Enjoy country living?

The market for trendy crossover models has recently been rumbling along quite nicely. These are cars that mix design ideas from ordinary family hatchbacks and 4x4s to produce practical on-road transport with a dash of off-road ruggedness dropped in. The likes of Nissan’s Qashqai, Skoda’s Yeti and Peugeot’s 3008 have been making hay but for a market sector that appeared to have a finger firmly planted on the throbbing pulse of automotive fashion, it did seem to lack something. That something was the all-conquering retro behemoth that is MINI.

The Countryman opens the possibility of MINI ownership up to buyers who find the smaller models in the range too impractical. It’s a crossover 4x4 with all the cute retro design cues that have underpinned MINI’s success. There’s advanced engineering beneath the fashionable exterior and rivals will really worry now there’s a MINI with decent room for up to five and a good boot.

Familiar MINI engines have been designated to power the Countryman. A selection of 1.6-litre four-cylinder units is offered, opening with the 89bhp diesel in the Countryman One D and progressing up to the turbocharged 184bhp petrol engine with variable valve management in the Cooper S model. All the Countrymen (?) have a six-speed manual gearbox as standard but a Steptronic automatic is available as an option on petrol models.

Four-wheel-drive is not fitted to every model with MINI’s ALL4 system only offered as an option with the more powerful engines. It’s an advanced set-up with an electrohydraulic differential to vary the power distribution between the front and rear axels according to the detected levels of grip. Under normal conditions, 50% of the engine’s output is sent to the rear but as grip is lost, up to 100% of drive can go in that direction. This should add a further dimension to the MINI’s acclaimed on-road handling. All the Countryman models have a sophisticated suspension system based around that of the standard MINI. MacPherson strut front suspension with forged track control arms is paired with a multi-link setup at the rear.

MINI has a winning design formula based around the key themes of the 1960’s original and, by golly, it’s going to stick to it. The Countryman displays all of the brand’s usual traits from the foursquare stance with the wheels pushed right out to the extremities of the vehicle to the unmistakable font end with its rounded headlamps. Everything is scaled up for this larger five-door car though, with the wheelbase and the overall height far in excess of anything that has gone before.

MINI’s usual high beltline looks even higher on the Countryman and there’s a hatchbacked rear end giving access to a 350-litre boot. The cabin can be configured in one of two ways. There’s a four-seater layout based around a novel Centre Rail running down the middle which lets various storage receptacles be clipped to and slid along it. Alternatively, buyers can go for a conventional five-seat layout with a three-seat rear bench that can fold down, raising the boot capacity to 1170 litres.

The usual MINI trim level hierarchy applies to the Countryman, with One, Cooper and Cooper S models being made available. As is the norm elsewhere in the MINI line-up, the Cooper S cars have a lot more visual aggression about them with a redesigned front grille and more shapely bumpers. Safety-wise, all cars get front, side and curtain airbags along with three-point seatbelts for all occupants.

Standard equipment runs to air-conditioning and a CD stereo and that clever Centre Rail storage system but this larger, more practical MINI still has the plethora of personalisation options that have proven so popular with customers of the smaller cars. Numerous styling features are available and there’s a variety of integration options for MP3 players and Smartphones. The sports suspension option can lower the car by 10mm and there’s a series of John Cooper Works performance components to choose from.

We’ve come to expect a whole bundle of features geared towards maximising efficiency on MINI products and the Countryman lives up to this. Brake Energy Regeneration, Auto Start Stop and ancillary engine systems that operate only when called upon rather than constantly pumping away in the background all help to lower fuel consumption. There’s also a gearshift indicator for the manual models and the optional Steptronic automatic has its own efficiency benefits. Most frugal is the One D diesel version, which returns 65.7mpg on the combined cycle and puts out 116g/km of CO2, but even the fastest petrol Cooper S model manages 44.8mpg and 146g/km.

Emboldened by the huge success of its retro supermini concept, MINI has branched out. The recipe for its Countryman crossover 4x4 is essentially the tried and tested one found in the other MINI products but this more practical vehicle offers extra scope to appeal to fashionable family buyers. The image conscious crossover market looks tailor-made for MINI to exploit and the Countryman uses the familiar MINI engines and range structure to this end.