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2013 MINI Cooper Countryman Performance

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The MINI Countryman represents a cautious step up in size for the small-car brand. Is it possible to keep the same sprightly feel with a longer, taller vehicle?

After a few drives, we'd answer "mostly." The Countryman may not have the low, immediate feel of a Cooper hatchback, but it's a nimble crossover that doesn't feel strapped by its extra height and weight.

Almost as fun to drive as other MINIs, the Countryman adds a John Cooper Works edition this year.

The Countryman lineup consists of a single five-door wagon, with front-wheel drive or available all-wheel drive, and a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with or without turbocharging, offered with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.

The basic Cooper Countryman has the 1.6-liter four, non-turbo, and 121 horsepower with either the manual or automatic. It's not a thrilling drive, but it doesn't run out of breath as it pulls out 0-60 mph times of about 10 seconds. A Sport button speeds up shifts and holds gears longer, which helps extract the power available, and taps the decent torque that's there, fairly low in the powerband. Add paddles for shifting, and the automatic would be our preferred gearbox choice.

The Cooper S Countryman slashes 0-60 mph times to 7.5 seconds, with a turbocharger that boosts output to 181 horsepower--or in the new John Cooper Works edition, to 211 horsepower (or 221 hp with the overboost function). With either transmission, the manual shifter's the choice here, with light and direct shifts that feel a little more intimately connected to the inner workings.

While the Countryman isn't intended as a real off-roader, and in front-drive trim, isn't particularly suited for more than mild unpaved roads and trails, all-wheel drive is offered on the Cooper and Cooper S, and is standard on the John Cooper Works edition. The ALL4 model at least offers improved all-weather capability; its electronically activated differential 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.

Like all MINIs, the Countryman is surprisingly nimble, thanks in part to its relatively light weight. We've sprinted around the sinewy roads of the Smokey Mountains in the Countryman, where it reveals 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; The electric steering feel's quite good, and the MINI's brakes bite quickly and answer pressure with the right counterpressure.

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