Seated behind the wheel of a 2017 Mini Countryman, I reach down the side of the seat feeling for the adjustment buttons and find nothing. No luck along the base of the cushion or the door either. Eventually I find a manual-adjustment bar below my knees and slide the seat fore and aft, then dial in seat height and recline angle with levers near the seat hinge. A chunky knob on the other side of the seatback adjusts lumbar support.
It seems a bit odd not to have power seat adjustments on a car with a $36,000 price tag. But once I’m out on the road, the lack of power seating becomes a mild annoyance. Instead, I’m far more impressed with this Mini’s updated chassis, larger dimensions and improved connectivity. Driving on wet roads around Portland, Oregon, and the snowy grades of nearby Mount Hood, the Countryman proves itself a versatile and sure-footed companion that anyone looking for a compact SUV will want to consider.
The last-generation Countryman was something of a surprise hit. Combining the Cooper hatchback’s charm and style with more size, four-door utility and available all-wheel drive, the Countryman became the second best-selling model in the brand’s lineup. After recent redesigns of the Mini coupe and Clubman models, it was time for the Countryman to move to the newer, BMW-developed platform made for compact front-wheel- and all-wheel-drive cars.
The new platform makes the Countryman 8 inches longer and 1.3 inches wider than the outgoing generation, with the biggest gains felt in the rear seat and cargo area. Rear-seat passengers get a bit more room to spread out, slightly more headroom and nearly 4 inches of additional legroom; the latter is a welcome relief from the cramped quarters of earlier models.
While space behind the second-row upright seatbacks — grocery space, in other words — remains about the same, overall cargo capacity with the rear seats folded grows to 47.6 feet. That’s a half-cube shy of the Audi Q3 but significantly more than the Mercedes-Benz GLA250.
The Countryman is available with a familiar engine duo. There’s the base 1.5-liter, turbocharged three-cylinder base engine with 134 horsepower or a larger 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with 189 hp. Both manual and automatic transmissions are offered along with a choice of either front- or all-wheel drive. The new Countryman’s fuel economy ranges from 24 mpg combined for the all-wheel-drive S model with the six-speed manual, up to 28 mpg combined for three-cylinder models.
Conditions didn’t allow me to push the limits of the Countryman’s all-wheel-drive system on dry pavement and experience the even more pronounced go-kart handling feel so integral to the Mini’s driving character. But driving the roads skirting Mount Hood in a falling snow offered a good demonstration of the Countryman’s sure-footedness. In slushier sections of road, a slight tug from the rear signaled that the all-wheel-drive system sent power to a slipping wheel. The Countryman still isn’t set up for dirt trails due to a mere 6.5 inches of ground clearance, but its all-weather credentials are solid.
Rear-seat passengers are the biggest winners in the larger 2017 Mini Countryman, but drivers also reap the benefits of the Mini’s traditionally quirky interior design and premium materials. BMW parentage pays off here — upholstery, comfort and panel details all feel a distinct notch above more econo-minded compact SUVs.
The rear seats slide and recline as well, and handy 40/20/40-split folding makes for more versatile cargo arrangements. An optional power liftgate will prove useful when carrying two arms’ worth of groceries, and a panoramic sunroof comes standard.
The new Countryman also includes a modern array of connected technology, including Mini’s Connected Services, which aims to make the transitions of smartphone-connected life more seamless in and out of the car (suggesting optimal departure times to previously saved routes and destinations, for example).
As before, the large central, circular display serves as the Countryman’s infotainment hub. The operating system under the optional 8.8-inch touchscreen navigation system has been updated, Mini says, and its responses to touch inputs such as pinch-zooming and dragging were quick and its graphics and icons sharp. The massive display looks slightly more barren when paired with the stock 6.5-inch screen, which leaves a bit too much dead space and makes you wonder if the designers couldn’t have found something to fill the void (an LCD strip of scrolling emojis perhaps?).
Out on the road, even with 18-inch wheels, the 2017 Mini Countryman does an impressive job of soaking up potholes and road rash. You still feel it, but none of it upsets the Mini or causes the suspension to wobble or lean out of sorts. After all, this is still a Mini so it doesn’t ever have a cottony, disconnected feel.
An optional adaptive suspension offers a choice of Normal, Comfort and Sport settings, depending on the level of firmness desired. The Countryman, like most Minis, defaults to firm, but by rough measure it’s still more compliant than the Audi or Benz. A tight turning radius also makes for jauntier urban crossings.
Although the 1.5-liter three-cylinder is a tempting way to keep costs down, the smaller engine works a lot harder in the heavier Countryman than it does in the regular Cooper, where it’s actually a fun and legitimate little powerplant. It’s worth springing the extra for the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder if you want maximum enjoyment and stress-free highway merging.
Then again, the bigger engine pushes the price up to a point where you’ll be expecting more than just plenty of power under the hood. You might also want power seats. They, too, will cost more, but if you like the Countryman for its practical size, sharp handling and solid feel, you can do without the fancy seats.