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This story originally ran in Issue #3 of Driven+ Magazine. Download Driven+ Magazine from the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store.

By now, we should be familiar with the MINI and how it behaves on the road, even though it now comes in seven different flavours. However, it needs to be said that each flavour is kinda like a different variation of chocolate. Taste one and you’ll have an inkling how the others would taste like. Differences, then, come in the extra bits that get thrown into the recipe. Or removed from the mixture, depending on whether you want it chunky or smooth.

So we have MINIs that are slightly longer, or sit inches closer to the floor, or have a more forgiving suspension setup, or a little taller. And then, we have one that’s bigger than the rest. Please stop all oxymoronic jokes now, it has been done one time too many.

This MINI may not be as familiar a sight as the Hatch that everyone seems to have a heart for, but more than a handful have started popping up on the road ever now and then. Seen here, the Countryman seems to be the hunchback of the family. Handy to have around but ultimately needs a special person to give it love. Still, this car, which MINI classifies as a mini SUV, has its charms.

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You see, the Countryman has four proper doors and a nice-sized boot to… uh, boot. It has four seats that can accommodate four adults in comfort (newer versions does away with the centre rail to have a bench that takes five). The interior is splashed with generous amounts of minimalism and peppered with a bit of nostalgia. Retro-modern anyone? It cannot be avoided of course, considering the heritage-baggage this car has to carry.

All in all, the Countryman is the family car for those who reluctantly had to grow up but still hold on firmly to the belief that age is but a number. What grey hair? Except that you might sprout a few when you realise that the Countryman doesn’t give that adrenaline rush when you step on the go pedal. Everything in here just feels, well, normal.

Since this is a Cooper S Countryman, it has the most exciting engine short of a JCW. It’s the new model without ALL4, so this one is front-wheel driven. The force-fed Cooper S cracks 184 hp at 5,500 rpm and 240 Nm between 1,600 to 5,000 rpm. It amasses more torque in overboost; 260 Nm usable between 1,730 to 4,500 rpm, so there’s plenty of range for the Countryman to speed things up a little. The 1.6 litre engine buddies up with a six-speed automatic to make it reach 100 km/h in 7.9 seconds. Which is decent no matter how you look at it.

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Handling is typical MINI too, in spite of its larger dimensions when compared to the Hatch. You still get that on-rails handling that the brand is synonymous with. The typical curves and turns that city roads have are dispatched with poise and confidence and without breaking the proverbial sweat; nothing to trouble the Countryman, then.

But you could almost feel the Countryman screaming for the less travelled arterial roads that connect one backwater village to the next. And so, I steadily peel away from the familiar and onto the inevitable modern highways with the Countryman’s nose pointed North; my destination leads far away from the pulse of the Kuala Lumpur.

Steadily, scenes of cleared land fades to the old forest of the Peninsula; developed townships disappear from view only to be replaced by houses that are still made with traditional technology – wood and nails.

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Here, on roads that snake through these quaint villages, you’ll begin to feel the Countryman’s true footing. It grips, but not too much. The Countryman will squeal for purchase of you boil down the corners. Add more go and you might even break the rear for a silly slide. Nothing too overwhelming, the weight and electronics will cut in to make sure your investment is safe.

In no part of the journey does the steering go lean or limp. It breaks from direction quickly too, no wild forceful steering turns to get the Countryman pointed to where you want it to. With that said, this is still the largest MINI of the lot and it does show sprinkles of body roll and understeer more than the smaller ones.

I must come clean here, I don’t intend to keep driving the Countryman on the black stuff. I think that the Hatch and Coupe could do the job better than the Countryman on a good day. That said, the big MINI has another talent.

The Countryman turns into a corner and tyres start to roll on red earth. Ahead, the red road cordons the flooded green fields that host maturing stalks of rice into squares. I would imagine that the entire area would look like patchwork from the just-cleared blue sky. It was raining heavily earlier in the morning, which put some of the muddy road under water.

It isn’t too deep, I just splash into one. The speed which the Countryman carries breaks the water without losing momentum. I’m still driving fast, on roads that are slightly wider than the Countryman’s 1,798 mm width. Put the wrong foot forward and I risk dipping the nose of the car into someone’s crop. Not a good situation for all parties.

Yet, the steering on the MINI is giving me constant updates on what the wheel and car is doing. The stream of data that’s pouring from the wheel and onto my palms let me know the minute adjustments I have to make to keep moving forward. It also lets me know how much threshold I have before one of the two front wheels take a dip.

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Even so, the red earth and gravel constantly moves and unsettles the grip in the rear. Having an ALL4 model would add grip and speed to all four extremities but remember that I’m driving the front-wheel drive version. Minute adjustments of the steering sometimes isn’t enough, although I’m never going fast enough to have the rear threatening to sniff its nose. I know my limits.

The trick, I quickly learned, is to also feel with the pedals. Brakes need to be used only when absolutely necessary because the pads clamp the discs like an angry crab on your finger. Other than making the car move forward, the accelerator is there to yank the chains of the Countryman out of a dip. Might even catch some air in the process, and then some water and a bit of mud when I land. No surprise that after the drive, I found mud on the roof.

I have never had so much fun getting a car wet and dirty before the Countryman. If this were to be any other MINI, I’d stay on the well-tarred path to make full use of its nimbleness. But the Countryman is happier on the off-road, which makes it a respectfully good alternative if you want to have a tumble in the rough. It’s truly impressive.

I started out this thinking that the Countryman had no place in the MINI lineup; redundant would be a better word. After this stint, I stand corrected. The test drive proved that the Countryman has a range of applications that outstrips the other MINIs, including the ability to fit two more people easily through its two extra doors. Pair a loftier ride height with a suspension with plenty of travel, and you have a small SUV that feels right even in places that have no roads.