door Countryman to be overkill.

But if I had a reasonable expectation that the larger size and heavier curb weight would render the Countryman considerably less fun to drive, I also figured that I'd love it anyway. After all, it's a Mini, and I have yet to meet one that didn't charm me with its aesthetics and minimalist focus on driving.

Quite surprisingly, neither of these assumptions proved correct.

2011 Mini Countryman

Regarding the size: It's perfect. Not only has Mini managed to figure out the exact dimensions that make the Countryman both a "real" car and yet still small enough to be a Mini, it's still a great driver. In many ways, it's a better all-around car than its more petite siblings, not in the least because it doesn't suffer as much from the short-wheelbase pitching over highway expansion joints that can be a problem in a hardtop Mini Cooper. The steering is excellent and the car turns in and corners like a whip. The power transfer of the all-wheel-drive system makes the Countryman's larger size much less of an issue, as it starts to feel more like a BMW when it's really pushed.

Unfortunately, after about 15 minutes behind the wheel of our Countryman, I was ready to get out. Between its optional sport suspension and run-flat tires, the ride on Michigan's rough pavement is brutal. While the Countryman's seats are great, comfortable and supportive, they can't begin to make up for the stiffness – it's like the car has metal suspension bushings.

I have never stalled a vehicle so often as I did the Countryman during my first week in it.

While the too-stiff suspension issue is likely an easy enough remedy (order the standard suspension and replace those run-flats), other issues began to pile up pretty quickly. Like the clutch. Perhaps the expected take rate on a manual Countryman was so low that Mini didn't feel the need to do a better job here, but I have never stalled a vehicle so often as I did the Countryman during my first week in it. Between the power-robbing all-wheel-drive system, the lag of the turbocharger and a friction point that's both vague and brief, our Countryman can make even experienced drivers look like 15-year-olds.

But again, it seems like this might be fixable, as it's a mechanical issue. The interior, on the other hand, is a bigger problem, one I'm not sure I'd want to live with.

2011 Mini Countryman interior

It's been a decade now, but I've realized that I'm just sick of the too-cute-by-half Mini cockpit. It needs to go, and BMW should start from scratch with a design that puts function over form. Put the instrument panel back where it belongs, in front of the driver, for starters. (Maybe the designers can look back at the E36 3 Series dash for some ideas.) Other ergonomic issues plague the Countryman, from the intrusive center rail to the poorly located iPhone jack that's underneath the parking brake.

After a few weeks of time served in the Countryman, I was not as disappointed to see it go as I was just plain disappointed. The car had just proven to be too much of a pain in the ass to live with on multiple levels.