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We drive Mini's 'grown again' Countryman SUV

Latest launches
Johannesburg - The Mini Countryman, also known as the 'big Mini', was launched in its all-new second generation form in South Africa last week. And guess what... it's grown even bigger.

The high-riding five-door hatch is now 200mm longer, 30mm wider, 13mm higher and gets an extra 75mm between its axles so there’s more space for up to five passengers and 450 litres’ worth of luggage inside. Without getting into exact dimensions, picture a BMW X1, Mercedes GLA or Audi Q2 and you’ve pretty much got the gist of the new Countryman’s size, and some of its main rivals.

With a ground clearance of 165mm, it also rides a tad higher than the outgoing version, and that’s great for families who might partake in spots of weekend adventuring. But, bear in mind this ride height ranks relatively lowly in comparison to other crossover-type vehicles, and there’s no spare wheel (only runflat tyres) so by adventuring we mean more Midland meander than Okavango swamps. Also, for this generation, there’s no longer an option for all-wheel drive in our market, so with front-wheel drive only this car’s limited to rough gravel and untarred bush lodge driveways as far as offroad ability goes.

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I drove both engine derivatives - which I’ll talk about in a minute - at the KwaZulu-Natal based media launch, and was actually more impressed with how it felt on some of the area’s loose stone logging roads than I was on smooth tar. And that says a lot for a brand that still prides itself on the overplayed ‘go kart-like handling’ cliché.

Current Minis, including this one, are among the sharpest (read firmest) handlers in their respective categories, but somehow the Countryman manages to smooth out rough surfaces surprisingly well, especially at higher speeds. Obviously, if go-karts aren’t your vibe, it’s better to avoid the optional sports suspension and lower profile 18 and 19-inch rubber. Standard, softer riding wheel sizes are 16 inch for the Cooper and 17 inch for the Cooper S.

The base Countryman Cooper gets power from a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbopetrol with 100kW and 230Nm, and the Cooper S comes with a 141kW/300Nm two-litre turbopetrol. Both models come with six-speed manual transmissions but can be upgraded to Steptronic autoboxes - six speeds in the Cooper and eight in the S. Mini has a hotter JCW version with 170kW planned for June and the Countryman will get Mini’s first turbodiesel in our market in September.

We’ve experienced Mini’s (and BMW’s) three-pot before in other models, and it’s a fantastic little engine. Under partial throttle it pulls off the line in a way not too dissimilar to the bigger 2.0, and only at high revs, or when asked for flat-out acceleration does its relatively small displacement become evident. The S’s extra shove is nice to have when overtaking, and might match the Countryman’s big body better, but the 1.5 is more than adequate in most situations and it’s also around 70 grand easier on the pocket.

Attention to detail

Mini has a very specific flavour when it comes to interior design, with obsessive attention to detail in areas often ignored by other brands. Look beyond the chrome toggle switchgear, colour-changing LED mood lights and big, round central display that give modern Minis their unmistakable character, and you’ll find nice touches such as tartan patterned surfaces inside the cubbyhole and centre console, cleverly placed Union Jack motifs and an amazing array of cabin materials ranging from standard black plastics, to gloss-painted dash inserts, to intricately engraved bezel surrounds. It all sends the sense of occasion through the roof, at a level unlike any other car in the segment.

As expected much of the customisable paraphernalia comes at extra cost, and the Countryman’s options list might be one of the longest we’ve ever seen. Mini’s done well to group some features into handy packages, but it’s still possible to go bananas with radical combinations of illuminated Chestnut trimmings paired with Cross Punch Pure Burgundy upholstery, or British Oak with Hazy Grey, or Chester Indigo Blue with Lounge Carbon Black.

You’ll also have to pay in for navigation which comes in two versions, LED headlights, panoramic roofs, fancier sound systems, parking sensors and other frilly bits. As with any Mini it’s best to consider the prices a starting point before personalisation.

But, spring for the optional fold-out picnic bench that offers a comfy sitting space on the boot’s sill. It’s perfect for sipping a craft ginger ale on a Midlands meander pit-stop with the family, and a bargain at only R1700.

PRICES:

Cooper 1.5 - R423 824

Cooper 1.5 AT - R442 052

Cooper S 2.0  - R493 306

Cooper S 2.0 AT - R512 806

Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd

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