MOTORS: Mini larges it up with its new Countryman

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The five-door Countryman has opened the possibility of MINI ownership up to buyers who find the smaller models in the range too impractical.

This crossover 4x4 has all the cute retro design cues that have underpinned MINI’s success and it’s proved to be something of a surprise sales success since its launch here in 2010. The brand is attempting to keep that momentum going with an uprated cabin, more efficient powerplants and a John Cooper Works firebrand model at the top of the range.

Familiar MINI engines have been designated to power the Countryman. There are four petrol and three diesel four-cylinder units offered, opening with the 89bhp diesel and progressing up to the turbocharged 218bhp petrol engine with variable valve management.

All the models have a six-speed manual gearbox as standard but a Steptronic automatic is available as an option on all but the entry-level diesel.

Customers for the petrol Cooper S and Cooper D and SD variants also have the option of the ALL 4 all-wheel drive system that’s standard on the John Cooper Works. It’s an advanced set-up with an electro-hydraulic differential to vary the power distribution between the front and rear axles according to the detected levels of grip.

Under normal conditions, 50 per cent of the engine’s output is sent to the rear but as grip is lost, up to 100 per cent of drive can go in that direction. This should add a further dimension to the MINI’s acclaimed on-road handling. And it does. Throw the car hard into a corner, and it becomes clear that you’re driving something quite different from the MINIs we know and love. It rides 10mm higher than the brand’s ordinary three-door model and it’s nearly 300kgs heavier, statistics that have to tell somewhere. But by some margin it’s still the best driver’s choice in a segment not noted for setting any standards in dynamic prowess.

MINI has a winning design formula based around the key themes of the 1960s 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 front 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.

Here is a MINI – but not as we know it. But then, if it was, this Countryman wouldn’t be able to keep existing MINI people loyal when they out-grew their city runabouts and shopping rockets. Nor would 80 per cent of its sales tempt in buyers new to the brand. Customers liking the vibrant SUV-inspired Crossover concept, but wanting it with a little more tarmac sparkle.