The new MINI, or the BMW MINI, is one of the great motoring successes in recent times. We’re not sure, but it’s possible than even the bigwigs in Munich never envisioned such great reception for the reborn icon. Whether as a style accessory that transcends class in Europe or a toy for the rich in Malaysia, the MINI is still every bit as desirable as it was when it debut nearly a decade ago (has it really been that long?)

Fun to look at and fun to drive it may be, but the hip and happening early adopters from a few years ago might have moved on in life, and may require more space. To keep them in the brand they love, and to attract those who love the idea of a MINI but whose lifestyle/family does not permit, a bigger MINI was needed.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

So came the Clubman in 2008, which was basically an elongated MINI hatchback with quirky barn style rear doors and a little Clubdoor on the driver’s side for RHD cars. Identical to the hatch from the B pillars forward, the Clubman was longer than the original car by 240 mm including an 80 mm longer wheelbase. It improved on the style over space packaging of the MINI hatch, but not by much. And for the extra room, one would have to trade the MINI’s perky shape for an odd design. Didn’t really catch on, and we’re not surprised.

It’s still early days, but we’re predicting that the new MINI Countryman won’t suffer the same fate. This is a car that’s truly practical and spacious (qualities that MINI drivers might find alien) yet fun to drive, like a MINI should be. It’s a likable car, as we found out driving it in northern Germany.

Let’s start with the looks. It may be the first MINI measuring over four metres and the first modern MINI with four doors, but there’s no doubt which family the Countryman belongs to, thanks to the cartoonish face and those familiar proportions. Like the hatch, this is something you’ll either get or don’t, though. I wasn’t crazy about the hatch’s looks when it came out, and it still hasn’t grown on me all these while; perhaps I’m not the trendy buyer they’re targeting either. But the Countryman did grow on me after awhile…

The headlamps aren’t exactly round here, but they’re large, and the main projector is very prominent. There’s an extra slat of grille to mark out the Cooper S variant, but the “bridge” between the A pillars and front wheelarches are standard across the range. The roof looks stuck on, which is a MINI trademark, but the glasshouse is unique. It’s as though there are two segments – front and rear – merging at the C pillars. Looks a little incongruous at first sight, but I hardly noticed it after awhile. Our Cooper S test car wore 17-inch rims.

At the rear, the elements have been reshuffled and enlarged. The license plate moves down to the bumper, which has two cutouts for the pipes, and the winged MINI logo is really large. The overall look is truly unique, and you’ll notice the Countryman not just for its bigger size – it’s more than just a larger scale MINI hatch.

Size wise, the Countryman is 411 mm longer than the 3.7 metre long MINI, 106 mm wider and 154 mm taller. While those are big jumps, the C’man’s footprint is actually smaller than a five-door VW Golf’s (about the same width but 89 mm shorter), so we’re not looking at a bulky SUV here. If the exterior dimensions mimic a C-segment hatch, the 350-litre boot space is on par with the Golf, which is far bigger than the Clubman’s 260 L and the hatchback’s tiny 160 L.

Step inside and you’ll notice the unchanged template for the dash. While the design is toy like – huge centre speedo, tiny rev counter in front of the wheel, large round air vents (they seem even bigger here), toggle switches – the quality isn’t. Plastics are of a high grade and switches and buttons feel good in use. As usual, ergonomics aren’t perfect when style is the priority, but it’s just a matter of getting used to the layout.

You’d have noticed the large colour screen within the speedo. That’s MINI Connected, which is similar to BMW ConnectedDrive (click here to read all about it). If one has an iPhone (which we presume is the phone of choice for trendy MINI customers), he/she just needs to download a free app, then connect the Apple to the car.

Controlled by a joystick and two buttons (home/option, located between the front seats), one can call up RSS news feeds, Twitter updates and a variety of web radio channels, among other things. There’s a special dock for the iPhone in centre box. We’re expecting MINI Connected to feature in Malaysian bound Countrymen, as it was recently made available in Malaysia with the facelifted MINI hatch.

The most unique feature in the Countryman cabin is the Centre Rail. Imagine a “railway track” that runs the length of the interior, where you can clip on accessories on it and slide them around. In our test car, there were cupholders and a sunglass box, and there are plans for more cutesy stuff.

But unfortunately, this is only applicable to the four-seater version; the five-seater BMW Malaysia will import has a rail that ends with the front seats. As with the individual seats seen here, the three-seat rear bench can slide in a 60:40 split.

Comfort wise, there’s good space for all four individuals on board, and there’s plenty of shoulder room at the back, which I got comfortable in. Quite sure that it won’t feel the same with three abreast in our Malaysian spec car, but the higher seating position, taller roof and extra glass area over conventional hatchbacks makes for breezy journeys. Needless to say, it’s a much better car for passengers over the MINI hatch – the difference is night and day.

Added practicality aside, the big question is does the Countryman drive like a MINI. In a nutshell, take away the inevitable consequences of the added size (not so easy to nip in that gap in traffic), height (body roll) and weight (still fast but not so explosive) and yes, it does drive very well, the experience is still fun, still MINI like.

Each paired with a panda coloured Countryman, we were let loose in Northern Germany starting from the port city of Hamburg. Since the diesels will have little chance of reaching here, yours truly opted for the Cooper S Countryman ALL4, the highest spec petrol powered variant. ‘ALL4′ signifies four-wheel drive, which is a first for the brand. It’s a full time permanent system that splits torque equally between axles, with the ability to chuck 100% to either side when required. This is done via an electromagnetically controlled central clutch.

The Cooper S, with its 184 hp and 240 Nm of torque available between 1,600 and 5,500 rpm (260 Nm on overboost), is the best performing Countryman. Those figures are made from a twin scroll turbocharged 1.6-litre direct injection Prince engine, now with BMW’s Valvetronic variable valve management. This is the first MINI to join all three forces – turbo, DI, Valvetronic – in one engine. Our test car was a six-speed manual.

The Cooper S Countryman with ALL4 accelerates to 100 km/h in 7.9 seconds and has a top speed of 210 km/h (8.3 sec, 205 km/h for the six-speed automatic that will come to Malaysia). Average fuel consumption stands at 6.7 litres per 100 km, which is a litre less than the automatic at 7.7 l/100 km.

We are fans of the Prince family of engines, be it in Peugeots or MINIs. Pulls with gusto, smooth revving, nice linear delivery, it has all the vital ingredients of a good engine. The script is unchanged in the Cooper S Countryman, which is properly quick. While 7.9 seconds to 100 km/h doesn’t sound too impressive, one is rarely left wanting for more pace thanks to strong in gear acceleration and flexibility. In a word, drivability.

The six-speed self shifter is also a joy to use. Engaging gears require just a light and short throw into the well defined gates. Not the best we’ve ever tried, but it’s slick, positive and not easy to snag. No complaints about the clutch as well.

But if you jump in the fastest Countryman expecting MINI Cooper S hatchback pace, you won’t find it. Our manual Countryman ALL4 is 250 kg heavier than the 1,130 kg Cooper S hatch and it shows. It’s no longer manic, but still quick. Not only in pace, but the ‘less manic’ trend is also evident in other aspects of the drive.

If the Countryman was a mainstream C-segment Euro hatch, it’s straight out from Graz to the top section of the class, driving wise. We’re sorry if you’re lining up to hear bad news, but we can’t find any in the drive.

The controls are all brilliantly intuitive, so much so that we’re trying hard to refrain from using motoring cliches such as ‘extension of your limbs’. The zero slack steering is very quick and the resulting turn in response sharp, and yet it retains enough composure and stability at high speeds to not feel nervous. There’s a constant supply of feedback, too, and torque steer isn’t that big a distraction, just little tugs at full throttle. The brake pedal feels natural, is easy to modulate and the stopping power is strong.

This C’man acquitted itself very well on our German country road route. Despite the raised height, body roll is not at all an issue, noticeable only when you consciously look out for it. Overall grip and traction out of corners is strong (no, we didn’t mention ‘drives like on rails’). The primary ride comfort is eye opening for a MINI, although the smooth surfaces we encountered didn’t really give an idea of how the big MINI would fare on Malaysian roads.

We did sample the AWD capabilities of the Countryman, too. It’s not for serious mud plugging and off roading due to the limited ground clearance (only 149 mm, a BMW X1 has 194 mm) and road tyres, but it’s very fun and playful on gravel. If you do buy one, let the Countryman provide you some laughs with its tail wagging antics. We say ‘buy’ because it’s unlikely that the BMW showroom will let you wander off tarmac in their test unit!

Put the Countryman on the MINI scale and ‘less manic’ is again the phrase that I think best describes it. The difference is for the better, at least for me. Side by side with a Cooper S hatch, the big one is less flat in the corners and not so explosive in acceleration, but it possesses a much less ‘active’ ride comfort, true long distance capability and crucially, retains the fun to drive qualities of the brand. Go karting is fun, but I don’t want to do it everyday.

An enlarged MINI is an an oxymoron all right, but there nothing wrong about the Countryman’s blend of qualities. Who says more matured means more boring?

The MINI Countryman will be launched in Malaysia this week. Two variants will be available – Cooper and Cooper S – and we’re estimating that the non turbo Cooper will be priced around RM230k, with the Cooper S priced around RM270k. Stay tuned for the confirmed prices and specs!