Motoring: Countryman, take me home
The Mini can be a fun car to drive. It has been gaining in popularity since its rebirth in 2002.
The brand has been growing, and with the growth has come newer, bigger models, which is something that does not sit well with Mini purists.
But, how are they?
I spent a week with two of the latest offerings, so let me tell you how that went.
First up was the Paceman. To be exact, it was the Mini Cooper S Paceman ALL4. This is the latest model offered by Mini and is a coupe version of the Countryman model that launched about two years ago.
This is a butch-looking Mini, and it's not meant to be cute or cuddly. It is an interesting looking thing, and one that will either hit the right chord with you, or it won't. I am on the fence with this one.
Step inside, and it will first inspire you with a feeling of familiarity. If you have been in aMini in the last decade, this interior will at first feel like home. However, a few things are not the same and they start making themselves apparent when you start driving. Despite the fact that the car looks like it has plenty of glass from the outside, inside is a different story. Looking out of the vehicle in any direction besides straight forward is a bit challenging. The rear window is smaller than you'd expect, and the door mirrors are oddly mounted below the belt line, so you cannot see half the mirror. I tried my best to set up a seating position to overcome this, but failed.
Apart from that, the interior is fine for space and comfort, and my model did come with plenty of options. Those options also included one I would certainly avoid in any Mini: the panoramic sunroof. I normally like this feature, but the problem is, when Mini fits this feature, they also fit it with a see-through roller blind, which lets too much light in. On very sunny days, you end up getting cooked in your car. I could only drive on overcast days, or at night.
As with most Mini offerings, this model is also available in three stages of engine tune, all having a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder motor. The base has no turbo, and develops only 121hp. Then there is the model I tested, that has a turbo, and also has all-wheel drive, and this version produces 181hp. The top version, called the JCW, also has a turbo and all-wheel drive, and develops 208hp. There are two transmissions on offer also, a six-speed manual, or a six-speed automatic. My tester had the latter, which is a decent gearbox, but I wish Mini had gotten the eight-speed autos found in parent company BMW's models. The old six-speed auto is neither the smoothest nor the quickest gearbox in the market, so there is room for improvement. The Cooper S spec motor is fine, but I wish BMW had given Mini their turbo charged 2.0- litre motor, which is a much better engine, plus it's more frugal too (I averaged 9.2-litres/100km in my week).
The thing that has always stood out for Minis was their handling. They had a certain feel about them — they reacted like big go-karts. The Paceman doesn't. It looks big and heavy and that is how it handles. This is not a Mini you'd enjoy driving down a winding road.
It's not cheap, either. The Cooper S Paceman ALL4 is yours from $31,200.
I would be willing to spend a bit more on the Mini John Cooper Works Countryman ALL4. This is the vehicle that lent its platform to the Paceman, but the original is better. I think the Countryman looks a lot better than the Paceman. Thanks to straighter lines, it is easier to look out the windows (although the door mirrors are still mounted too low, in my opinion). This vehicle is much more practical, and when equipped with the JCW-spec motor, it is very, very fast.
The performance gain was expected, and to be fair, the Paceman is also available with this motor, but the Countryman, a model that Mini competes with in the World Rally Championship, just seems to ride better. It was a joy on winding roads. My tester was equipped with wonderful 19- inch, light alloy wheels, wearing Pirelli PZeroes (same spec tire as found on cars like the legendary Ferrari F40), and it handled like it was on rails. Sure, it could benefit from going on a weight diet, but so could I.
My wife and I took this vehicle on our most recent road trip to Tobermory, and found the car to be comfortable, fun and fast. Thanks to its excellent navigation system, we never got lost. It was the perfect getaway car.
It is not cheap though. The Countryman JCW starts at $38,500. My very loaded tester was worth $49,285. At first, I thought that was an absurd amount for a vehicle like this. After a week, I could totally see myself buying one — it really is that good.
If you're shopping for Minis, walk past the Paceman and step right into the Countryman, preferably the JCW version.