2011 MINI Cooper Countryman Performance

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Performance

With a choice of base and turbo four-cylinder engines, the MINI Countryman won't strike fear in the hearts of John Cooper Works hatchback drivers, but MINI's handling prowess translates well into this bigger crossover.

Driving thrills don't often come from a 120-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, but with the Countryman's six-speed automatic strapped to the four-cylinder and lots of hilly ascents to tackle, this MINI rarely feels out of breath. Our test drive confirms the four puts out decent torque fairly low in the powerband, and the automatic comes with a Sport button that speeds up shifts and holds gears longer. MINI estimates, would equal a 0-60 mph shot of about 10 seconds. It doesn't offer them now, but paddles for shifting strike us as a supremely logical next step.

What's not to love? The 2011 MINI Countryman shares its fine, free-revving fours with other MINIs, and handles with much of the same zest.

We haven't had the chance to drive the 180-horsepower turbocharged Cooper S Countryman, which MINI says will hit 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds and will reach a top speed of 128 mph. In other installations, like the Cooper Convertible, the turbo engine's a gem, with the kind of cut-and-thrust talents that seem linked to MINI, at least the BMW-era MINIs. The six-speed manual shifter would be our choice, too, since it's a light, direct piece that ties you a little more intimately to the MINI's inner workings.

In our sprint around the sinewy roads of the Smokey Mountains, the Countryman reveals a little more of its upsized feel. The ride quality doesn't suffer as much for its standard 18-inch are standard on the Countryman--and yet, it's pliable on most road surfaces, with amazingly little suspension and tire noise, something you'd also sense immediately in any Cooper. The Countryman's meaty electric power steering mimics some real responsiveness and weights up nicely in deep plunging curves; BMW does EPS better than just about anyone else, outside of the Volkswagen Golf. The MINI's brakes bite quickly and answer pressure with the right counterpressure.

Our car didn't have it, but the Cooper S Countryman is available with a permanent ALL4 all-wheel drive system with an electronically activated differential that splits power 50:50 in normal driving, and up to 100 percent rear when traction fails in front. An electronic limited-slip differential is standard.

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