TAKING THE MINI TO THE MAX
EZRA DYER NYT SYNDICATE IT’S an immutable law of the car business: the more focused a company’s lineup, the greater the outrage when that company decides to expand its product range.
When Porsche introduced the Cayenne SUV as a 2004 model, purist fans reacted as if the company had announced it was branching into unicycles and Justin Bieber merchandise.
“That’s not a Porsche!” cried many people who have never bought, nor will ever buy, a Porsche.
Ditto Lotus’s recent announcement that it might one day build cars that weigh more than a Honda Ruckus scooter.
Heresy! Silvio Berlusconi probably wishes Ferrari would announce a new pickup truck, just to provide a distraction.
Just as the aforementioned companies have long histories of building sports cars, the name Mini evokes sprightly front-wheel-drive two-door hatchbacks.
So the new Mini Cooper S Countryman All4 — an all-wheel-drive four-door — is a pretty significant departure.
And yet I’m not sensing much righteous frothy indignation among the faithful.
Unlike, say, the old Saab 9-7 (a k a, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer), the Mini Countryman is a logical extension of its brand.
There are surely would-be Mini owners who wish for more room, or more traction, than you get in the Mini hardtop or Mini Clubman.
Unto that breach rolls the chunky, blunt-prowed Countryman, looking like the old Audi Allroad’s punk nephew.
Prices start at $22,350 for a base front-drive Countryman.
That sounds reasonable, but Minis hew to their BMW origins in that options can inflate the sticker by more than 50 percent.
The all-wheel-drive Countryman is available only as a turbocharged Cooper S and begins at $27,650.
The car that I drove, which was loaded with everything except a navigation system and automatic transmission, carried a heady sticker price of $34,150.
A final price above $37,000 is entirely possible.
In this car, as with other Minis, you’re paying for design.
The Countryman interior, in particular, looks like something that other companies may cook up for a concept car but then abandon on the way to the showroom.
In cars with a navigation system, the screen resides in the middle of the gigantic round speedometer centred in the dashboard.
The parking brake handle resembles an aircraft throttle, and a centre rail that bisects the interior allows for clip-in attachments like cup holders, armrests and a litter bag.
(Future accessories I’d like to see include a harmonica holder, an attachment for Travel Battleship and some sort of portable saltwater aquarium.) Mini opted to configure the Countryman as a strict four-seater, and the rear buckets offer a surprisingly generous amount of room.
The seats adjust 5.1 inches forward or backward, so you can choose between increased cargo capacity or rather extravagant legroom — the back seats are within an inch of the BMW 3 Series sedan in that department.
Over all, the Countryman is 15.7 inches longer than a Mini hardtop, and that stretch lends a new dimension of meaningful practicality.
So the extra doors are a potential temptation for the Mini faithful.
As for the all-wheel-drive option, I’m not so sure.
All-wheel-drive systems have evolved in two distinct directions.
One form is the take-no-prisoners performance setup, which sends most of the power to the rear wheels and often uses rearaxle torque vectoring.
(See: Audi S4, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.) The other is the “it’ll get you up the snowy hill, but it’s still mostly a frontwheel- drive system.” (See: Ford Taurus, most crossovers.) The Countryman’s all-wheel-drive system is the latter variety, with 100 percent of the power going to the front wheels most of the time.
When the system detects slip, up to half of the torque can go to the rear wheels.
But this is the sort of design that’s intended to help you claw into your arctic urban parking space, not lower your lap times.
If the Countryman had 250 horsepower under the hood, I’d say it needed allwheel drive to help deploy the power.
As it is, the Countryman All4 uses the same 181-horsepower 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine as the other Cooper S models.
Meanwhile, it gains some 600 pounds over a two-door Cooper S. To put that in perspective, adding 600 pounds to a Mini Cooper S is akin to a 150-pound person ballooning up to 180 — you’re going to notice a change like that.
The Countryman All4 isn’t exactly lethargic, but the extra weight noticeably dulls the playful exuberance of its lighter brethren.
In testing by Edmunds Inside Line, the Countryman S All4’s quartermile time was exactly the same as that of the Toyota Sienna SE minivan: 15.7 seconds.
I don’t expect a Mini to excel at drag racing, but it would be nice if it could outrun a Cheerios-encrusted day care on wheels.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to put the Mini on a diet: forgo the allwheel drive.
Even the company seems a little confused about why it’s there.
(The Mini Web site suggests that maybe you’ll deploy the Countryman All4 for some light off-roading, which seems as likely as using it as a pushback tractor at LaGuardia.) Skip the all-wheel drive and you’ll save $1,700, drop 155 pounds of weight and add a mile per gallon of fuel economy (the manual-transmission All4 is rated at 25 miles per gallon in the city, 31 m.p.g. on the highway).
If you log a lot of miles in the snow, get snow tires.
I expect the Countryman will find its following.
It’s funkier than a four-door Volkswagen GTI and more upscale than a Nissan Juke.
With its high-end materials and abstract interior, the Countryman comes across as a BMW with a sense of humour.
And regardless of the number of doors or drive wheels, that makes it a Mini to me.