Test Drive: The 2017 Mini Countryman

It was snowing by the inch in Mount Hood National Forest when we set out to test the 2017 Mini Countryman. The temperature: just about freezing. The roads: essentially a sheet of ice. Mini’s product managers were either confident in their product or ready to test the driving skills of media in attendance. Here’s the good news: Mini’s sport-utility vehicle is still good for a run on the edge of town, no matter the conditions.

During the course of a typical media drive, the roads are perfectly suited to the vehicle being tested, a.k.a. recently paved and only as curvy as necessary. Not this time. The snow offered an opportunity to see if the Countryman could stand up to an unexpected winter storm in standard guise. As the standard, all-season tires grasped for grip on the icy surface, the all-wheel drive and stern traction control systems intervened ahead of potential danger. Only once, during a particularly steep downhill section, did the Countryman slip a bit. Overall, it was exceptional proof of confidence in the AWD system. All of the Countrymen (sounds better than Countrymans) at the media preview were equipped with ALL4, so we can’t yet speak for the front-wheel-drive model’s performance.

You probably know by now that Mini owes its existence to BMW, which sees the once-iconic British marque as a sub-brand. The relaunched Countryman shares more than ever with a BMW product, based on the same chassis as the small X1 SUV. The two crossovers share a lot under the skin, but you’d never know it from the Countryman’s scaled-up Mini Cooper looks.

We drove both the Cooper Countryman and Cooper S Countryman on the route through snowy Oregon and Washington. Like the Cooper hardtop, the Countryman is offered with either a 134-hp three-cylinder turbo (Cooper) or a 189-hp four-cylinder turbo (Cooper S) engine. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the Cooper and available on AWD Cooper S models, as well as automatic gearboxes. Adjustable driving modes in both models heavily affect the way the Countryman takes input. In Sport mode, the throttle acts eager to the point of jumpy; switch to Green mode, and the throttle response softens to a point where you begin to second-guess how hard you’ve pressed the pedal. In all modes, steering is quick and light but uncommunicative. Depending on wheel size, the Countryman rides hard (smaller) or extremely stiff (bigger), giving off the uncomfortable feeling that you’ve blown a tire each time you encounter a minor pothole. The Countryman leaves a lasting impression that it's a very good crossover. But it’s dimensionally large and commodious inside (except for a back seat with tight legroom), and is designed to swallow even more cargo than its predecessor. It also has a real armrest for the first time.

If the Countryman is to compete with higher-end products, it still has a way to go. Compare the Mini’s messy, multi-tiered, chrome-ringed instrument cluster and center stack, for example, with Audi’s tidy and advanced Virtual Cockpit digital dashboard. Where Mini divides key information among separate screens, layering one upon the other with clever but confusing switchgear, Audi utilizes one key screen with a touchpad control. But at the end of a day of driving through falling show, the Countryman was more than up to typical SUV tasks.

[$27,450; miniusa.com]

Cheat Sheet: 2017 Mini Countryman

  • Comes as a three-cylinder turbo Countryman or a four-cylinder turbo Countryman S — just like the hardtop and Clubman.
  • Front-wheel drive comes standard on both models; ALL4 all-wheel drive is optional.
  • It’s closer than ever in size, function, and feel to the BMW X1.
  • You can still get it with a six-speed stick shift.
  • A plug-in hybrid is on the way.
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