The MINI Countryman is one of those vehicles that invite polarising opinions from the general public. Some condemn it as not being a “true MINI,” in that it is too big and not reflective of the philosophy set forth by the company’s most iconic car, born as a result of the Suez Oil Crisis in 1956.

On the other hand, many applaud it as being the MINI to have should you need a more practical alternative to the Three-Door and the Clubman (a higher ride height being one of them), offering more space while retaining that driving experience you can only find in a MINI.

Well, the British carmaker owned by the BMW Group posted a sales figure exceeding 360,000 units last year, and the Countryman contributed by being the second best-selling model. Suffice to say, the latter opinion is very much the preferred one.

Not bad for a crossover that has been in production since 2010, so much so that MINI decided to introduce the second-generation Countryman in October 2016. The obvious question here is, how much an improvement is the new model compared to the outgoing one? We got behind the wheel of one in the birthplace of the MINI brand to find out.

We start with the obvious thing that catches your eye first – its size. Make no mistake; this is the largest MINI vehicle the company makes to date. The official numbers are a 4,299 mm in length, 1,822 mm in width, 1,557 mm in height and with a 2,670 mm wheelbase, which means it is 200 mm longer, 30 mm wider and with a 75 mm longer wheelbase than the original.

The revised dimensions are contained within a new body that is less bulbous in appearance than before. The most apparent change takes place at the front, where there is a longer hood, new oval-shaped headlights and on this Cooper S ALL4 variant, triple air intakes.

Down the sides, the arrow-shaped wing feature is new, and occupies its own body panel compared to before. Also from this angle, the car’s increased length becomes even more apparent thanks to the rearmost glasshouse. The typical MINI design – blacked-out pillars, floating roof and large black wheel arches – continue to be in play here as well.

As for the rear, the car’s new stance shines through with a wider rear window and boot. The bumper also places less emphasis on the double exhaust tailpipes than before, and the taillights get new graphics as well as chrome surrounds.

Old (left) versus new (right)

The new exterior certainly gives the Countryman a sleeker, more “mature” look than before, and I’d like to believe MINI is a follower of Bacon when he said, “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” Then again, this design will garner different opinions depending on who’s looking at it. Personally, this writer wasn’t really a big fan of the original design, but this new one is certainly a lot more welcomed.

The same can be said of the interior that still has the familiar MINI look to it, except you’ll be doing less “spot the hidden Mickey” than before. Oblong-shaped air-con vents replace the previous round ones, and the ones in the middle flank a large dinner plate-sized infotainment cluster.

Within it is an optional 8.8-inch touchscreen display, which can be quite a reach unless you have especially long arms. Not to worry though, as the iDrive-esque controls in the centre console are intuitive enough that you’ll hardly want to use the touchscreen at all.

The MINI Professional Navigation System itself features the latest version of MINI Connected, which features aesthetically pleasing graphics that is a joy to look at. The one you see here is part of the Wired package, and comes with all the bells and whistles, including the novelty-soaked MINI Country Timer. The feature registers how far you travel over sloping, uneven, unsurfaced and snow-covered terrain, awarding you different statuses ranging from Street Cruiser to Cliff Champ.

The new setup no longer has an oversized speedometer encased around it (that has been relocated to the driver’s instrument cluster), and instead has a customisable LED ring. It not only serves to provide ambient lighting but can be configured to act as a speedometer or represent the currently engaged driving mode (more on that later).

It even comes into play when you adjust the air-con temperature, which is pretty quirky as you’d expect in a MINI. There’s more new stuff too, like the projected head-up display, which shows useful driving information and directions from the navigation system. Then there’s the rev counter in the cluster that is laughably small and the LED bar fuel gauge, which comes across as tacky.

Other returning quirks are the toggle switches that handle the car’s various other functions including mood lighting, traction control, engine idling start/stop, etc. Sadly, if you’re a fan of the comical-looking handbrake, sorry but that has been replaced with an electronic one instead.

However, it’s not just all form and no function either. The new vehicle size also contributes to a more spacious interior, one that offers a lot more rear legroom compared to before. Better still, there are now rear air-con vents, something Malaysians will most definitely welcome.

The seats continue to fold down in a 40:20:40 split with pull of a few straps, offering up to 1,390 litres of boot space, provided they are also slid forward. When they are in their original position, it’s 450 litres, an increase of 220L. The boot also comes with a useful floor that can be set to two positions if you need a flatter load bay.

The rear storage space also hosts an optional Picnic Bench cushion that easily folds out over the top of the boot loading lip, so you can rest up after a “grueling” off-road session (something MINI says people do in the UK with their Countryman). Oh, and there’s even the option to specify a handsfree tailgate opening function tied into the Comfort Access keyless entry option, which was fitted on this particular car.

What’s it like to drive? As mentioned earlier, this is the Cooper S ALL4 variant that packs a 2.0 litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with 192 hp at 5,000-6,000 rpm and 280 Nm of torque at 1,350-4,600 rpm. It is paired with an Aisin-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifters) and MINI’s ALL4 all-wheel drive system.

If the power output seems familiar, that is because the new Countryman shares much in common with the F48 BMW X1 (120i variant), including the UKL platform. However, unlike the German SUV, the Countryman in this guise is a lot faster in the 0-100 km/h sprint – 7.2 seconds versus 7.7 seconds.

Looking at the other drivetrain options, the less powerful Cooper Countryman uses the same 136 hp/220 Nm 1.5 litre turbo three-cylinder petrol engine in the X1 as well as the Three-Door and Clubman. There’s also the Cooper S E All4 plug-in hybrid that uses another UKL-derived vehicle’s drivetrain – the BMW 225xe Active Tourer, which we didn’t get to try out.

Back to the car at hand, you get three drive modes here – Sport, Mid and Green – all of which will alter the drivetrain’s response, suspension (if Dynamic Damper Control is fitted), steering weight and exhaust note. This is done either through the infotainment system or with the rocker switch at the base of the gear selector.

In the default Mid mode, the Countryman’s drivetrain delivers a decent punch but don’t expect hot hatch levels of performance. For daily cruising around town, the TwinPower Turbo unit does well to haul the 1,560 kg crossover, with the eight-speed ‘box preferring to shift up early, more so in Green mode. Gearshifts are quick and not jerky, even when going down a cog, making it a lot more civil than the outgoing model’s six-speed unit.

Should you decide to be more lead-footed, you’ll get a big shove in the back as you see the speedo climb at quite a rapid rate, reminding you that this crossover hasn’t lost its eagerness despite its big, lumbering exterior. Sport mode further emphasises this character, holding the gear longer for a more instant response on acceleration.

The handling is as you’d expect of a modern MINI, but with a bit more maturity in its approach. New here is the optional Dynamic Damper Control that selects one of two presets for the electronically control dampers depending on driving mode.

In Mid mode, the ride can be a bit of a mixed bag but it is still an improvement from the R60, with big bumps being better absorbed by the suspension albeit with some rocking. Secondary ride on the other hand, is pretty decent although certain surfaces felt busier than they should be, compounded if in Sport mode.

Meanwhile, the steering is a little heavier in feel than before (even if you’re not in Sport mode) and the gearing has been reworked to lose some of the overly quick initial response found in the old Countryman. This translates to a car that tracks better at highway speeds but will still enter into corners with the “MINI go-kart feel” we’re accustomed to.

The all-wheel drive system was certainly helpful amidst the dreary UK weather, sending drive rearwards when it detected understeer to try and invoke some mild oversteer to compensate. That makes for a pretty fun time behind the wheel, while keeping things predictable, which is certainly a pleasant experience.

It’ll even go off-road if you want to, although within reasonable bounds like the British countryside as we tried out. Unfortunately, this writer doubts most Malaysian owners will ever want to take their brand-new Countryman on a tour of the various plantations in the country. A trip to a pretty park will certainly be a more appropriate fit, and will certainly allow you to make full use of that sweet Picnic Bench.

Overall, the new Countryman represents a major improvement for one of the most polarising models in MINI’s line-up. For starters, it may be larger on the outside but it makes for a better life on the inside. The new platform, engines and revised suspension also makes it easier to live with on a day-to-day basis, while providing the thrills should you want to let loose a little.

Add to this a whole suite of new technologies, an interior that will always have your attention, and you have a crossover that’s ready to lead MINI to what could be another record year. It isn’t perfect, and there are certainly other crossovers/SUVs that can offer better practicality, but there is an appeal here that is unique as only a MINI can usher.