Good Friday dawned with a stunning sunrise so we hit the road early to avoid the hordes. Our plan was to soak up the last of the summer sun at the in-laws just outside of Kaitaia. It might not be the most exotic holiday destination, but with beaches aplenty, a whole farm for the sprog to run wild on and no internet access we reckon it’s the perfect place for a few days of R&R. The Countryman proved to be a good fit for our trip, the mini-suv giving us plenty of opportunity to get out and explore some new spots.
One with the works
No, not the John Cooper Works (that’s still to come), but rather a generous helping of options, $16,615 to be precise, took the price of this Countryman
Cooper S to almost seventy grand. The spec list is generous with the most desirable items fitted as standard. However, you can add much more. Go mad
at ordering time and by our reckoning you could spend over $80,000, but restrain yourself and the funky Countryman can be had for reasonable coin.
Creating a unique ride is what Mini is all about and evidently a significant number of Kiwi buyers opt to customise their car. The most popular option is the Chili pack (LED head and fog lights, 18-inch alloys, HK stereo, leather and driving assist) which adds up to $8000 worth of goodies for just $5000. Other boxes ticked include sat-nav and wheel upgrades, and the new picnic bench. A bespoke car takes around three months to arrive.
So it’s bigger, but what about the baby?
The Countryman is all grown up, bigger in almost every direction, and large enough to seat four people, with legs, in comfort. Try doing that in the old one. It’s the extra legroom and clever packaging that makes this a Mini that a family could live with. There’s ISOFIX and tether points for the kiddy seats, while the rear pew can slide and tilt, providing either extra boot space or legroom.
The 450 litre boot has two levels, and while the (removable) picnic bench eats into the lower compartment, there is still room to stash stuff down there. Folding the rear seat will net 1390 litres of space - more than a Mazda CX-5. Throughout the interior there’s a heap of storage, and the door pockets will swallow a water bottle each. The rear seats two adults in comfort, although the middle seat is more child-sized. The tardis-like interior swallowed all of our bags as well as other essential items like the portacot, trike, and beers.
Yeah, yeah, but how does it go?
Rather well, once you work out the drive modes. The default setting is Mid, which works just fine so we used this for the majority of the trip. Peppier performance is just a quick flick away - selecting Sport sharpens throttle response, firms up the steering, adds a tasty exhaust note and pokes the gearbox along. There are shift paddles too, but given the ‘box will change up of its own accord, we didn’t really see the point of those.
We tried Green briefly, but the minuscule fuel savings hardly seemed worth putting up with the stodgy throttle and choked off response. The Countryman S is a sweet steer and a lot of fun. Sure, it’s not as quick or dynamic as a Cooper hatch, but that’s the price you pay for the added practicality. The engine is lag-free and stroppy when in Sport. Its 19-inch wheels look the biz, but with low-profile run-flat rubber they do make for a stiff and noisy ride at times, despite the electronic dampers being fitted.
There’s no damper adjustment available in the Green or Mid, but delving into the Sport settings allows the dampers to be switched independently of the drivetrain. We felt that leaving the chassis in Normal with the sporty engine map was the best compromise. The stiff ride is more noticeable around town when ferrying the family but it’s not a deal-breaker, just stiffer than you’d expect for an SUV.
What did impress was the fuel use over our trip, 7.4L/100km overall - not too far off the claim of 6.5L/100km and coincidentally the same number that Mini gives for the 0-100km/h sprint, only in seconds.
Down and dirty
Without the optional four-wheel drive fitted ($3000) our off-road antics were limited; it’s probably the one option we would actually fork out for. However the Countryman’s raised ride height meant we got to explore places we couldn’t have gone in our low-slung wagon.
A wet and rutted track to a remote beach proved a little too daunting to tackle; we turned back rather than risk getting bogged. We travelled many unsealed roads which Countryman ate up, the traction control coping well, even allowing a little slip and slide before chiming in. It performed equally well in wet and muddy paddocks.
Fun, fun, fun
The Countryman is all about fun, but what bits stand out the most? The styling is the big one, instantly identifiable as a Mini, everything about it has been carefully considered and created. It’s hard to find bits that have been pilfered from BMW’s parts bin and we like that. Then there are things like the lighting around the centre screen that changes depending on the drive mode, and the racing stripes that appear on the Mini graphic when Sport is selected.
Unique to the Countryman is the Country Timer, an app that calculates the amount of time spent off-road, awarding different statuses according to the ruggedness of the terrain. Despite our best efforts we only reached the top level once. Sure it’s a gimmick, but if you don’t enjoy this sort of the thing then a Mini isn’t for you.
If you love the feeling of sand between your toes, there’s no better place to visit than the Far North. There are hundreds of miles of beaches to explore and the beauty of being able to drive from coast to coast in half an hour means that should the wind be a little chilly on one side of the island, you simply drive to the other. Many of the beaches are accessible by car, but as the entry points are often through soft sand four-wheel drive is advisable. Ninety Mile beach is great to explore by car as a short drive will reward with your own private piece of beach.
Located in Ahipara is an adventure centre for those looking to do something more than just sunbathing. Here you can hire everything from quad bikes to blo-karts to all manner of surf boards. Tokerau Beach on the Karikari Peninsula is great for kids as it has a very gentle incline providing lots of shallow areas for safe paddling.
More than just ninety miles of sand
If the sand gets too much, there are other options. Golfers can enjoy a round at the Carrington Resort, a stunning location that overlooks the white sand beaches of the Karikari Peninsula. Not one for wearing funny pants or chasing little white balls? Cross the road to Karikari Estate to enjoy lunch and a wine or two while taking in the views. Also on the Peninsula is Lake Rotopokaka, known colloquially as Coca-Cola lake. The water is sparkling and brown, and looks just the fizzy drink.
The colour is apparently a result of the peat deposits in the surrounding land. It’s evidently clean enough to drink while some of the locals believe it has healing properties. It goes without saying that fishing is a good way to while away the days. Cast off from any of the beaches and you’re bound to get a bite; snapper and kahawai are plentiful. There's also a handful of operators running fishing charters if getting out on a boat appeals.
The Cooper S Countryman proved extremely easy to live with, even for a small family. It’s genuinely fun to drive and practical. The unique styling does come at a cost, so showing restraint at ordering time is the key to getting best value. Countryman’s rivals include BMW’s suave but serious X1, Audi’s quirky Q2 or Mercedes’ GLA, none of which quite matches the fun factor of the Mini.