Singapore - Despite the ‘MINI’ badge up front, the Countryman is not something ‘small’. In fact, some might regard calling something so large a “Mini” a bit of a misnomer. But that’s the thing with modern MINIs these days, they’re all getting big to help you ‘live it large’.
The second-generation Countryman first came into production about four years ago, so naturally, it’s due for a ‘Life Cycle Impulse’ – BMW-speak for ‘facelift’.
The facelifted Countryman is now offered with a fresh set of paint options (like our Sage Green test-drive model), a light dusting of piano black veneer across the front grille and a dab of black mascara around the new LED headlamps.
For good measure, it features tartan patterns in the cabin storage cubbies and the iconic Union Jack taillamps, which have adorned all recent MINIs – a good reminder MINI hasn’t strayed from its roots .
Of course, there are also plenty of red ‘S’ badges to remind you you’re in a storming Cooper S instead of a bog-standard Countryman.
Inside, the large round centre display is largely unaltered, save for a new gloss black touch panel that replaces the buttons. The infotainment screen is undeniably BMW iDrive-ish, but reinterpreted in MINI’s inimitable fashion.
The gauge cluster is now a digital/analogue panel, identical to the one found in the new MINI Cooper SE, and it offers better legibility than before. The electronically adjustable seats are comfortable, and are finished in a lovely Chester Malt Brown quilted leather with contrast stitching and white piping.
(Click HERE to read about the all-electric MINI Cooper SE)
The plethora of controls can be a tad complicated for some, but you quickly get used to it, and on the whole, the MINI’s cabin is a charming place to be in.
“Cutesy”, as a friend described it when she stepped into the commodious cabin. The Countryman may bear the MINI badge, but it’s still a SUV and will easily accommodate five people.
The automated rear hatch opens to reveal an expansive 450-litre boot. Flip-down the 40-20-40 split-fold seats and load-lugging capacity expands to 1390-litres.
You get under floor storage too, although a chunk of it is taken up by the quirky MINI Picnic Bench: a padded cushion under the boot floor that can be folded out over the boot-sill to accommodate two adults.
Now, it’s little secret that the MINI rides on the same front-wheel-drive UKL2 platform that underpins the BMW X1 SUV, but again, the brand has done a stellar job of dressing up this latest Countryman so it retains its own unique ‘MINI’ flair and personality.
Chucking the car around is great fun. The car leans into corners with so much grip you forget you’re piloting a 1.6-tonne SUV.
But the lack of bolstering in the seats gives you the faint impression that the car is barely hanging on to the tarmac, despite the chunky 19-inch rims clad in 225-section Pirelli rubber.
It may be a spacious five-seater with a massive boot, but the Countryman behaves more like an overgrown hot-hatch than compact crossover.
The turbo'd 2.0-litre four-pot produces 178 horsepower, although we should qualify this is down from the pre-facelift’s 190+hp – we do like how the engine harumphs to life with firecracker pops and crackles from the tailpipes.
(Click HERE to check out a pair of hardcore JCW GP MINIs)
However, its performance credentials should come as little surprise considering it is a detuned version of the 306hp engine found in the JCW model.
The steering is well-weighted in all driving modes, and you can carry a surprising amount of speed into the corners.
The steering rack is quick and direct, but suffers from a common problem shared with all big-torque front-wheel-drive cars: torque steer.
Pushed hard, the MINI requires constant steering inputs to keep it straight when you give it more gas.
However, we appreciate this because it gets the driver involved in the driving, as opposed to just mindlessly putting one’s foot down and expecting the car’s electronics to sort everything out.
On the highway, the stiffer springs in the suspension hint at the car’s playful nature, but the caveat is the firm ride quality. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with impressive straight-line performance: 0-100km/h takes just 7.4 seconds.
Even in the comfort-tuned Mid mode, the car surges forward with surprising shove. It’s a spritely and eager thing, with nippy steering that enables you to dart and weave through traffic with ease.
Nudge the throttle a little while you’re on the go, and the turbocharger spools up with an audible hiss as the 7spd dual-clutch transmission finds the perfect ratio for you.
All that eagerness endows the Countryman Cooper S with a mean streak lacking in many cars of its class. Sure, the gaping vents and bonnet stripes are a little gaudy, and the exhaust crackles rather excessively in Sport mode, but all in, it’s a fun, practical daily runabout for Singapore’s city streets. The Countryman brims with charisma, and spurs you to plant the pedal into the carpet from time to time to enjoy the rush.
The Countryman Cooper S may not have the driving dynamics of MINI’s three- and five-door offerings, but it is a charming companion. If anything, we like how the performance and practicality of the Countryman brings people together on joyrides and road trips, yet when prompted, can transform into an explosively rowdy SUV that will impress even the most cynical drivers.
In essence, living with the Countryman Cooper S is akin to owning a big, energetic dog. You learn to live with it, you learn to raise it. And eventually, you grow to love it. And that rings true for the plus-sized MINI – a fun, funky and functional little-big car that manages to put a big smile on your face.
STORY Jay Tee
PHOTOS Lawrence Loy
MINI Cooper S Countryman
Engine 1998cc, inline4, turbocharged
Transmission 7spd Steptronic dual-clutch
Top Speed 223km/h
Fuel Consumption 5.9l/100km