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2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4: The practical family cult car

The biggest MINI yet has a lot to offer at a reasonable price
by: NW Automotive Press Association The 2011 Countryman is the first off-road capable MINI — and the first MINI to carry four adults in comfort, too.

Although the 2011 MINI Countryman is larger and more aggressive looking than the original MINI three-door hatchback, it's still cute. Everyone says so.

'That's a cute car,' is the common reaction of friends, co-workers and even complete strangers when they first see it.

They say the same thing about the interior, too, even though our test vehicle had sculpted sport seats and a racy red and black motif.

Such is the success of retro styling of BMW's reinvention of the original Mini, the small car made by the British Motor Corporation from 1959 until 2000. When the German manufacturer began developing its own version in 1995, it decided to keep even emphasize some of its trademark characteristics, including the small front-wheel-drive engine, bulging fenders, bulbous headlights and the large speedometer in the middle of the dash.

The new MINI (yes, all caps) that debuted in 2001 was an immediate hit with automotive writers and car enthusiasts. It soon attracted a large cult following, in part because it was fun to drive and got good mileage. But the cute factor was also a big selling point. In an era of increasing generic-looking cars, the new MINI stood out.

BMW soon increased the offerings by adding a convertible version, followed in 2007 by the Clubman, a three-door station wagon modeled after the original Mini Clubman (also sold as the Van, Traveler and Countryman). Now in its second generation, all MINI models are available in higher performance versions that include a more powerful turbocharged engine.

The new Countryman is a radical departure for MINI, however. Although styled along the lines of a four-door Crossman, it is larger than either of the earlier models, even though it is still a compact. It is also offered with all-wheel-drive, something never available in the British or earlier BMW versions.

Our test vehicle was a top-of-the line version equipped with the turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive system, leather seats and a Sport Package that included 18-inch Anthracite wheels. The white exterior was accented with black hood stripes. The low front air dam was also trimmed in black, emphasizing its width.

Although the Countryman is still a small vehicle, the interior is surprisingly roomy. There is plenty of headroom, even for back seat passengers - something that cannot not be said in the previous models that only feature token rear seats. Storage is limited but adequate behind the rear seats, improving to impressive when they are folded down.

On the road, our test Countryman was a blast to drive. The 177-horsepower produced by the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine encouraged spirited driving, both in town and on twisty roads. The all-wheel-drive system reduced torque steer to a minimum while providing great tractions, even on rainy days. The German-made Getrag six-speed manual transmission shifted well, even though the throws to fifth and sixth gear were long. And the available Sport setting increased throttle response and steering response, without also making the suspension too stiff for rough roads - a welcome relief from most similar features on other cars.

With surprisingly high ground clearance, the Countryman is capable of at least light off-road driving, making it the most practical Mini or MINI ever. During the 2011 Mudfest off-road test conducted by the Northwest Automotive Press Association, a Countryman was able to wade through muddy terrain in Northern Washington without any problems.

Like all cult cars, the MINI lineup has features that drivers either love or hate. One is the dash, which features an array of mismatched controls apparently intended to evoke the original British design. In our test car, the starter was an insertable fob and push-button arrangement, the temperature and fan speeds were controlled by vertical dials, the air flow settings were set by a twist knob, and the windows and overhead lights were run off toggle switches. Although distinctive, they took some getting used to and were hard to find at night.

Although the large speedometer in the center of the dash is a MINI trademark, it is also unnecessary and practically useless. There is a digital speedometer in the tachometer that drivers can read directly through the steering wheel without having to take their eyes off the road for as long.

Instead of a conventional center console, a rail runs through the center of the front and rear bucket seats, serving as a resting place for an eyeglass case and two cup holders. Cute? Yes. An improvement over a conventional console? Not necessarily.

But there are all features that make a MINI a MINI. Fans love them, even if they baffle the occasional driver.

Who can complain, really? With a starting price of only around $25,000, the new Countryman is the first MINI a small family can seriously consider. And with the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive version rated a 31 miles per gallon on the highway, it is a reasonable option in these days of increasing gasoline prices.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4.

• Manufacturer: BMW.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front- and all-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: five-door hatchback.

• Engines: 1.6-liter inline 4 (118 hp); Turbocharged 1.6-liter inline 4 (177 hp - as tested).

• Transmissions: 6-speed manual (as tested); 6-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 32/39; 25/31 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $25,000 ($31,150 as tested).