Philosophical discussions about whether the Mini Countryman is really a Mini will go on indefinitely, but for practical purposes, it’s a distinction without a difference. It’s here, it’s made by Mini, and—as the brand’s best-selling model by a slim margin—it’s not going anywhere. Instead, we must concern ourselves with whether it’s any good.
This second-generation Countryman uses the same formula as the original with a host of upgrades. New sheetmetal is a given, but the most substantial changes occur under the stubby hood. The base engine is now a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder, and it makes 134 hp and 162 lb-ft—that’s torquier than the old four-cylinder despite losing a piston. S models now get a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder with 189 hp and 207 lb-ft, a slight improvement all around. The biggest change, though, is a new plug-in hybrid S E model with a net output of 221 hp and 284 lb-ft, thanks to an electric motor driving the rear wheels while the turbo-three drives the fronts. The plug-in hybrid gets a six-speed auto, and the other models get a new eight-speed auto.
We haven’t been fans of Mini’s three-cylinder engine in other products, and we’re not fans of it in the bigger, heavier Countryman, either. Needing 9.3 seconds to hit 60 mph from a stop and 5.5 seconds to accelerate from 45 to 55 mph, it’s drearily slow. An aggressive first gear makes it pop off the line, but once popped, it’s a long, boring climb up to speed. The new transmission works quickly and smoothly with what it has, but it isn’t a lot. A weight of 3,546 pounds and 134 hp just don’t mix well. It’s no good when you’re not moving, either—the engine is coarse and unrefined at idle and only marginally better under load.
On the upshot, it does get better fuel economy on the highway than the plug-in hybrid for some reason. In fact, it gets 30 mpg, which is about the same as the old base model. City mpg for the three-cylinder is actually worse than the old S model at 22 mpg, a disappointing result.
Back to the hybrid, it’s a bit of an odd duck. It only has 12 miles of all-electric range, little enough to be inconsequential. Highway fuel economy is also unimpressive as noted, sitting at 27 mpg. You’ll want to keep it in the city, where it gets 28 mpg, an impressive number. Unfortunately, if you never leave the city, you won’t get much of an opportunity to sample its other standout feature: the performance. Hitting 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, it’s the quickest Countryman you can buy despite also being the heaviest at 3,881 pounds. The low center of gravity also helps it outperform the base car on our figure-eight test, where it’s nearly as quick as the S model. The rest of the time, though, you’re still stuck with the coarseness of that I-3.
The S really is just right in every regard. At 7.4 seconds to 60 mph, it’s quick enough for a small SUV, and its power-to-weight ratio is close enough to the plug-in hybrid’s to make it feel quicker than it is behind the wheel. It is unquestionably the best-handling of the three, and the most Mini-like in that regard. Returning 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, it’s a reasonable compromise between the other two for anyone who doesn’t live and work downtown. For $3,000 more than the base model and nearly $6,000 less than the plug-in hybrid, you get the car that drives most like a Mini, gets comparable city fuel economy, and has the best highway fuel economy.
A special note on braking performance for all three models: Testing took place on an unusually hot day, and as such, braking distances were uncharacteristically long. Per the data recorder, the base stopped in 138 feet, the S in 129 feet, and the plug-in hybrid in 150 feet. Correcting for temperature, we estimate the normal stopping distance from 60 mph would be more like 108 feet of the base, 107 feet for the S, and 120 feet for the plug-in hybrid.
Aside from limit performance, the three Countrymen are fairly similar in demeanor. Ride quality has improved across the board from the last generation without losing that Mini playfulness. The S, as you’d expect, is the most fun to drive quickly, though the plug-in hybrid handles its weight surprisingly well. With their sporty suspensions, though, each hobbled over rough pavement worse than we’d expect for a semipremium crossover. and it produced some uncharacteristic rattles.
Being the crossover of Minis and each equipped with all-wheel drive, we took them for a bit of off-roading, as well. We’d hoped some of Mini’s rally program would’ve rubbed off on the production cars, but that’s not really the case. None has a dedicated off-road mode, and the computer’s only solution to loose surfaces is to cut power drastically. In sand, which we used to also approximate mud and snow, the computer brought the car nearly to a halt before allowing us to creep through, nails chewed to nubs. On hard-packed dirt, the cars were far more playful, though easy to bottom out. It’s clearly a foul weather all-wheel-drive system, not an off-roading one.
There were highs and lows to be found inside the car, as well. We love the enormous rear seats, especially because the cargo space is bigger, too. The funky Mini style remains, but the controls are a bit more logical now. The head-up displays on the S and plug-in hybrid are a nice idea, but they are mounted extremely low on the dash and creaky when they deploy and stow. The mesh sunroof cover barely functions as such. The fact you still don’t get power seats even on the nearly $40,000 plug-in hybrid is baffling.
Anyone in the market for the Mini Countryman isn’t just looking for a small crossover. They’re looking for the Mini of small crossovers, and the model that best fits that description is the Countryman in Cooper S trim. The price premium over the base model is marginal, and it buys you a lot more performance for the same fuel economy while saving you thousands over the plug-in hybrid at the cost some city fuel economy. Normally, we tell you to get the sportiest model because we’re enthusiasts, but this time, you can drive comfortably knowing it’s also the best Countryman.
Because the test surface we used for this review is a mere month old (and still curing), our braking and handling results show longer stopping distances and less grip than we typically record and report. With that in mind, this vehicle’s numbers are not necessarily comparable with previous or future test results.