When winter driving is fun

Sometimes I pray for snow. Sometimes I pray for ice. Sometimes I pray for a good time behind the wheel with the crappiest weather imaginable. This was one of those weeks — and why? Because I had the MINI Countryman S All4.

Normally I curse Old Man Winter with a vengeance. I’m a warm-weather kinda gal, and winter and I do not get along. However, strap me in behind the wheel of a proper AWD ride and I’ll be quite content to embark on a snowy journey, wherever the road may lead.

It was pretty much a snow-free, frigid week from the moment I collected the MINI Countryman S All4, which bummed me out. Here I was in MINI’s newest model that finally offered a fantastic AWD system, and I couldn’t even try it out. For years, North Americans have been hounding BMW and MINI to create an AWD version of the much-loved hatch.

I remember nearly 2 years ago, while at a BMW press dinner, there was whisperings of an AWD MINI. Well, not whisperings, really. The CEO at the time told us outright that it was in the works. And I remember being overjoyed, to the point where my husband thought I’d gone a bit loopy.

Why get so excited about an AWD MINI? Well, for starters they made it bigger.

Now, hush all you diehard MINI fans. It’s not THAT much bigger. Park it next to a Clubman or coupe Cooper and you’ll see it’s not that large at all. What they’ve done is essentially fatten it up, give it a bit of a bum, a higher ride height and a beefier, more aggressive front end — and I love it all.

It still has the tried and true soul of a MINI, truly it does, but it can take on so much more — both on the road and in the back seats!

Finally, we were 4 large adults in a MINI and the backseat passengers weren’t complaining that their legs were going numb. Glorious! The Countryman features a 2+2 seating arrangement. There are 2 captain’s seats in the back that are fully adjustable, and a neat little central rail system that lets you arrange cup holders, glasses cases and whatever other doodads MINI offers wherever you want them to be. Oh, and the uber cool mood lighting runs along that railing too. Groovy.

Make no mistake about it; my next car will be a MINI. Much to C’s dismay, we will own a MINI one day, hopefully in the near future. And I have to say, I think the Countryman started to grow on him. At least, he complained about it less this time around.

I was willing to “settle” for the Clubman. Eventually, C and I do plan to procreate (scary, I know) and we will need to cart around a mini Miranda sooner or later, and unfortunately the setup of the coupe Cooper S just isn’t practical for a baby seat, nor is the tiny trunk. So, I’d settled on getting a Cooper Clubman S with the suicide door and the barn-door trunk for easy access.

And then the Countryman appeared and it was like the heavens had opened up. I swear I heard the “ahhhhhh” as soon as I laid eyes on the 4 doors of the Countryman.

I really didn’t think I could love a MINI any more than I already did.

But, oh I do!

Blissfully, the end of last week, this weekend and even today we were bombarded with snow and ice and all the nastiness of winter. And I got to put the Countryman S All4 to the test — and I wasn’t disappointed.

I’m an AWD snob. I’ll admit it straight out. I own a Subaru WRX and I also owned a base Impreza a few years ago. I love the Subaru symmetrical AWD system. There’s really nothing like it. So, the moment I get behind the wheel of another manufacturer’s AWD model, I’m already passing judgement; there’s no way it can rival the Subie.

In most cases, this is true.

However, I was pleasantly surprised with the Countryman S All4.

While it is a front-biased system (meaning it is generally working in FWD) it still works brilliantly as an AWD system. There is a certain amount of understeer in slippery situations, however, as soon as that front end goes the system realizes and pushes 50% of the torque to the rear and you’re snapped back in line with where you wanted to go, almost as if you pulled the handbrake — fabulous.

And while I never appreciate a “nanny mode” in which the power is cut — the engineers at BMW clearly understand drivers and blissfully made it quite simple to turn OFF the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control, aka Winter Granny Driver system) so you can have a bit of fun in the snow and really put the Countryman to the test.

I only wish for one thing (which will never happen with a MINI); I wish it were heavier. I know, an odd request. But there were moments on the highway when I was changing lanes through snowy grooves and slushy piles where I wish the MINI Countryman S All4 had a bit of a bigger gut to really pound through the nastiness.

After putting it through slush, snow, ice, and even rain I think it’s safe to say BMW has truly made the MINI brand better. They’ve opened up MINI to a whole new market of buyers. Not just family buyers but also those who want a safe winter vehicle. And just because it’s small doesn’t mean it isn’t safe. The Countryman was awarded “Top Safety Pick” by the IIHS. It received top ratings for front, side, rollover and rear impact protection. Even the roof strength rating is triple that of the federal standard. So, bigger isn’t always better — remember that.

I know some might say I’m a bit bias when it comes to MINI (I am in love after all), but you have to trust me on this one. Just take one out for a test drive, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

I know I was so sad about giving the Countryman back this morning that I kept the key as a souvenir.

Ah, the joy of key fobs and leaving them in your purse all the time… Oops.

Drive on,
– M.

~ by drivingmsmiranda on March 7, 2011.

7 Responses to “When winter driving is fun”

  1. I love your articals on the Mini especially the Countryman. I do tons of skiing here in Colorado and had a Cooper S until I sold it to pay for my sons ski racing. But it time for a new Mini and the Countryman seems like an interesting choice as I need all wheel drive and love the mini.

    I have a question about how well the the countryman handle high speed highway driving in the snow? You mentioned that it was a bit tough in the slush and lane changes. Was it a heart pounding experience in these conditions? Was the Countryman twitchy at speed on the snowy roads?

    Thanks for the help on this Glenn 🙂

    • Hey Glenn,

      Thanks so much for the read! And I’m so glad you like my MINI posts — I enjoy writing them!

      Wow, that’s quite the sacrifice for your son! 🙂 I hope he put those lessons to good use.

      I’ll be honest with you on the Countryman question: It was twitchy. Because it’s a lighter vehicle, it definitely hesitates in larger slush piles and snow drifts. While it’s happy on flat snow surfaces at speed, as soon as you delve into deeper snow (as in tire ridges on a highway) and try to maneuver it feels a bit unstable. It’s not horrible, and clearly better than a FWD vehicle, but it’s no X5 that’s for sure.

      You’ll have to let me know if you bring a Countryman home! 🙂 It really is a fantastic MINI — practical and fantastic to drive.

      Drive on,
      – M.

  2. […] When winter driving is fun […]

  3. […] weekend I was lucky enough to spend a day with a BMW rep (after a week behind the wheel of another Countryman, the FWD, non-turbo version this time) and we got to talking about Matt’s blog on the […]

  4. The best advice for driving in bad winter weather is not to drive at all, if you can avoid it. But sometimes, giving yourself a break and enjoying the moment is fun!

  5. Thanks for your article about the Countryman in the snow.
    I have been researching the 2012 Subaru WRX vs Mini countryman.I feel extremely confident with Subarus AWD.I have always felt there is no other,however……the Mini is so darn cute!
    My lane is extremely steep and of course a big ravine if you go over the edge.I almost went over it in a Trailblazer sliding sideways.Trailblazer is gone.
    I have read a couple blogs that tell after about 3 years the Mini’s are a nightmare mechanically.What do you know about this? I am 2 hrs. to the nearest Mini dealer.

    • Hi Robin,

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

      I’m so glad you liked my Countryman review. Did you get a chance to watch the video as well? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVDUvNgEUh4

      Welcome to my dilemma! Ha! I am a diehard Subaru-lover. My personal car at home is an ’04 Subaru WRX and I absolutely adore it. You’re right, there is nothing like a Subie AWD. However, BMW’s xDrive, and consequently MINI All4, system is pretty close. While it’s not 50/50 all the time, like Subie, it is quite capable and I’d recommend it for wintery situations, for sure.

      Of course, with any luxury European brand you run the risk of expensive repairs and possible mechanical issues down the road. I’ve heard similar cases with MINIs, but they are few and far between it seems. Lemons here and there. But, that’s where I’d say the Subaru far outshines the MINI. Subarus are made to last. They just keep on truckin’ for years and years and years, and repairs are affordable as it’s Japanese. And if you’re so far from a MINI dealer, where you’d need to bring your Countryman, you might want to reconsider.

      Unless you can find a BMW-certified mechanic closer to you at another garage, I’d say look more towards the Subaru (unfortunately). I’m a MINI-lover through and through, but there are situations where it’s just not practical, unfortunately!

      Good luck with the decision and let me know what you finally decide! 🙂

      Drive on,
      – M.

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