(Pocket-lint) - Do you remember the exact moment when every manufacturer scrambled to add a high-riding SUV to their line-up? It was around the time the Nissan Qashqai started to become a runaway sales success. As a result, all sorts of bizarre shapes started to appear on forecourts.
Mini started to expand its line-up in 2007, first with the launch of the Clubman and then the larger Countryman in 2010. The idea was to entice families growing up from the smaller Minis, or those wanting a trendy small car but who also demanded the chunky body addenda, additional space and raised driving position afforded by rival SUVs.
Except the previous Countryman wasn't actually that spacious, the driving position not that high and — to some eyes at least — it was hideously ugly.
That said, it has proven a success. So for 2017, along comes Countryman II. Based on the same platform as some smaller BMWs, it's designed to answer the major flaws of its predecessor — namely space. So, busting the Mini maxim, it is 20cm longer than its predecessor, increasing interior roominess and boot space.
The other big change is in quality — interior fittings have been vastly improved and there's the latest raft of Mini-standard tech equipment (which is closely related to BMW's).
Is the 2017 Mini Countryman a massive success, then, or is the SUV competition too rife for it to make a massive mark?
Mini Countryman (2017) review: Design
Although unmistakably a Mini Countryman, the 2017 model has undergone some pretty serious design changes.
The elongated wheelbase and wider body give it better road presence and a much stronger stance than before. However, while a new hexagonal radiator grille, jewel-like additions to flanks and refreshed headlamps make it look more modern, they do little to improve the overall aesthetic and make the Mini look like a very sad little SUV on the road.
All-new Countryman models come with roof rails as standard, and there's a set of contrast side skirts and more cladding in general — giving it a more purposeful, outdoors-y appearance. The addition of a neat (optional) Picnic Bench which folds out from underneath the boot floor makes it ideal for tailgate parties or taking off muddy Wellies.
This foldout leather cushion forms part of the optional Mini Activity Pack (£850) that was fitted to our car, which also adds an electric tailgate. We found it to be a boon — quick opening, responsive and you can even open it hands-free by kicking underneath the bumper. Handy if your arms are full of kids, or dogs, or beer... or all three.
Mini Countryman (2017) review: Interior and equipment
Previous generation Mini interiors, although quirky, were festooned with cheap plastics, budget cloth and basic infotainment systems. The latest iteration of Mini, however, has gone decidedly upmarket. It's worth noting, however, that our Mini Countryman Cooper S D (All4) is already one of the more expensive models in the range, and that a number of expensive options had been added to the list price, which significantly add to the feeling of quality. So what you see in the pictures isn't all entry-level priced.
These options are part of a bigger picture which makes a car like the Countryman quite hard to review objectively. On the face of it, this interior is a fantastic place to sit — with its "Mini yours" leather lounge seats, John Cooper Works leather sport steering wheel, heated front seats, Excitement Pack (read as mood lighting), and a host of other bits that came as part of the John Cooper Works Chili Pack (£4,525). Other options included in this are automatic air conditioning, LED lights, keyless entry, climate control, and 18-inch alloys.
Our tip would be to go for the much more reasonable regular Chili Pack (£2,750). This gets you a cloth/leather mix, 18-inch alloys (albeit different design), climate control, heated seats, LED lights, keyless access and the Excitement Pack. Objectively, you don't lose much besides a few cosmetic items and the leather (although the JCW steering wheel really is stunning quality and nice to hold). Point being: you could add the lounge leather seats as a separate option (£980) and still be up.
Nonetheless, covered in soft leather, slush-moulded soft-touch plastics, and with the ambient lighting switched on, the Mini Countryman feels high quality.
In the back, that Activity Pack brings with it a sliding rear bench, but with a longer wheelbase than before there's much more room in the car. We had a family of five and all their luggage in the Countryman at one point on an airport run, and no one felt squashed. The boot, at 450-litres, is far bigger than that of a Toyota C-HR, and on par with the Nissan Qashqai. Maybe they should have called it the Mini Maxi?
Mini Countryman (2017) review: The tech
The Mini's infotainment system resides in the now famous circular binnacle where the speedometer once lived. And if you opt for the Media Pack (£1,100), you get an 8.8-inch touchscreen (the first time we've seen one of those in a Mini) which you can also control with a remote controller down by the gearstick. You'll also get enhanced Bluetooth (a phone cradle in the armrest, plus the ability to connect multiple devices) and connected services — it'll check you're ok in the event of a crash (a call centre will call the car) or you can call up BMW/Mini's service centre and they'll help you find places, ping directions to the car, and provide tech support.
A smaller screen is standard on this model, and given that the navigation still does a worse job than Google of routing you around the traffic, you might decide it's not worth the outlay. The integration, quality of the display and slickness of operation might all tip the balance though — so the Media Pack is an option box that we would definitely pick.
There's more too, because sync the app with the system and it informs the driver of the optimum departure time based on calendar entries and current traffic data, for example. Regularly visited places can be saved to the sat nav automatically, while frequent routes are stored so the car can inform of any traffic delays.
You can also option a head-up display (HUD) for more money, although this works via a secondary screen that pops out of the top of the dash — and is of less benefit than the windscreen projection system that BMW positions in its pricier cars.
Mini Countryman (2017) review: How does it drive?
We've now driven two models of Mini Countryman: one petrol and one diesel, both in the Cooper S trim. Despite advising you to avoid diesel unless you're sure it's going to save you money (usually meaning you need to be doing 12-15,000 miles a year or more), we prefer the diesel model in this installation.
Our first drive was the nippy turbocharged 2.0-litre unit in the Cooper S, which develops 192bhp. Acceleration here is mildly exciting, with the vocal powerplant able to drag the Countryman from 0-62mph in 7.4 seconds when the smooth eight-speed auto 'box is specified.
The Cooper SD diesel sports a very similar 190bhp, and is fitted with the same smooth and responsive eight-speed auto. But the much greater amount of low torque makes the Countryman feel much more of a relaxed machine, while simultaneously making A-road overtakes something that don't require much planning — simply flex your right foot and you're past.
The diesel even sounds moderately good for a diesel, especially in its sports mode — emitting a neat growl that goes away once you're cruising. The eight-speed box pays dividends at higher speeds as the engine is barely ticking over and the Mini is a refined device. We had expected better of fuel economy though — the Mini diesel returning 41mpg in our hands. Maybe we were having too much fun?
Mini is fond of touting its go-kart handling abilities and we found the Countryman to be a really fun little thing to throw into tight corners, although many will find the steering too heavy and the suspension irritatingly firm at times. You will grow used to this — and if you've got any experience of a BMW or a smaller Mini, you'll probably feel right at home. But those coming from the soft, calm world of cars like the Qashqai are likely to find it all a bit much. If that's the case, stick with smaller wheels — or look elsewhere. Most of the time we were having too much fun in the Mini to get upset about the ride — and that's not something you can write about many small SUVs.
Finally, Mini's clever All4 all-wheel-drive system was also bolted onto both the vehicles we've driven. It sees power automatically shifted between the front and rear axles depending on the circumstances and it works exceptionally well. The Mini managed to power up a sodden grass hill that defeated a Land Rover Discovery, much to our amazement.
It's glaringly obvious that Mini buyers flock towards the badge because it represents a certain sense of style. With that in mind, the 2017 model will impress some all the more with its modernity — particularly in the areas of interior, technology equipment and perceived quality.
The increased roominess for this generation Countryman is a big plus, too — in many ways it's the car's biggest attraction. The Mini is still 5cm shorter than a Nissan Qashqai, but 20cm longer than it was before. Yet, somehow, the Mini's boot is the same size as the Nissan and it feels almost as roomy inside — so families will find this a far better solution than the previous model. It still feels wieldy and easy to park too.
Given the Countryman's overall footprint is still relatively small, and that the Mini costs more than both smaller (and larger!) rivals, you've got to be quite keen on the brand and image to buy — but hasn't it always been this way? What's perhaps more important is that, equipped correctly, the Mini feels like a class above many of its rivals in more ways than one, plus it's still got that character and fun-to-drive quality that many are seeking (and many competitors lacking).
Tread carefully though, because whereas we were left unimpressed by the Cooper S petrol — which we felt was a niche too far and tied itself in knots on the launch drive — the Cooper SD really works. The diesel even seems to ride better, subjectively speaking.
Sure, the Mini's looks remain an acquired taste, but the suite of in-car technology on offer is impressive, and the typical Mini quirkiness manifests itself in multiple areas. The result speaks for itself — beyond the looks and the headline price concerns, the new Mini Countryman is now a far better and more rounded package than it has ever been.