The trendy 189bhp 2.0-litre Countryman Cooper S crossover promises to raise the entertainment bar to a level thus far unknown to its ilk – an area where several of its rivals have stuttered or failed. Audi’s stylish Q2 Sport, another recent arrival, claims a more invigorating drive than the L crossover norm, but its driver appeal left us a little cold during our previous test. We’ll see how the 148bhp 1.4-litre TFSI – the most sprightly petrol version available in the UK – compares here.
Stiffer competition comes in the guise of the relatively aggressive-looking Juke Nismo RS. With its 215bhp 1.6-litre engine, it’s the quickest-accelerating and most powerful car of the trio on paper. Upon the arrival of Nissan’s hotted-up crossover two years ago, we noted that it had some fairly stark problems, but we couldn’t deny that it had plenty of character, purposefulness and likeability. Can it retain that charm in the face of the Mini?
By chance, our test Mini had 4WD and an eight-speed auto box, while its rivals featured front-wheel drive and manual transmissions. Had all three been in like-for-like front-wheel-drive manual guise, though, less than £2000 would have separated their showroom prices – and none would have cost more than £25,000.
Traditional crossover market preferences for style, practicality, convenience and efficiency over a zesty turn of speed mean there are few 150bhp-plus petrol motors in this sector of the new-car market. That leaves Mini’s BMW-developed engine line-up in a strong position, particularly with the Countryman’s turbo, which wastes no time in demonstrating its superiority to the other two here.
It has greater flexibility and more even power production, pulling smartly, cleanly and with urgency from well below 2000rpm all the way up to 6500rpm. It balances smooth good manners with a touch of theatricality in its cultured rasp.
Although the Juke Nismo RS has the most powerful engine on test and the quickest 0-62mph time, its power delivery is decidedly peaky. Turbo lag is followed by a surging boost, which thins out at 5000rpm and kicks in again over the final 1000rpm. This ‘factory-tuned’ performance product certainly feels dramatic against its two mid-range rivals, but it grabs your attention for as many of the wrong reasons as for the right ones.
The Q2’s engine may lose out on peak power, but it holds its own where it really matters, making plenty of mid-range torque and enjoyable grunt. It’s less willing at high revs, though, and has even more pronounced sub-2000rpm turbo lag. You need to make god use of the slightly notchy six-speed manual gearbox.
Plenty of adjustment means the Mini can have either a typical crossover driving position or a sporting one, and there’s a good view out and plenty of headroom for tall drivers. You have to sit lower in the Audi, but its position is otherwise adjustable and very sound. The promise of the Nissan’s sporty bucket seat is let down by a lack of telescopic steering adjustment and limited legroom. You end up bent-legged and slightly hunched over the controls.
At least the Nismo RS feels much more of a serious performance machine on the road than its rivals. It has great steering feedback and the dampers feel fantastic on B-roads. Around fast corners, though, it has half the front lateral grip and traction required to put down its power and carry it through smoothly, while the steering wheel squirms. Adding throttle provokes understeer, so with the electronic aids on you must drive with patience, trying to both smooth out the boost and not activate the ESP. With them off, you experience the whole gamut: wheelspin, understeer, torque steer and all.
The more dynamically competent Audi is far less likely to either frighten or excite you. It has the longest suspension travel here, while firm springing and abrupt damping allow crisp cornering and decent lateral body control. The axles share grip equitably, and the traction control is discreet, but really testing roads result in plenty of rebound. Meanwhile, the steering may be precise and direct, but it’s also leaden and lacks feedback.
Fairly low dynamic benchmarks for the Mini to beat, then. So, can it finally put the crossover hatchback on the petrolhead’s radar? Well, its handling poise is the best here, thanks to quick, flat and fast cornering skills, tenacious grip and precise steering. Yet while it handles small and medium-size imperfections fairly well, it still trips up over larger bumps.
Despite its size, the Countryman Cooper S is agile, terrierish and ‘Mini’-like to its core, which we’re sure is precisely what Mini wanted it to be. However, it’s not the fast crossover hatchback we’d hoped for. It engages with an uneven road less like a junior rally car and more like a fidgety, conventional hot hatch. It’s fun, but not fun enough – which still leaves the way open for someone to come along and do it much, much better.
Source : www.standard.co.uk