(Pocket-lint) - The Mini Countryman may be one of the largest Minis on the road, slotting into the crossover space, but it's also one of the smaller plug-in hybrids available, which makes it rather unique.
The plug-in hybrid - or PHEV as it's known to its friends - is typified by cars like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, but is garnering more attention by offering a middle road between full electric and regular combustion models.
So how does the Mini PHEV cope out on the road?
The full Mini design
The PHEV version looks just like other Countryman models. Five doors means easy access to the rear seats, a conventional hatch boot lid mean easy access to the hatch-sized boot, while roof rails and the All4 badge (that's to designate four-wheel drive) bring a sense of adventure to what's otherwise a fairly urban model.
The Countryman rides a little higher than other Mini models, for a more on-the-road presence - but it's still very much a Mini. It doesn't have the cute factor that the Hatch does, but for those who want more space and height inside, that's not an insurmountable problem - and one of the very reasons to consider a crossover in the first place.
The Countryman's biggest challenge might indeed come from the Clubman, whose lower roofline gives it a slightly more conventional aesthetic, although these two models are treated with the same broad strokes when it comes to specification - but with the Clubman lacking any sort of electrification.
But we're supposed to be talking about why this PHEV is different. At a glance there are only a few small indicators that give the game away. You'll spot the yellow detailing on the badges and the Mini Electric logo on the rear. Being a plug-in hybrid it does, of course, have a conventional fuel filler cap on the rear with the electric socket on the front wing.
Those defining details will carry over to the full-electric version of the Mini, too, with yellow obviously being the colour that Mini is using to indicate the honour of being electric.
Remarkably, there are actually eight different models of the Countryman covering the two- and four-wheel drive, the different fuels and positioning. The Countryman Cooper S E sits below the John Cooper Works in terms of power (224hp for the S E, 306hp for the John Cooper Works), but that also reveals something else - the Countryman is no slouch, and its high price is a reflection of the high positioning that it takes in the range. It is then presented in a range of trim options with customisation choices as well, to really make the car your own.
What do you get from the hybrid setup?
But let's cut to the quick: what are you actually getting from the plug-in hybrid? Firstly, you're getting a 1.5-litre petrol engine combined with an electric motor that gives you a combined 224hp output. As per other Minis the engine drives the front wheels, while the electric motor drives the rear wheels.
That means this is technically a four-wheel drive car, with the motor able to dynamically swing in and assist in demanding conditions. That might be a rapid acceleration up hill, for example. This setup is common among hybrids, where it's designed as a background technology, not asking you to constantly choose how you want the car to drive.
It runs in an automatic e-drive mode by default, using the battery to boost normal driving, with regeneration upon braking to top-up the battery and cutting out the engine on slow-moving sections. Gently reverse out of your drive and it will be electric, put your foot down hard and it will take off using both power sources, with a 0-62mph time of 6.8 seconds - and all the fun you expect from driving a Mini.
You do, however, have the option to drive in electric-only mode. The battery is small (at 7.7kWh) and that means you only have a range of about 25km/15m of actual electric motoring. Range will depend on conditions and the type of driving you're doing (it's better for stop-start where there's plenty of braking), but that limited range does reveal the Mini's hand to a degree.
For many, that might get you to school or the supermarket, but it's unlikely to give you much serious emission-free driving. The average on PHEVs is about 30 miles (again not huge), but bigger batteries will cost you. Mini is actually moving to address this, with a new 10kWh version promising around 34 miles (Mini's figures) and we'll update once we've got behind the wheel of that model.
Mini will let you drive in electric-only mode with a flip of a switch, but it will revert to using the engine when it doesn't have the charge to do what you're asking. Impressively, it will let you drive at speed on the battery, unlike some other competitors, but it won't last any time at all.
There's a couple of other options for power available. You can "save" the charge, so if the car is fully charged when at home and you know you're driving to a town where you want to use the battery, that's an option. It's also possible to change the settings to always start in electric-only mode. If you charge the car at home and have a 10 mile commute, this might work for you.
The charging is only offered a slow speeds, so at-home or work-based charging is what you're really looking at. There's no great advantage to sitting on a rapid charger while you have a coffee, like many of the latest all-electric cars. But with a small battery capacity it only takes about four hours to charge anyway.
Mini says that you'll get 88-97mpg from this hybrid setup, but that's based on using both power sources, so it only really applies for short distances. Yes, we did manage to hit 88mpg, but the average is more like 50-60mpg - which is still impressive. Take this PHEV on to the motorway and you'll see that drop away as the battery doesn't get charged through braking, meaning you're then just driving on fuel.
Of course, if you don't have any way to charge the Mini Countryman Cooper S E then it's probably not worth buying in the first place. Unlike an electric car that might charge at 100kW on a local rapid charger, not being able to charge the Mini at home or work would be a bit of a bind.
How does it drive?
On the road, the Mini Countryman actually drives really well. At heart, this is a petrol Mini - and it feels like it. That nippy and sporty drive that typifies Mini is retained by the Countryman despite the increased size. There's a nice weight and precision to the steering, so it's perfectly easy to lose yourself in that go-kart feel that Mini brings to its cars.
It feels agile on the road and it's really comfortable too, thanks to some great control on rough surfaces and over bumps. It just feels and drives like a quality car, quieter and more forgiving than many compact rivals.
There are a couple of driving modes: Normal mode incorporates all the electric options we talked about above; Green mode does the same, with a more eco focus. There's not a huge difference between them either in the way they feel or the economy you'll get though.
Sport mode doesn't worry about the economy and just wants to give you a racy driving experience. It perhaps doesn't quite fit the character of the car that's been designed around reducing tailpipe emissions, but it's there if you want a little more action.
The Mini Countryman Cooper S E is automatic only, there's no manual option as is the case with any electified system, but it's so smooth and easy to drive we can't see anyone really complaining about that.
The handover between the engine and the electric motor is generally a seamless experience. We noticed a few moments when slowing into junctions when there was a slight judder, which felt a little like the engine stalling - and we imagine it's the engine shutting off to handover to the electric system. Going the other way - accelerating - things are buttery smooth at all times.
The electric meter in the car is a little confusing however. It turns yellow, showing you power you can use. But it's very arbitrary and most of the time you'll have no indication in the car as to how much battery range you actually have, unless you're using it. It could be presented a little better - but we suspect that the interior design is one of the limiting factors here - and we'll talk about that next.
Let's talk about tech and the interior
The interior of the Mini is designed to be fun, full of retro charms and unlike other cars. It's about individuality - and being as far away from BMW as it can get. For a number of generations that's been true of the BMW-Mini reboot, moving from a huge central speedo to what's now a digital display in the centre and a fairly analogue driver display.
Design seems to be the key factor, however, with the cute run of switches slightly ambiguous in their positioning and the roundel in the centre of the dash not hugely well adapted to take a rectangular display in the middle.
The same can be said of the driver's display: evolving from retro dials in early models of the Mini, there's only a small digital section at the bottom of the driver display, the odd power meter we mentioned above, and the fuel gauge. It might be design first, but it's now a bit of a restriction in an ever more digital era - especially as the Mini Electric will be fully digital to step around this problem.
Elsewhere the technology offerings give you some good options. On the Countryman you get the Navigation Pack as standard, which means you get Apple CarPlay as standard too. It's wireless as well, so there's no need to plug in your phone if you don't want to. There's no support for Android Auto (that's a BMW issue), although you can still connect your Android phone to Bluetooth and get media access.
In addition there are Mini Connected services. Once registered and setup, this will allow you to access information on your phone about the car - like the range and whether the doors are locked. There's also the option to find addresses on your phone and send those to the car so it knows where you're going as soon as you get in.
It's actually a really good system - also allowing access to a number of other services - with the best experience reserved again for iPhone users. You can read a lot more about the infotainment services in the Mini in our in-depth feature right here.
So while the physical layout of the Mini tries to preserve some retro charms, there's also a big dollop of very usable tech in here too.
Overall the interior is very comfortable: we love the seats, the driving position is good and the visibility is pretty good too. Certainly, there are areas where the design could be more convenient - but it's a fine balance between preserving that individuality and making it practical.
Overall the Mini Countryman Cooper S E has plenty of appeal. It's one of the most compact plug-in hybrids on the road in a segment that's still pretty small, but does offer benefits over the growing full battery electric vehicle. With the outgoing generation of 7.7kWh battery models getting a range boost to 10kW (the cost of which remains unknown at the time of writing) - the low-emission and sometimes emission-free proposition of a car like this is only going to get better.
On the strong positive sides you're getting a car that's no slouch: it's fun to drive and we love the way it handles on the road, while also offering all-wheel drive (All4) for that assuredness when roads get a little more demanding. In going hybrid it doesn't lose the Mini fun factor.
There is of course a cost that comes with the plug-in or PHEV setup. Compared to the Cooper D All4 you're basically looking at a £4,000 price bump, but the £31k asking price for the Countryman S E doesn't look wildly off the mark, as it's comparable to the Kia Niro PHEV or the VW Golf GTE.
This article was first published as a preview in July 2017 and has been updated to reflect its full review status.
Alternatives to consider
Volkswagon Golf GTE
One of VW's first ventures into electrification was with the Golf GTE, adding a plug-in option to the popular hatchback - alongside the e-Golf version. You might struggle to get your hands on one - orders are now closed for the model, but it's one of the smaller plug-in models on the road.
The Kia Niro might be rather unassuming from the outside, but it's a hugely progressive car, offering self-charging, plug-in and full electric options. The full electric is one of the best EVs on the road, while the plug-in hybrid offers a rival to Mini's positioning. It might not have the charm, but it has a lot to offer.