Zero gravity. Once, it was something that you can only experience in space, where gravity generously loosens its grip on you. If you want to experience weightlessness, there are special planes that have been outfitted to prepare space-bound Earthlings on what to expect. These planes will climb to very high altitudes before nose diving back down to earth, which gives its passengers a taste of what it is like to be in zero-g.
I experienced a similar kind of weightlessness as my bottom hovered few inches from my seat. The only thing that was keeping me from migrating out of position is the seatbelt. But I wasn’t in a specially-prepared plane that had just dropped from high altitude. I was inside a tiny car; the MINI Cooper S Hatch to be precise that had just launched itself off the sharp drop of a rather tall bridge. And if I didn’t allow myself a quick glance at the signboard earlier, I would not have known that I was in Piambang. Where? My thoughts exactly.
To give you a mental picture of the bridge, imagine yourself throwing the ball further than far. You would lob the ball high in a long arch instead of shooting it straight because that’s how you get more distance. In a sense, the bridge has that same curve that allows it to connect both banks of a very wide river. The thing is, close to the end of the bridge, the road drops sharply before connecting back onto sea-level. And this was where the Hatch briefly shot itself up from the tarmac.
The small car landed with a solid thump, the suspension may have bottomed out, especially when you consider that there were two rather large journalists complete with overnight luggage inside. I coughed out lungs and laughter for good measure. The drop, however, didn’t bother the Hatch one bit as the car quickly scampered away when all four rubbers reunited with the road.
My situation wasn’t unique. The convoy of MINIs were warned of the drop earlier but it definitely fell onto deaf ears. I blamed – and still blame – the beautiful scenery that occupies the journey. One by one, every MINI in the convoy – Hatch, Coupe, Countryman and the new Paceman – gained similar air time before gravity did what gravity does best.
These less-travelled roads featured some of the bumpiest tarmac, the sickest of curves and a snakiest of corners that cut through villages that I never knew existed – perfect for the cars that we were driving. Even the weather was perfect with the sun up and not a cloud in the sky; albeit too bright for my liking.
However, if there was something new to learn about the MINIs, it wasn’t evident during the drive considering the short time I managed to spend behind the wheel of each model. As such, all models equally gave a similar driving feel. The differences are slight at best and most of it came down to the type of body that each car had.
The Hatch was the most middle-of-the-road of the lot. It was infinitely agile and small feeds of the steering were usually enough to make the car switch direction. And it was easy to ride in as well since the chassis was well-balanced and nicely set up to soak up whatever it was that the road dished out, without giving up the firm suspension. In spite of the models that came after it, the Hatch remains the one to have.
However, the Hatch wasn’t as gutsy as the Coupe. Everything in the Coupe seemed dialled up to 11, especially the rock-hard suspension that brilliantly tracked the road without unsettling the dynamics. You also could not fault the dexterity this car brings. The steering felt a tad tighter, which in turn gives more feedback. Good. It’s also lower to the ground than the Hatch, and that made the Coupe more exciting… to certain people. Not me.
You should only really want the Countryman if you had to give up one of the two-door versions for space, but still want a MINI. The Countryman still retained the feel of the Hatch. But temper your expectations just a little bit because the Countryman’s body rolls did creep up every now and then. While the softer springs and dampers made for a plushy ride, it also unlocked its hidden off-road potential. This MINI was the most versatile of the pack and if you just really want to stand out from the crowd; be the bold one in the sea of boxy SUVs and drab sedans, then here’s your car.
The Paceman was an eye-catch indeed, perhaps it had more to do with the fact that it was new and there were not many on the road as yet. It was very much like its four-door cousin, the Countryman, and to a certain extent, drives the same as well. Of the lot, it was in the Paceman that I spent the most time with on the highway. Thus, I can confidently say that this car has its high speed stability well sorted.
And so, we continued our journey ducking in and out of villages that I have never even heard of before. Coursing through the unfamiliar brought even more surprises and gave the MINIs the right amount of opportunities to display their talents. So, if you have one, you owe it to yourself and your MINI to take a drive into rural Malaysia.
MINI is now locally assembled
Lo and behold, the Countryman is now assembled in Kulim, Kedah. This gives the Countryman the distinction of being the first MINI to be bolted together in this fair-weather nation of ours. On a broader scope, this is also the first MINI to be assembled in the South East Asia region… fancy that.
Most of the major parts still comes from Oxford, which are then transported to Austria where it will be checked, packed and shipped to Kulim. The various body frames and panels are also painted before shipping them here, so there’s no paint work for the local plant to do. As this is a CKD car, you can expect 40 per cent local parts (measured by value) to coexist with those from Oxford.
The Countryman is put together in two assembly lines, with one of the lines able to squeeze out 22 units per day. When push comes to shove, both lines have the ability to produce up to 40 cars in a day.
And yes, you can put any concern about quality issues to rest as the Kulim plant is known to meet the high standards set by BMW. In fact, they already have plenty of experience in putting together BMWs for the Malaysian market. However, it is still assuring to know that the Countryman will have to pass multiple QC points, run a gauntlet of different terrain and sit through a number water-leak tests before it leaves the factory.
So you will be getting the same Countryman albeit with a different price. The Cooper Countryman now costs RM218,888 and the Cooper S Countryman ALL4 is yours for RM258,888 – a price reduction of RM30,000 and RM27,000 respectively.
One last piece of trivia – to differentiate between the fully imported Countryman with those assembled here, you need to look at the tail. The locally-assembled ones now wears its nameplate across the rear, much like how the Paceman wears it. So now you know.