Durban - Since the first generation Mini Cooper Countryman arrived in South Africa in 2010, it racked up sales in excess of 3700 units (540 000+ globally).
Now, seven years later, the latest incarnation of Mini’s biggest, er, Mini, has been launched in SA.
Boasting larger dimensions, new engine and gearbox combinations, Mini is hoping its new offering will build on what consumers have come to expect from the company’s SUV.
The Countryman nameplate comes a long way in Mini’s history, having first featured on the Austin Seven Countryman in the 1960s. In 2010, more than 50 years later, the name returned and found favour among South African Mini lovers.
In the last seven years, says Mini SA, one in every four of its products sold was a Countryman. In fact, to date, it’s the second best-selling Mini locally.
From a sales perspective, then, this new Mini has a lot to live up to.
When viewed for the first time, the 2017 Countryman might not look that much bigger than the outgoing model, but the vehicle actually did a lot of growing up. The new version is 20cm longer, 3cm wider and 13mm higher than the old car, and the wheelbase has been extended by 7.5cm. The end-result is a car that has more interior space for both front and rear passengers and a boot that is 450 litres big.
Upfront, passengers obviously have more room to be comfortable in, but at the back the Mini-ness shines through. Three grownups might want the driver to stop for regular intervals over long distances but a small family, with kids on the back seat, will have far less of an issue with this.
Two sunroofs also help to create the illusion of having ample space.
Two turbocharged engines and three gearboxes are available to the new Countryman range: a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine (100kW/220Nm) and a 2.0-litre unit (141kW/280Nm), coupled to a six-speed manual, six-speed automatic or an eight-speed auto’ gearbox.
The three-cylinder is available on the Cooper model with either of the two six-speed options, while the 2.0-litre that does duty in the Cooper S can be had with either the six-speed manual or the eight-speed automatic.
READ: Next-generation Mini Countryman in SA - 10 things you need to know
Mini claims a top speed of 200km/h and 224km/h on these two models, respectively, and a fuel return of 5.9- and 6.5-litres/100km.
In June a John Cooper Works (JCW) model will join the range, while in the third quarter a diesel option will be added. At this point in time only front-wheel drive models will be available, but Mini will look at All4 models (all-wheel drive) "if there is a demand".
Driving across country, man
Only the six-speed automatic Cooper and eight-speed Cooper S were available to sample at launch.
The Cooper’s 1.5-litre engine had no problem increasing its speed, but, as is to be expected from a car missing an extra cylinder, the process is gradual rather than brisk. It also has to be worked a bit more to get it to perform, but once it’s up and running it will hold its speed. Even when tackling an incline, the Cooper scaled it without cogging down too many gears.
The six-speed gearbox is slick and a great fit to this engine. Opting to change gears manually via the gear lever will create a bigger connection between car and driver, but the ‘box is able to deliver what is asked of it.
The engine was designed with fuel efficiency in mind, which makes the gearbox’s application to this model is understandable.
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The Cooper S, on the other hand, is more engaging to drive. Its engine is definitely a lot punchier and the exhaust, especially when breaking, has a faint but addictive burble. The engine feels willing to get the job done, but the gearbox’s ratios are a bit long.
Given that it’s an eight-speed unit, the engine needs all its wits about it if it is to go through all the gears as you build up speed, but one can’t help but wonder why the BMW Group didn’t adapt its ZF gearbox for this car. If the use of an eight-speed gearbox was of cardinal importance, the ZF would’ve been the perfect way to go.
Gearshift paddles are available as an option.
The selected route the launch took place on covered various types of terrains that ranged from national roads, back roads, pothole-infested roads, as well as gravel.
The Countryman’s suspension is not without fault, but it is good enough to transport its occupants in solid comfort. At high speeds the rear becomes light and feels like it wants to step out when stepping on the brakes or coming off it. But at, let’s say, 120km/h there is no mention of this. Around corners and fast, sweeping bends the SUV experiences bodyroll.
Three gravel sections on the launch route covered almost 100km and ranged from firm surfaces to very slippery ones. The Countryman proved to be very at home on these roads as it travelled the distance in what felt like a wafting manner. More times than not the gravel proved little issue for the Countryman.
This Mini has been set up for ease of driving rather than outright performance, and it showed on the gravel.
Image: Wheels24 / Charlen Raymond
The Mini Countryman will have its detractors, as well as those who’ll support it. Where it’ll ultimately matter is when sales figures are collated each month. Given that it is a premium, niche offering, the Countryman is unlikely to sell in large volumes.
On a quick, non-scientific calculation, the outgoing Countryman sold between 40 and 50 units per month over the last seven years. The new model can either equal or better that, but in a market overflowing with premium offers such as the newly-launched Audi Q2, Mercedes-Benz GLA and Volkswagen Tiguan, Mini South Africa need to get it absolutely right if it is stand toe-to-toe with these premium vehicles.
• Mini Cooper Countryman manual - R422 000
• Mini Cooper Countryman auto - R440 000
• Mini Cooper S Countryman manual - R490 000
• Mini Cooper S Countryman auto - R509 500
All models are covered by a five-year or 100 000km maintenance plan.