Now there's room for all the family

Wed, Oct 27, 2010, 01:00

ROADTEST MINI COUNTRYMAN:IT’S A Mini, but not as we knew it. The Countryman is the BMW-owned brand’s concerted effort to get the Mini marque onto the school run. When it was first re-introduced in 2001, the Mini brand rode the waves of Cool Britannia and a retro ’60s revival.

But thats all gone, replaced by karaoke pop bands, 3D movies and a tidal wave of Conservative-led cutbacks. The Tories are back and it smells like the 1980s.

That is unlikely to have a negative impact on the brand, which has soared since the Germans took control. Many rivals have tried to steal its retro thunder but none have succeeded. The Mini is a fun-to-drive fashion accessory. It manages to be modern yet retain a direct link to its heritage. Even the VW Beetle, which claims a similar retro chic image, has failed to garner anywhere near the same level of respect.

Maintaining the link between heritage and modernism is a delicate balancing act. So is the Countryman a marketing exercise or a logical progression of the brand reflecting its customers needs?

Aficionados will point to the ill-fated attempts of its former British owners to expand the line-up, with variants such as the Riley Elf. A booted Mini, it was never accepted as a “proper” member of the Mini established.

So is the Countryman destined for a similar fate? The answer is a definite no. This car makes perfect sense, both in principle and in practice. It might be described as an SUV but, in reality, this is a family hatchback version of the iconic premium supermini.

It will appeal to those who are forced to abandon their beloved Minis due to the arrival of offspring or changing family needs.

The Mini, for all its impish charms and increasing size compared to the original 1960s iteration, is not a practical mode of transport for tots and their paraphernalia. The brand was losing customers for that reason.

Hence the Countryman – a four-door version that offers ample space for children and a boot that will hold the shopping.

The biggest boon is that, in spite of sticking the original design in the photocopier and hitting the enlarge button, it loses none of its charm. That’s a major feat.

The positives continue on the road. The Countryman is bigger than its sibling, but it loses none of its handling fun. We feared it might wallow and roll, but they have done an admirable job with the suspension system to keep everything neat and tidy, even when taking bends at speed. The steering feel is not as direct or pin-point as you get on the regular version, but its still pretty nimble. So plaudits all round? Alas, not quite.

Up front, the 1.6-litre diesel engine in the One D version is simply underpowered. While it will pull in buyers hypnotised by the idea of a Mini-badged family hatchback with an annual motor tax of just €104, its 90bhp and 0-100km/h time of 12.9 seconds makes it sluggish on the open road. In the city and suburbs – its natural habitat – it does seems quite feisty, but that spirit wanes when you are pushing along at speeds of 100km/h and need to call up some extra power for overtaking.

At one stage, on one of those roads where you have a limited distance to overtake, we seemed to get stuck beside a VW Golf with our foot to the floor but getting nowhere. We had time to exchange glances with the bemused Golf driver while we waited for some extra forward thrust. Eventually we managed to get in front, but it was partly down to the forgiving nature of the VW driver. It’s not what we expected from the Countryman.

In its defence, there is still that incredible emissions figure that will probably matter most to buyers, but the Cooper diesel version falls into the same tax band and offers a noticeable improvement in power. For anyone considering roaming outside the city limits, the Cooper is the answer.

The Countryman boasts a very respectable 350-litre boot, which matches the VW Golf and the Audi A3, so it delivers in terms of practicality. The rear seat legroom and easy access through the rear doors will come as a great relief to anyone ever stuck in the back of a regular Mini for more than 15 minutes. This is a proper hatchback.

While there is a regular three-seat bench in the back, Mini is offering to take out the middle seat and create a four-seat format, with a central storage rail running right to the boot. It’s a daft idea, since the car is priced the same with either four or five seats. If you are silly enough to opt for it, you will pay the price when it comes to resale.

The central rail is basically two bars onto which you can clip various optional extras, purchased, of course, from Mini. These range from iPod holders to sunglass cases and a host of other moulded plastic accoutrements. It’s another marketing wheeze that probably seemed smart and cool during the design phase, but is ultimately pointless in reality. A decent stowage box between the front seats would have made more sense.

Moving up front and the usual Mini theme of form over function continues. For some reason known only to the designers, the radio plays second fiddle to the great big dinner-plate speedometer. Without steering wheel controls, it makes changing station a frustratingly fiddly operation.

Then there’s the standard air-conditioning. It blows either hot or cold – literally – with no clear indication of the temperature.

These are all issues that fall into the “niggling” column, arguably things that you can get used to. What we had more difficulty accepting was the balance between price and quality. The cabin fit and finish is not what you would expect for the price. One case in point: the handbrake is so limp and loose before it finally bites, you wonder if it might come off in your hand. This is not acceptable in a car that will rarely leave the showrooms until more than €25,000 has changed hands.

From the outside, the car boasts all the good looks and premium brand appeal to draw in the fashion-conscious crowd. The emissions figures will win over sensible buyers who watch the cents. And the practicality will suit both new families and those wishing to downsize in style.

Yet we just can’t get over the poor finish of the interior and the lack of potency in the standard engine. It’s as if all the effort went into image. It’s incredibly frustrating because this car ticks nearly every box in terms of form and function. There is little question it will sell well, but it should have been so much better.

Factfile

Engine: A 1,598cc turbodiesel engine putting out 90bhp and 215Nm of torque

0-100km/h: 12.9 secs

L/100km (mpg): 4.4 (64.2)

Emissions: 115g/km

Motor tax: €104

Bootspace: 350-1170 L

Specification: Front and side airbags, plus side curtain airbags ISOFIX child seat attachments in the rear; tyre defect indicator; air-conditioning, centre rail and an audio system with CD player are all fitted as standard

Price: €24,210