Mini Cooper Countryman S works for small families

2011 Mini Cooper Countryman S

2011 Mini Cooper Countryman S (Credit: Tribune Media Services)

I know the royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton was an eternity ago, but I have to say I was disappointed that none of the royals went to or from Westminster Abbey in the brand-new 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman. There are many reasons why this would have been a successful mode of transport, with the only downside being that Mini is a subsidiary of Germany's BMW, but slap a Union Jack on the roof and the Windsors are in business. In any case, the Countryman would have worked for Princes William and Harry, and it will work well for your family, too.

For those of us who crave a vehicle with design distinction, how can something so cute, so distinctive and yet so flexible be ruled out? It can't and it really shouldn't. The Countryman is good for most average small-family errands, and on the weekends, it works well for parents whose kids' activities require smaller gear. Or even better yet, it could be a family's second car.

The Countryman is a crossover; it has four doors, and the Mini Cooper S Countryman has available all-wheel drive. All of these new aspects of the Countryman make Mini purists wince, but if you have no Mini snobbery about you, you'll be pleased that Mini took this leap into larger territory.

This four-seater is for parents who like to drive. The famed Mini go-kart handling remains intact and is sure to make any driver quite happy. Adult passengers will have a little rougher go of it only because the Countryman's suspension is so stiff and sporty. If the sportiness isn't enough for you, just switch to Sport mode for even "quicker throttle response and steering response," says Mini. I just call it more fun. I loved that the automatic transmission in my Mini Cooper S Countryman test car was almost as much fun as any stick shift I've driven.

Kids will likely adore the Countryman. Mine did, but they also really like to ride roller coasters 10 times in a row. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine is a blast, and the tight steering and responsive brakes turn anyone into a grinning lunatic behind the wheel, even poised princes and princesses.

Maybe the Windsors wanted to consider something more upscale. OK, fine, but with a more upscale price than most cars in its class, the Mini could have been an offering. The Countryman starts at $21,650. The turbocharged Mini Cooper S Countryman starts at $25,250; my test car, which had all-wheel drive, rang up at $35,150. That's more than a few pence, m'lady.

Exterior

The chasm of utility that Mini has bridged by putting four doors on its beloved vehicle, giving it available all-wheel drive and adding just a little more room is pretty amazing. The raised ground clearance and available all-wheel drive are just what the doctor ordered for this Colorado mom and her family.

The Countryman's doors are tricky to use because the handles look like you should be able to pull them and the door will open. In reality, the handle needs to be squeezed with good effort to open the door. This will be a headache for smaller kids, but they'll grow into it and the next thing you know, they'll be out the door to college.

The cargo space is good for its size. I fit the bags from a large grocery trip in there without a problem because the Countryman has a large well under the cargo floor that held quite a bit of stuff. There's lots of extra room in the cargo area because of the standard run-flat tires. What would have been room for a spare tire wound up being room for my stuff.

The Mini Cooper S Countryman has a 181-horsepower, turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-four-cylinder engine that uses premium gas. According to the EPA, my all-wheel-drive test car with an automatic transmission gets 23/30 mpg city/highway. For better gas mileage, a front-wheel-drive turbo Countryman with a six-speed manual transmission gets 25/35 mpg.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Fair-Great

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove-On

Interior

Despite its larger size, the Countryman would have struggled to fit now-Duchess Catherine's wedding gown in it. So, let's be clear: The Mini Cooper S Countryman is still a Mini. It won't comfortably take your family car camping, but it can be used to run errands and take shorter road trips.

One thing any family should know about the Countryman is the rear seats are buckets. There are only two seats and that's it, thank you very much. It's not that big of a loss, though, because many smaller cars only tease with the middle-seat position that can't fit a child-safety seat or a larger child.

The Countryman will get rave reviews from the kids once they're in it. My kids each had their own seat and cupholder. The rear bucket seats are separated by a rail that runs the length of the crossover, ending where the gearshift is housed. The center rail system holds all manner of Mini accessories. Two cupholders, a sunglasses case, which we had to move to the backseat's rail, and an iPod holder are standard. The rail and its accessories were simultaneously fun and a pain in the neck. The iPod holder wouldn't fit in the front part of the rail because of the gearshift, emergency brake handle and armrest took up a good portion of the space up there. This was frustrating, and I was surprised such a messy system wound up in the Countryman. In addition, the rail presented a minor problem in the pick-up/drop-off lane at school. The kids can only get in on one side of the car, so one kid has to climb over the rail and any accessories attached to it. Mine perfected the hurdle, but yours may have issues. For those parents not wishing to subject their kids to the hurdle, a two-piece center rail can be had at no additional cost.

We all liked the dual-panel sunroof configuration, which would justify the need for a sunglasses holder in the backseat. Both the front and rear panels tilt open, but only the front panel slides back. It would be great for William and Harry to look out of or more suitably, for their admirers to look into.

All the fun details like the huge speedometer and toggle switches with bumpers that make a Mini a Mini are present and accounted for in the Countryman. The speedometer allows everyone to see how fast you're going because it is located in the center of the dash, not as part of the instrument cluster in front of the steering wheel. That's fine, because the Countryman is small enough that everyone can see everything you're doing anyway. My husband thought the speedometer combined with the round vents on either side of it looked like Mickey Mouse. I thanked him for ruining the display for me, and now you can too.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Puny

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Safety

The 2011 Countryman has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This means the Countryman received the top score of Good in frontal-offset, side-impact, rear and roof-strength crash tests conducted by IIHS. To receive the safety nod, it also must have an electronic stability system, which is standard on the Countryman. What a good thing to know, especially if your teen driver is a candidate for the Countryman.

With its bucket rear seats that feature large seat bolsters, I feared my kids' booster seats wouldn't fit properly, but I worried needlessly. The bolsters didn't get in the way of the child-safety seats, which is a bonus to what was likely designed to be a comfort feature for rear passengers. My kids' boosters fit great and the seat belt buckles were easy for them to use. The two sets of lower Latch anchors are easy to locate and access. The two tether anchors on the rear seatbacks are easily found.

I was able to fit a rear-facing infant-safety seat in the Countryman, though to do so I scooted the driver's seat up as far as it would go. Because of the standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel I was able to sit pretty comfortably in this position, but you will definitely want to try this for yourself.

The Countryman also has standard front-wheel drive, all-disc antilock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control and six airbags, including curtains for both rows. Optional safety features include xenon headlights, adaptive headlights, rear parking sensors and all-wheel drive.

© 2011, Cars.com

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