Back in the unsettled '60s, pasty-faced Englishmen tore through the queen's green countryside in Mini Coopers the size of big cardboard boxes.
Back in the unsettled ’60s, pasty-faced Englishmen tore through the queen’s green countryside in Mini Coopers the size of big cardboard boxes.
They clung to the road with tires and wheels no larger than American dinner plates.
Even festooned with optional black rubber mats, those Minis didn’t weigh much more than one side of the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line — and you know how offensive that line can be.
Nonetheless, Mini’s goofy little front-driver turned into corners with real zeal, zigging and zagging like a twice-indicted five-term congressman.
They were big, big grins in a small white-topped can.
Just don’t expect to find a lot of those old virtues in new models of the Mini, which are becoming more Midi.
Not that the new Minis don’t have their own strengths on a much grander scale.
The modern Mini — now owned by BMW — hit the market again in July 2001, far bigger than the original but still crackling with energy and practicality.
In the past decade, Mini has expanded on that “more is more” approach, adding 13 new models. All it lacks now, I think, are Batman and Nixon versions.
The 2013 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works Countryman I had recently was the latest new model, celebrating that distinction with the longest name ever attached to a Midi, er, Mini.
Maybe that’s appropriate. The Countryman is basically a stretched, inflated Mini with four full-sized doors and 700 pounds more weight than a standard hatchback.
In fact, at 3,200 pounds, the four-passenger Countryman is twice as heavy as the original Mini from the ’60s and — get this — only about 100 pounds lighter than a new Corvette.
But in return, you get decent crossover capability, including fold-down rear seats that open up 41.3 cubic feet of cargo space and standard all-wheel-drive to eliminate torque steer in the souped-up John Cooper Works Countryman.
Running through a six-speed automatic, the one I had was capable of strutting to 60 in about 6.5 seconds, which I thought was plenty impressive.
I’m not sure what all this goodness cost. Mini didn’t provide a window sticker when it delivered the Cooper Works Countryman.
But the base price is $34,950, and I would guess the car I had pushed 38 large — at least.
My black Countryman radiated attitude with its red stripes, red top and red mirrors, 18-inch wheels and three-inch-diameter dual exhausts (for a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine).
I’m warming more slowly to the rest of the Countryman’s blunt, thick exterior.
Unlike the regular Mini hatchback, the Cooper Works vehicle stands fairly tall, its large flat grille reaching almost to my waist.
Huge, odd headlamps on either side of the grille looked kind of like intakes on a small jet.
Moreover, the Cooper Works car wore several boy-racer aerodynamic pieces, including one at the base of the body with some sort of fake vent protruding from it that was shaped like a weird hairbrush.
(Maybe it would come in handy if you were working under the car in a stiff breeze.)
Although the Mini rolled on nice-looking, dark-centered wheels wearing sticky 225/45 tires, it didn’t really feel like a performance crossover.
But I may have been wrong.
Though not as sharp and precise as a regular John Cooper Works hatchback, the stiff-riding Countryman still turns into corners with a lot of old-world Mini vim and vigor.
And once you get accustomed to the little crossover’s relatively high center of gravity and body lean, you can toss it about with abandon.
Initially, you may struggle some with the steering. Although really quick, it felt heavy and thick at slow speeds — a clumsy combination, I thought.
Fortunately, the steering lightened some at speed, remaining quick.
Similarly, the Countryman didn’t leap away from stops under full throttle, instead pausing for a millisecond to steel itself for the burden of its weight.
At about 3,000 rpm, the smooth little engine got angry, accelerating with authority to 6,000 rpm or so.
In normal driving, the engine and six-speed automatic were a good match, easily pushing the Countryman around at moderate speeds.
Stepping into the accelerator while cruising was even more satisfying. The transmission generally chose the right gear to spur the 1.6-liter engine into immediate action.
Though the engine was seriously stressed performance-wise — its lean 98 cubic inches spewing out an admirable 211 horsepower — it was still rated at 25 miles per gallon in town and 31 on the highway.
Likewise, the interior was a mix of style, eccentricities and practicality.
Leg- and headroom in the back were fine. The black leather seats offered supportive bolsters and nifty red stitching, and the Mini’s flat black dash featured plastic with a subtle snakeskin pattern.
In addition, someone must have fired the electronics engineers, because the power-window switches were actually on the doors — as opposed to the center stack — and I could tune the radio while driving.
But that enormous 8-inch diameter speedometer still cluttered the center of the dash — and could rarely be easily read — and the climate-control dials were always a pain to adjust on the roll.
I’d also give the interior folks a C-minus for the shifter on the six-speed automatic. Instead of providing intuitive up for upshifts and down for downshifts, the Mini wanted me to do just the opposite.
What would Prince what’s-his-name with the new baby say?
But, hey, Mini didn’t build the Countryman for me. Still, when lovely wife Legs and I start downsizing, I might take a look at the Countryman just because it’s different and kind of spacious.
And if nothing else, our luxurious retirement tent and portable kitchen should fit just fine in back.
2013 MINI COOPER JOHN COOPER WORKS COUNTRYMAN:
—Type of vehicle: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, four-passenger crossover
—Fuel economy: 25 miles per gallon city, 31 highway
—Weight: About 3,200 pounds
—Engine: Turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 211 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque
—Transmission: Six-speed automatic
—Performance: 0 to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds
—Base price: $34,950
—Price as tested: Not available
SOURCES: Mini; Motor Trend
©2013 The Dallas Morning News
Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AUTO-MINICOUNTRYMAN-REVIEW