Mini Cooper S All4 Countryman
Consider, if your teeth can stand it, Coca Cola, still stealing a march on even the likes of Google and Facebook as the planet's most familiar, instantly recognisable and, let's face it, profitable brand. I bet the hungriest of marketing mongrels think of little else, undoubtedly substituting the traditional bedside table family snap for a soft-focus portrait of the world's most iconic can as an inspirational aide memoire…
Brand, if such people are ever to be believed, is everything. And no more so than in today's automotive industry, wherein frantic niche marketing wrings the last drop of sales blood out of once respectable brands with increasingly ill-considered frenzy.
However, what seems to have been forgotten in this orgy of identifying sub-sections of society which, hitherto, didn't know they existed is that brand is built on quality of produce. The trouble with marketing folk is that they tend to overlook the fact that people actually drink Coca Cola because they like the taste. As Coke itself once discovered through a disastrous decision to change the uber-fizzy formula, if the product doesn't cut the mustard you will, ultimately, be found out.
In this context, and with 70 years of consumer reverence to rely on (albeit the best of it nothing whatsoever to do with today's name copy right custodians, BMW), MINI is currently flogging the brand for all it's worth.
On paper, the company's latest variant, the four-door Countryman, makes a good deal of sense. MINI is fed up with losing sales to young couples who, though completely sold on the brand, have nowhere to turn with the arrival of children. The wet gymkhana grass giving access to Jocasta's aspirations for a clear round on her long-suffering pony, Mr. Noodles, is clearly an issue to boot, because the Countryman is also the first MINI to sport four-wheel drive, albeit in association with a ground clearance increased by no more than the width of your little finger.
The Countryman is taller, wider and 400mm longer than the extant MINI hatch. The wheelbase gains 120mm and occupants sit 70mm higher off the ground. All of which begs the question: Just how much air can you pump into a beach ball before it, a) becomes unfit for purpose or, b) simply bursts?
Given that the three-door hatchback is already vast in comparison to its illustrious forebear, it's amusing to note that the company's head of design, Gert Hildebrand, has already talked Issigonis' subsequent offering, the Austin/Morris 1100, into the Mini stable to justify the Countryman's even greater, Mini-as-Hummer, size.
This isn't the first time that a British car company now under German ownership has been subjected to a little light rewriting of history to suit brand ambitions, but it is the first time a tug boat and the Titanic have been lumped together in the same category merely because they both float on water…
Truth is, where carefully crafted proportion serves to admirably disguise the heft of the hatch, the new four-door struggles. I'm reminded of the classic B movie horror, Attack of the 50ft Woman: Everything's still where you expect to find it, but a certain degree of desire is lost as a result of the sheer scale of what you're confronted by (Dear Diary: Day 3, and still no sign of the inner thigh).
On board, the story's the same. All feels somehow bigger, evoking toddler memories of the dashboard towering above you the first time you were allowed to sit in the front. Beneath that wok-sized speedometer, now flanked by circular air vents to create the unfortunate impression of Walt Disney sponsorship, the new, BMW-black centre console has been tidied for the better. Sadly, however, all that much smartened instrumentation has now migrated so far south it largely hides behind the gear lever.
The Countryman being a prime example of the new genre of car-as-gadget, the speedo needle has been relegated to the peripheral status of drop of blood captured in ultra-slow motion at the point of impact, and the centre of the massive dial given over to a screen accessing a now vaguely rational version of BMW's once famously counter-intuitive iDrive stereo/sat nav/car set-up control system.
The most prominent new toy, however, is a smart, aluminium central rail, running the length of interiors boasting the no-cost option, four seat format of the car I drove, onto which you may clip ‘n' slide a range of accessories such as a sunglasses case, an iPhone/iPod bracket, a(nother) cup holder and curry hooks to harness those emergency slops.
Sadly the traditional bench rear seat format (with which all Countrymen will be fitted as standard unless you ask) precludes the fitting of a full length rail, and the residual off-cut, lurking – little more than a foot in length – between the front seats, comes across as a tad under whelming.
Moreover, given the evident care that went into overhauling the perceived quality of other dashboard elements, this innovation is poorly executed. For starters, though boasting an extension of the MINI's trademark, hue-variable ambient lighting, the rail lacks built-in 12v power, so the connectivity cat's cradle issue associated with mobile phones and iPods still dominates. Secondly, the quality of the clip-on goodies is simply execrable; appallingly flimsy, tone-lowering Primark plastic with a propensity to rattle like Mothercare on a Saturday morning.
It's all very well being able to turn your car into a mobile, 1400kg extension of your iPhone, but not if the wherewithal is this unpleasant to manhandle. Each attachment should be a little jewel of tactile, precision engineering; the sun glasses holder, for instance, a Faberge egg, not an elephant suppository.
As a driving experience, the Countryman remains fundamentally MINI, with a whiff of added odd. As you'd expect with Cooper S badging, it's no slouch, turbocharging forcing 181bhp from a 1.6 litre powerplant to bring up 62mph in 7.9 seconds and a top speed of 130mph.
Nothing much happens in the engine room until the turbo spools up at some 3000rpm, when it finally wakes up to its badge pedigree and starts to hoon properly. However, a dash mounted‘Sport' button needs to be left on permanently to promote the sort of throttle responses you'd expect. Um…Why, with the sporting connotations implicit in the name, does a Cooper need a Sport button at all?
As to road manners, the Countryman actually rides more comfortably than its hatchback sibling. With such a short wheelbase, the three door MINI has a tendency to fidget like the man who thinks he'll get lucky if he eats salad and sits through Sex and the City on the first date. The four door car's larger footprint has largely eradicated this tendency, and it makes pleasingly supple, fluid progress, albeit somewhat marred by the suspension's propensity to crash noisily, and often, over even innocuous–looking road imperfections.
When cornering, however, a sizeable chunk of the admirable precision that makes the hatchback such a hoot has evaporated. The Countryman's higher centre of gravity does it no favours, with more body roll and markedly less poise the order of the day. More baffling is the steering, into which – though the whole is unpleasantly artificial and inert in feel – has been dialled such added dart that minimal input will find you scampering inside the radius of every bend until you get the hang of it.
The car I drove was also equipped with ALL4 four-wheel drive, and did prove itself more than capable of thumping about over stubble fields and muddy tracks, which a small percentage of buyers will undoubtedly appreciate.
Despite its increase in size, BMW's first MINI hatch made a remarkably decent fist of preserving much of the sheer entertainment value inherent in driving the original Mini. The four-door Countryman's sheer size, however, rather precludes that, suggesting that this is one particular beach ball that is now full to bursting point.
In all, it really is a pity that such strong evidence of bean-counter belligerence holds sway in the Countryman cabin. After all, at £22,030 this is a pretty pricey car, even before you add the hefty, £6390 worth of options fitted to the specimen I drove; all largely imperative to properly equip it properly.
It'll sell, no doubt; MINI is hugely successful in the UK. But I can't help feeling that, ignoring lessons to be learned from Coca Cola, BMW are pushing the brand right to the edge of a particularly tall and precipitous cliff.