A Countryman in the City

Through some artful negotiations (and a lack of available cars), I was able to rent a Mini Countryman from Budget at the Detroit Metro Airport. I was excited as I learned to drive on the original Minis of the 1960’s and the last Mini I drove was several years ago. So here are my impressions.

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A telltale sign of my rental experience was my first interaction with the car – where is the hatch release button in the car? After looking around a bit, I gave up and just used the trunk release button on the key fob which is a curious, circular affair. The trunk was a little bigger than I expected but don’t expect to take a crew of five on a long weekend jaunt without packing extremely light.

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It was a little hard getting the proportions right when I sat in the seat until I learned the next day that there was a height adjustment that made the seating position better. But it still didn’t fix the compromise that the Mini shape imposed on trying to see traffic lights at an intersection. I often had to bend over just to see the lights.

Getting out onto the highway I thought that someone had pumped double the maximum air into the tires because the car wandered all over the lane. Turns out, it was just following the grooves in the highway. It seemed to settle down once the grooves ended. What didn’t end so quickly was the constant on/off personality of the engine/transmission pairing. I could easily cruise with traffic but slow down 10 mph and you had to floor the gas pedal and zing the engine just to crawl back up to traffic speed. Part of the problem was that the transmission was slow to downshift. And I didn’t want to be constantly having to row the automatic in sport mode. Ten minutes of this had me wishing for the Countryman S with the boosted engine and a manual transmission or anything else.

I was able to pair my iPhone 5S with the Mini but apparently this model didn’t allow music streaming. No problem, I’ll just plug into the available USB slot. Up popped a warning that the Apple cable was not supported. Hmm, is this car optioned so that it’s slightly behind the curve?

ImageThe HVAC controls were not the most intuitive but they followed the same curved arc theme that pervaded the car’s styling. So while I was looking for my next hotel I discovered a Sport switch on the console. I thought twice about the effect on ride if I stiffened the suspension on Michigan’s winter ravaged roads but my third thought flipped the switch.

Suddenly, I am driving a new car. Downshifts are quick and smooth. The vehicle accelerates smartly and I was able to attack some corners with enthusiastic enthusiasm. Cornering is flatter and it feels more nimble. And I’m pleasantly surprise that the ride doesn’t seem to have suffered at all.

ImageWould I buy this vehicle? No. The seat bottom cushion made me think that I would get numb butt after an hour (although it didn’t after 90 minutes of driving), the steering is still too twitchy and I just felt awkward driving it. And my bottom line question that I often ask when buying a car is “Would I drive this car halfway across the country?”

This is unlike my experience of driving a regular Mini a few years back where the sharp handling matched the lower seating position and car height, not to mention I find the Countryman’s headlight styling to be strange. Hopefully the refreshed Countryman that is forthcoming will fix some of those ills and update the electronics to better support our smartphones out of the gate.

However, I’m glad I rented this vehicle unlike the soul-less cars that too often populate rental car lots.

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