Johannesburg - It's been a while since anyone took the brand’s name too literally, but with the recent launch of the new Countryman things are getting seriously super-sized in MINI land - and why naming it with upper-case letters is justified.

This is a MINI that’s been chomping pizzas and cheeseburgers. At 20cm longer than the old Countryman the new car is now 4.3 metres from bumper to bumper, putting it in the same size category as SUVs like the Hyundai Creta and Nissan Qashqai.

To throw yet more numbers into the description, at 1535kg the Countryman weighs 220kg more than a regular five-door Mini Cooper and its ground clearance is raised from 154mm to 165mm.

All that makes this puffed-out, higher-riding SUV version the biggest car in the brand’s 57-year history, but also the most versatile. The family-sized cabin has room for the family, the dogs, their luggage, and probably the kitchen sink as well.

The five seats provide plenty of personal space in the front and back, and at 6 feet tall I was able to comfortably sit behind myself. The boot’s grown to a handy 450 litres too, and it’s expandable to a luggage-gobbling 1309 litres with the rear seats flipped down - even though this has been partly achieved by leaving out a spare wheel (for deflation mishaps you get runflat tyres and a puncture repair kit).

The rear seats can slide fore and aft and the backrests tilted to various angles to cater for varying passenger/cargo/pet requirements.

Accessing that enlarged boot is through a tailgate that can optionally be electrically powered, and if you can’t bear the thought of leaving your car alone in the picnic car park you can use the Picnic Bench feature: a luggage compartment lid with a fold-out sill cushion that acts as a comfy seat.

Continuing the versatility vibe are storage nooks and crannies galore inside the cabin, including door pockets big enough for one-litre bottles.

So it’s the automotive equivalent of a Tupperware set, but how does all this affect the driving experience? After all, MINIs are supposed to be, at their core, fun to drive. On this score the news is good. Size it may have in abundance, but the Countryman hasn’t swelled out so much that it’s totally lost the defining nimble-handling MINI characteristics.

It’s harder to park than its smaller stablemates, sure, and you can feel the extra weight and ride height in the way it doesn’t change direction with the Pacman-like nature of the standard MINI. But on the whole it still delivers much of the MINI-typical crisp handling and quick steering, stuff that makes it easy to thread through busy traffic, and turns it into an enjoyable outing on a twisty road.

The added 220kg weight over a five-door Cooper S does blunt the performance of that 141kW/300Nm 2-litre turbo engine somewhat. The Countryman S still accelerates off the mark quite briskly and has easy cruiseability, but it lacks the smaller MINI’s instant gusto as confirmed by the figures: the Countryman S sprints to 100km/h in 7.4 seconds compared to 6.8 seconds for the five-door Cooper S, while top speeds are respectively 230km/h and 235km/h .

The cheeseburgers haven’t too negatively affected fuel economy, and our Countryman S test car averaged a respectable 10.3 litres per 100km.

The 2-litre version is the more powerful of two engines available in the new Countryman range, the other being a three-cylinder 1.5 turbo petrol with 100kW and 220Nm. A 110kW/330Nm diesel derivative will join the line up later this year.

In terms of suspension comfort this is probably the most bump-friendly MINI I’ve driven, and even on its optional low profile 18” tyres it has a comfortable real-world ride that doesn’t threaten your spine or teeth fillings.

The slightly elevated ride height gives some protection on rough gravel but this front wheel drive car is no offroader.

Inside is all the latest infotainment and connectivity, all contained in a giant round screen in the dash, with an iDrive-style knob to flit through various menus. If you’re fairly tech-savvy it’s all reasonably intuitive to use, except that storing your favourite radio stations is a bit of a mission.

It’s all presented with a modern and funky look that suits the car’s extrovert personality. Playfully styled it may be but fit and finish inside the cabin is all exemplary, to suit the premium pricetag.

The options list is extensive and our Countryman S test vehicle, priced standard at R512 806, was specced up to R683 006 with items like a panarama sunroof, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, sports suspension, John Cooper Works Aero kit, rear view camera, navigation, and a head-up display to mention just a few.

VERDICT

I have a bit of a problem with this car being called a MINI, given that it’s probably heavy enough to be used as a cruise ship’s anchor.

But the Countryman has grown into the largest and most practical MINI to date without completely selling its soul or shedding its charm. It’s still nimble and fun-to-drive even though it doesn’t scurry up drainpipes quite like a regular MINI.

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 141kW @ 5000-6000rpm
Torque: 280Nm @ 1350-4600rpm
0-100km/h (Claimed): 7.4 seconds
Top speed (Claimed): 225km/h
Price: R512 806
Warranty: 2-year/unlimited km
Maintenance plan: 5-year/100 000km

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