The launch concept was themed “Getaway”, with the Countryman being the ultimate getaway vehicle.
Our day started off with a welcome breakfast at the Constitutional Court compound. A Bedouin tent housed breakfast (Muffins on a stick!) and some of the recently face-lifted MINI were on display (including my personal dream car – a black JCW Clubman with red roof and trimmings). Here we got to interact with MINI Connected, which is the new multimedia interface.
MINI Connected – a review
MINI Connected is a new option on all new MINI (including the Countryman). You get a large LCD screen where your speedo sits (the needle is moved to the outside of the speedo face and travels around the rim), and an interface cable for your iPhone or iPod Touch, as well as Bluetooth.
MINI Connected acts as a universal multimedia interface allowing you to interact with all the media contained in your iPhone or iPod Touch, including video and audio. In addition, web connectivity through the iPhone gives you access to RSS news, Twitter and Webradio. Obviously, you will incur data charges using the web applications, though these would be minimal since Twitter and RSS does not use a lot of data. Webradio streams at 32Kbps, which is not very bandwidth intensive either.
To use MINI Connected, you download and launch the MINI Connected application on your iPhone or iPod Touch, and plug in the interface cable. After a few seconds the car recognizes the device and you have access to all your media.
You pair your phone with the car via Bluetooth and your address book is streamed down, allowing you to make calls.
We played around a bit and posted to Twitter, straight from the car:
Webradio also worked very nicely, allowing us to choose a radio station by genre or locality. On Vodacom’s 3G network we had no issue listening to any of the stations – sound was clear and we had no buffering issues. This is obviously network and bandwidth dependant.
The phonebook interface is easy to use and call clarity over Bluetooth was good.
The media interface gives you access to your music, easily navigable by playlist, artist or album. Video playback was superb, although no playback is permitted while the vehicle is in motion, as a safety precaution.
MINI Connected does not include GPS navigation, which is a separate (and costly) option. This is great for people who already have portable GPS units or navigation on their phones, as it keeps the cost of MINI Connected reasonable.
It is certainly everything I had hoped for, since I never wanted a full-blown navigation system, and it makes accessing everything on my phone easy. MINI Connected is a definite option for consideration on your next MINI.
MINI General Manager Karen Valle welcomed attendees to the Getaway, but would not reveal our next destination, as we were lead into the bowels of the compound basement.
We found our way, through a maze of tunnels with interactive images projected onto the floor, to a video room, where all the walls acted as a video screen. An introduction to the Countryman lifestyle was projected on the walls, after which the walls lifted to reveal a basement packed full of MINI Countryman.
We were escorted to our car, a bright white Cooper S ALL4 Countryman and shown the basic controls, and issued with a route map to our next destination, mysteriously named “Zen”. The basement echoed “Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam!” as attendees alighted their vehicles.
MINI Countryman – Driving Impressions
From the outside it still looks like a MINI and maintains broad MINI styling cues, like the overall shape, grill, and instantly recognizable headlights and taillights. A huge MINI badge on the tailgate also acts as a boot release and handle, and reveals a sizable boot. The four doors now sport framed windows, with the rear doors being slightly larger than those up front. On the inside there is a feeling of spaciousness, especially at the back. Two types of rear seat accommodation is available: a bench-type seat able to accommodate 3 adults, each with their own seatbelt; or 2 dedicated sports seats separated by an extended centre rail. Both the Cooper and Cooper S we drove had the bench seat and I found it preferable to the 2-seat configuration. The rear seats may be moved forward to maximize boot space or rearward to maximize rear legroom. The rear seatbacks are also independantly adjustable between 3 positions for comfort, or to accommodate a bulky load in the boot. The bench seats are split 40:20:40, with each seatback able to tumble forward . Rear legroom is ample, even with tall occupants in the front.
The cockpit feels immediately familiar to that of other MINI with all the controls where you’d expect them, bar the addition of 2 new switches for the rear windows.
My biggest fear was that the handling would be compromised, that the go-kart feeling would be amiss. The Countryman sits higher off the ground than other MINI, but thankfully you don’t feel like you are sitting on the car, rather than in the car, once inside. Steering feel is razor sharp and responsive. The chassis is very compliant and the ride is noticeably smoother than other MINI, although the relatively short wheelbase does transmit uneven surfaces to the cabin. Definitely feels like a MINI. If we had to fault the handling, we’d have to say that at high speed the steering does become a tad too sensitive and jumpy, especially on the Cooper S when laying on the power a little too enthusiastically. Reduction in throttle stabilizes things quickly.
Performance in the Cooper S is sprightly, though turbo lag seems a lot more evident (compared to a Cooper S hatch), until you cross the 2000rpm barrier, when you are met with tons of torque. It would be unfair to expect the same levels of performance from the bigger, heavier Countryman compared to the Hatch equivalent, and indeed the difference is noticeable. That said, the Cooper S Countryman has more than enough power on tap for those who like to drive in a spirited fashion. The ALL4 variant features a smart differential able to send power to the rear wheels in ratios between 50 and 100%, depending on conditions. This obviously adds an overhead in terms of weight and performance, noticeable when comparing front-wheel drive and ALL4 variants of the Cooper S Countryman. ALL4 is only available as an option on Cooper S models.
Much to my surprise, the Cooper Countryman turned out to be my favourite! The 90Kw engine performs well, and suits the character of the car, in my opinion. The rorty exhaust note above 4000rpm is pure aural pleasure. Frugal fuel consumption of the naturally aspirated 1.6l engine will appeal to many drivers, especially those that do a lot of in-town driving.
Our drive took us through the winding roads of the Cradle of Humankind to a private country residence dubbed “Zen”. Nestled in between landscaped lawns, ponds, sculpture and country landscape, the ultra-modern home promised to be the ultimate in a luxury getaway.
On arrival we were offered massage, sushi and fruit juice. We were then issued with blankets and picnic baskets and made our way to the lake for a brief sojourn. We got better acquainted with our compatriots, NJ and Sam from Port Elizabeth, over lunch. It seems MINIpeople are the same wherever you go – passionate about their cars! All too soon it was time to hit the road again.
Our route map led us back into the city, though this time we were travelling in a Cooper variant. We were surprised at the performance of the Cooper Countryman – it delivered very similar power to an ordinary Cooper Hatch. It was a completely different driving experience compared to the Cooper S Countryman we had previously driven – much more relaxed, less frantic. Even though it had significantly less power than the Cooper S, performance was still sprightly, and we easily overtook slower traffic. At highway speeds noise levels were low, leading to a relaxed atmosphere in the cabin.
We arrived at Randlords in Braamfontein, after taking the elevator to the 22nd floor penthouse. Another superb space! Their website proclaims: “Beautifully poised, at the highest point of Braamfontein, Randlords is an exclusive rooftop bar and lounge. Floating above the cityscape, the 360 degree views are sublime.” The ultimate chill-out space in the heart of Jozi served us cocktails and snacks while we soaked up the view, and the beats courtesy DJ Euphonik. Goldfish would play a set later that evening.
The MINI Countryman is so big, yet so MINI. It is poised to satisfy a need in the market – young urbanites that identify with the unique MINI brand values and lifestyle, looking for something just a little bigger…