Young at Heart : MINI Countryman Cooper Driven [review]

By topgearsingapore, 17 July 2017

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Singapore - When the Ed mentioned his plans to have me pose with the new Countryman, my first reaction was to refuse.

In over 48 years of writing, there has never been a published photo of me either alone or with a testcar.

His hare-brained scheme was to use the oldest contributor on the title to demonstrate how the MINI brand not just transcends clichés and pigeonholes, but most importantly, ‘age’.

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His highly persuasive powers were greater than my basic inclination for privacy so I finally relented with great trepidation. The straw that broke this camel’s back was the nostalgia I knew the latest MINI would bring.

After all, my first car in 1963 was a 997cc Austin Mini Cooper 997 so I thought it would be illuminating and interesting to compare the latest with the original. After all, this was THE car to spark off my lifelong interest in cars and motor racing.

Being an impecunious medical student then didn’t stop me from racing the Cooper on Sundays and driving it for lectures on weekdays. My trusty Mini competed in grass track races, estate rallies, high speed autotests, sprints and hill climbs. My budget was meagre.

Modifications were initially limited to changing the SU carburettor fuel flow “needles” for a richer fuel mixture and more power. A cylinder head polishing job followed when I could afford it.

Multiple race wins only served to whet my appetite for more. My little Cooper’s most memorable feat was to clock the quickest time ever recorded up the Gap Hill Climb by a car under 1000cc.

Set in 1964, the record stood till the event was canned in 1972 when road closure was no longer granted for racing. To control total vehicular population, this was one of the measures taken by the authorities to curb interest in cars. So my record will stand for posterity, hooray!

My desire for more power meant my next car was a Morris Mini 1275 S, which I bought when I was a houseman. With a slightly bigger budget, I could afford a nicely tuned example with a reworked cylinder head, sports 731 camshaft and a Weber carburettor. Power was estimated at around 95bhp, a decent output in the late sixties for a small car.

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With considerably more power and better brakes, the S was a far better vehicle for upcountry runs than the 997 Cooper, which was notorious for its questionable braking ability. My S is best remembered for the trip to Cameron Highlands in 1970.

From the Tanah Rata turnoff with the main trunk road, the old road leading to Cameron Highlands was narrow, twisty with solid rock faces and sheer drops interspersed with short straights in-between. I took just 78 minutes from the turnoff to the Esso station in the main Camerons Highland town, about a third of the usual time for most drivers.

You could call me crazy, but I took no chances and simply exploited the agility and go-kart handling of the Cooper S. It was so predictable and stable – I turned in early and powered through corners knowing the mild terminal understeer would help me clip the apex of every turn. The beautifully balanced S could be steered as much with the throttle as with the steering – I took full cornering lines when conditions permitted.

Under the same conditions, I doubt I could repeat the feat today. Fewer raging hormones, a less gung-ho attitude and slower reflexes conspire to assign that time to my history book. Sigh! At my age, I suppose one has to accept certain limitations and not all of them are related to driving prowess!

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In the run-up to driving the latest MINI, nostalgia was uppermost in my mind. But alas, I was somewhat taken aback when I first set eyes on the new car.

The Countryman has grown so big it literally looks like a MINI overgrown from injudicious use of growth hormones. This car is a now a proper crossover large enough to compete with the likes of the BMW X1, Mercedes GLA, Audi Q3 and Lexus NX.

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Fortunately MINI styling cues distinguish it from the competition. There is a clear three-way structure for the car – a roof, glass section and the main corpus or body. Grille is the usual hexagon shape though LED headlights are now oblong rather than round.

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As a nod to the original Countryman of the sixties, the new car has a rear sloping roof line. The upper side window line drops down to a lower horizontal plane behind the rear door resulting in a shallower third side window. This design element is distinctive and serves to differentiate the Countryman from its five door hatchback sibling. A nice touch indeed.

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Raised ground clearance, black wheel spats and side sills give the Countryman the unmistakable demeanour of a vehicle suited for the great outdoors. A much longer rear door means you will never mistake it for the five door model. Open this door and the rear room available is quite un-MINI like.

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The rear bench seats three people comfortably abreast, with more than enough head and leg room. It has a 20:40:20 split and can be shifted longitudinally by up to 13cm. Boot space is now 450-litres, up 220-litres over its predecessor. Luggage volume can be increased to a total of 1390-litres.

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The previous model launched in 2010 was bigger than its then-siblings and was the first MINI with four doors. However it looked ungainly, somehow appearing too tall and too narrow.

The new car has much better balance and a more cohesive design. It is 199mm longer, 33mm wider, 13mm taller and most significantly, features a 75mm longer wheelbase. This explains the explosion of space in the rear compartment.

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To reinforce its place as a lifestyle vehicle, the new car has a unique cushioned bench that unfolds from the boot. This clever bit of kit provides a plush and somewhat cosy seat for two, making it ideal for fishing and camping trips, or simply for you to change out of muddy footwear.

The boot is tall and wide enough to carry a foldable bicycle without having to remove the wheels or shift the rear bench. Incidentally, this MINI bike proved sturdy and well designed – it does not seem to suffer from the rigidity problems many foldable bicycles have and is decent value. Even I enjoyed riding it!

Unfortunately, a golf bag cannot be ferried transversely; the bag has to lie diagonally, with one section of the rear seat folded – the luggage compartment is not wide enough.

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Two versions of the Countryman are offered in Singapore: a 2.0-litre Cooper S and this 1.5-litre Cooper. They share the same bodywork with main external differences largely limited to larger 18” rims and twin exhausts for the S. Other extras for the S include variable suspension, navigation with 8.8-inch touchscreen and enhanced Bluetooth connectivity.

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Our Cooper test-car’s 136bhp may not sound like much, but the three-cylinder punches well above its size. With 220Nm available between 1400-4300rpm, the car never feels slow or boring to drive. It revs freely to the 6000rpm redline to the accompaniment of a sporty rorty soundtrack. It certainly feels faster than the official century sprint time of 9.6secs would suggest.

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The three-cylinder beat is groovy, yet never rough or intrusive. In fact I was particularly impressed by the way it cruised at 100km/h as it possessed the smoothness and refinement quite unexpected of a small engine.

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Ride is excellent, a far cry from the bone-jarring ride of the original sixties Minis. Those Alec Issigonis designed cars made do with rubber cone suspension that was compact, inexpensive and virtually maintenance free. The modern MINIs ride on McPherson struts in front and a multi-link set-up for the rear.

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The Countryman glosses over road surface irregularities with aplomb. It is firm, but never jarring, definitely more settled than its smaller siblings, aided no doubt by the considerably longer wheelbase.

Unfortunately, the sheer length and possibly the raised suspension conspire to rob the Countryman of kart-like handling. Yes, it does handle better than most of its competitors but gone are the sheer dartiness and superb agility one associates with MINIs.

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Steering is accurate with decent feedback. Turn-in response is spot on but it does feel a tad heavier than that of most current cars. This causes no hardship though as its accuracy goes a long way to giving the Countryman a surefooted feel. Handling is essentially neutral, with hardly any understeer at the limit.

Quite frankly though, how many owners actually drive their cars to the limit of adhesion? The Countryman should be agile enough for over 90 per cent of people, even crazy former racing drivers!

Perhaps because of its size or the sheer space it provides, the Countryman has a more mature demeanour than its smaller siblings. it certainly looks imposing, and its appearance grows on you when you learn to accept that this car is MINI only in name and not in size.

With enough ground clearance, a stout heart and a go-anywhere attitude, this is the ideal vehicle for a bit of exploration of the countryside. Just park it in a suitably private spot, roll out the Picnic bench and enjoy the fishing, picnic or just a private tete-a-tete in the woods.

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The original Mini might have been the ideal car for me as a twenty something but with my advancing years, my back can no longer take the unyielding ride. The MINI Countryman is a much more sensible proposition I could quite easily live with! It may not win beauty contests but it has character. The depth of its capabilities and its charisma make the Countryman stand out in a very crowded class of premium mid-size crossovers. This could well be the perfect lifestyle vehicle for all everybody. 

STORY Dr. Winston Lee
PHOTOS Peter Lee

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MINI Countryman Cooper
Engine: 1499cc, inline3, turbo
Power/rpm: 136bhp/4400-6000rpm
Torque/rpm: 220Nm/1400-4300rpm
Transmission: 6spd Steptronic auto
0-100km/h: 9.6secs
Top speed: 200km/h
Fuel consumption: 6l/100 km
CO2: 138g/km

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