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Mini breaks out of the small-car ghetto

Mini’s 2011 Cooper S Countryman gives you more space than a regular Mini and gets great gas mileage, but the car is still pricey for its segment.
Mini’s 2011 Cooper S Countryman is 15 inches longer than its predecessor.Mini

Even iconoclasts must obey society’s rules. You’ll sooner see a sitting president perform on "Dancing with the Stars" than you’ll see a Harley rider wearing a peach-colored polo shirt in place of the requisite black-leather-and-denim uniform.

So the notion of a larger Mini poses a contradiction that some purists can’t square in their heads. In their minds General Motors must make unresponsive land yachts, Porsche may only build rear- or mid-engined sports cars and Mini absolutely, positively must be Lilliputian.

There is surely good business in selling small cars while gas is $4 a gallon, but these days the Mini brand is too valuable to doom it to the small-car ghetto. There’s money to be made in other attractive segments.

That doesn’t mean Mini’s BMW owners have bought up the remains of Hummer and will start badging H2s as Mini Maxis. But it does mean that consumers who buy into Mini’s hip Cool Britannia mindset won’t be shut out just because their lives demand a functional, accessible back seat.

Mini has been stretched and adapted since shortly after Sir Alec Issigonis introduced the tiny front-drive wonder in 1959, with a wagon, van, truck and off-road buggy Mini Moke appearing quickly after the original two-door sedan. So larger variants such as the 2011 Countryman are actually in keeping with the brand’s heritage.

At 161 inches long with a 102-inch wheelbase, the Countryman has been stretched by 15 inches overall and expanded by 5 inches between the front and rear wheels. The proportions have been preserved so well from the smaller version that on the road it is the second set of door handles for the two rear doors that gives the Countryman away. (It reminds me of the Matchbox Mini I had as a kid. The toy cars shared the same chassis, so the tiny Mini’s body was ballooned to fit a platform that also underpinned models of full-sized cars, with the result being that the Mini hulked over models of much larger cars.)

The real question isn’t whether Mini should be making a tallish compact wagon, but how well the Countryman compares to existing models in the segment such as the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, Scion xD and Toyota Matrix. Of these competitors, only the Matrix is available optionally with all-wheel-drive, which is available on the Countryman for drivers who feel the need for additional traction. The Kia, Nissan and the Scion, on the other hand, are more realistic competitors for the style-seeking consumers who might buy a Mini Countryman.

Mini casts its cars as being meant for car nuts more than fashionistas, but both groups are present in the company’s customer base. In support of its performance driving credentials Mini offers the souped-up “S” version of the Mini Cooper, even on the new Countryman wagon.

This entails installation of a turbocharged 181-hp 1.6-liter engine in place of the base car’s 121-hp normally aspirated engine, along with stiffer springs and shocks meant to impart racier handling. The turbo motor has the unruly character of old Saab Turbos, with a noise to wake up the neighbors. Good fun for enthusiasts, unless they get up for early morning visits to the gym and have light-sleeping neighbors. Maybe a quiet-muffler-equipped model would be worthwhile for drivers who like all that power, but would rather be seen than heard.

The S-specification suspension mods are more of a mixed bag. Mini gets a lot of mileage out of the phrase “go-cart-like handling.” But it would seem those copywriters never spent a lot of time in go-carts, or even rear-drive sports cars like Mazda MX-5 Miatas.

Minis are fun to drive, but as tall, front-drive hatchbacks, they simply can’t approach the responsiveness of true sports cars. Bolting on stiffer suspension to improve the slalom prowess of the Countryman is pure folly, a problem exacerbated by the installation of the optional 18-inch wheels, whose lower-profile tire further erode the ability to smooth over bumps.

The resulting punishing ride had me pining for the pothole-swallowing compliance of the Chrysler PT Cruiser wagon, which could absorb the worst sort of sharp-edged Manhattan potholes with impressive aplomb. Thankfully, the Countryman’s base suspension rides better than that of the S version I tested, so drivers won’t have to plan to check the integrity of their dental fillings if they opt for that.

They will, however, lose the oomph of the turbocharged engine. With the Countryman’s extra mass and the power-sapping effects of the ALL4 all-wheel-drive system, some drivers may conclude that the base engine’s 121-hp is overmatched and opt for the S version just to get the turbocharged engine.

If they do, they won’t suffer a terrible fuel economy penalty. The Countryman S’s EPA numbers are 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, but the car I tested did 30 mpg in mixed suburban driving, which is impressive.

The Countryman’s cabin is airy and spacious for a small car. There were a couple reasons for this. The test vehicle included the optional dual-pane panoramic sunroof, which tilts and slides in the front panel and tilts open in the rear panel. Also, the Countryman only seats four people, with rear bucket seats. A central rail mounting critical accessories like cup holders has great architectural design appeal, but isn’t functionally helpful.

Customers would probably appreciate three-across rear seating, even if it is rarely used, more than funky design that contributes to the Countryman crossover SUV/wagon holding only four occupants.

The rear seats slide fore/aft and recline, which is common among larger crossovers. In the Countryman these capabilities aren’t especially helpful because there is too little rear legroom to willingly trade it away for cargo capacity if anyone occupies the back seats. If the seats are vacant, they can be folded for even more space in the back.

Because consumers are increasingly concerned about the integration of their wireless lifeline, it is worth noting that the factory Harman-Kardon stereo (with a quick acknowledgement of the passing of co-founder Sidney Harman) accepts external audio input only through an eighth-inch phone plug rather than through a USB port or Bluetooth connection with full control of the mobile device.

For playing personal music, the Countryman includes a factory-installed 8-track player, complete with a Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon tape. (OK, it actually comes with a CD player, but today that device is about as relevant as an 8-track player.)

But maybe bucking iPhone mania is how the Countryman asserts its iconoclast bonafides in 2011. Just slide Nirvana’s nihilistic Nevermind CD into the player and forget all about any concerns about how small a Mini should be.