The Wheel Deal

2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4: A Maxi MINI

May 5, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

It is an invariable rule of auto design and engineering: Cars get bigger with age.

No product planner ever asked for tighter passenger accommodations or a smaller trunk; no designer wants less sheet metal to serve as a canvas for his art; no engineer wants to take stuff out of a car -- he wants to add more.

Nobody ever questions this movement toward automotive giganticism because it is like the existence of gravity: an incontestable law of nature.

For evidence, I offer the jury the Honda Accord, made by the company whose motto is "Maximum man, minimum machine." The first Accord to reach these shores in 1976 was classified as a compact and stretched out to all of 162 inches.

In time, the Accord went on to become the best-selling car in America. But that didn't stop Honda from making it larger and larger. The 2011 Accord is now classified as full-size. It is 194 inches from stem to stern -- nearly three feet longer than its prehistoric ancestor.

So why this gnashing of teeth over the 2011 MINI Cooper Countryman, which has grown two more doors and a mere 15 inches from the original MINI Cooper?

The Countryman is still immediately identifiable as a MINI, with its flat roof, friendly face, and extroverted paint job. There is nothing else like it on the road.

Although the Countryman has some crossover characteristics like a rear hatch and all-wheel-drive, the ground clearance is minimal, and the cargo space is laughable -- all traditional MINI traits.

And the Countryman still squelches bigger cars in stoplight drag races, and it corners like a motorized skateboard the way the original MINI did. It is a four-door sports car. The Countryman is a lot closer to an MX-5 Miata than it is a Ford Explorer. Throw in the turbocharged 1.6 liter 181-horsepower engine from the S version and you've got a pocket rocket capable of reaching 60 miles an hour in under eight seconds with a manual transmission.

That kind of heavy-footed driving doesn't do much for fuel economy, of course. The Countryman is rated at 25 miles per gallon city/31 highway, well below the new 40 mpg bogey for similarly-sized cars. Over a couple of hundred miles of mostly highway driving, I could only manage 28 mpg.

MINI fun comes at a price. My supercharged Light White test car carried an MSRP of $26,950. Throw in the garish red and black seat coverings, the sport package with in-your-face 18-inch alloy wheels the color of anthracite, and a few other geegaws and gimcracks, and you've run up the tab to $31,150.

I will like MINI a lot better once it updates its cheesy instrument panel and eccentric ergonomics. The plastic is of the same gauge and quality used in cookie-box dividers. The switches come in great variety, and what they boast in originality, they lack in functionality.

And I'd be remiss in not pointing out MINI's dismal record of reliability. In keeping with the fine tradition of British engineering and manufacturing, the MINI ranks at the very bottom of J.D. Power's three-year dependability rankings. It trails even that other paragon of English motoring, Land Rover, and represents a blemish on the reputation of its owner and operator BMW.

If Kate and Will are looking for a cause once they get back from their honeymoon, they could take on an upgrade of those few automobile brands that are still assembled within the confines of their kingdom -- lest MINI defect to Germany.

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