Escape from the Country

Aesthetic excesses, vaporised roadkill, a torched perineum ... but Miniís junior SUV emerges victorious

ANDY ENRIGHT

THUS far, Iíve largely avoided driving into Australian wildlife. Yes, Iíve clouted a few birds, and have had a couple of close squeaks with myopic marsupials, but I have yet to flatten something that could inflict the sort of panel damage that would require one of those Ďunpleasantnessí phone calls to a press office.

I nearly broke my duck on a recent drive to Wangaratta in the Countryman. Iíd committed to take part in a 50km cycling event called the Ned Kelly Chase but had neglected to do any training beforehand.

Crippling undercarriage destruction set in at about the 40km mark and a protracted waddle back to the Countryman only exacerbated my discomfort. Fortunately the Miniís seats almost seem designed for a 110kg man with an acutely contused coight, but half way through the 15km drive back to the guest house, a swamp wallaby hopped out in front of the car. I slammed on the picks as hard as theyíd go and gave the little fella a 5km/h boop, which he looked a bit disgruntled about.

As my heart rate returned to normal, he happily hopped off, straight into the path of an oncoming Kenworth, which unfortunately atomised him.

Hosing a fine mist of gore off the side of the Mini that evening while sitting on a bag of frozen peas, I mentally totted up the good points of the Countryman that Iíd soon be handing back. Good brakes were a given. It also handled well for what is ostensibly a diesel SUV. Itís genuinely good fun to punt around a hilly B-road, the eight-speed ZF transmission sharp enough in Sport mode to rarely have you flicking a paddle. That itís also creditably

FAREWELL

Turn for the worse

Given that the Miniís infotainment system is spun off BMWís iDrive, youíd expect a whole lot of similarities. While much of the functionality beneath the MINI software skin is the same, thereís a maddening point of difference. Whereas in most BMWs you turn the iDrive dial clockwise to scroll down a menu Ė which feels entirely logical Ė the Countryman insists you go anti-clockwise. You get used to it after a while, but it feels intrinsically wrong at first.

economical (I averaged 6.2L/100km, even with a fair amount of enthusiastic pedalling) ought to seal the deal for many.

Itís practical too. The two dismantled mountain bikes that represent a bit of a Tetris puzzle in my Golf VII are swallowed up by the Countrymanís cargo bay with plenty of room to spare. Returning to the Countryman after a few days in a Volvo XC60 also reminded me just how much heft there is to this carís steering. If you bemoan the over-assistance of modern electric steering systems, youíll adore the way you can strongarm the Mini through a corner. Itís not a car thatís long on handling subtlety, but it loves being treated to a bit of clog.

As always with the Countryman, so much comes back to its price. While itís positioned as a boutique choice, youíll need to be the judge regarding how much you buy into that particular marketing decision. Given that we canít compare it directly to similarly priced mainstream SUVs, such as the Mazda CX-9, you have to look at what else your $52K buys. And it buys a lot in the Ďsomething cool and fun that the kids can get in the back ofí sector. A Volkswagen Golf R, a Peugeot 3008, a Subaru WRX or, if youíre a handy negotiator, you might well land an Alfa Giulia for a lot less than its $59K list.

Would I recommend a Countryman Cooper SD All4 to a friend? Yes, as long as they had deepish pockets and a fairly liberal aesthetic palate. Iíll miss its weird blend of kitschy overstyling and honest-to-goodness backroads substance. It never failed to raise a smile. Unless youíd just lowered the driverís window to check on a dazed swamp wallaby.

VICIOUS CYCLE

Left: Mini swallowed two partly disassembled bikes, but Enright was ready to set fire to one after 50km of bum torture

MINI COUNTRYMAN COOPER SD ALL4 PER COOP

Date acquired: July 2017 Price as tested: $56,900 This month: 2209km @ 5.8L/100km Overall: 7598km @ 6.2L/100km ac m Overall 34 3 3 34 3 44 3 0 1 2 6 4 8 WEEK 20 URBAN COUNTRY SPORTS FAMILY MOTORWAY

GripíníGo

The All4 drive system remains in front-wheel drive most of the time, only sending torque rearwards when deemed necessary.

Rather than waiting for the fronts to light up, the ECU assesses steering angle, throttle position, road speed and engine torque, in effect predicting when front end grip will be relinquished and pre-empting that accordingly. It marks an obvious departure from the old rear-drive-biased xDrive architecture but frequent dirt-road driving never once found it out.