AUSTIN, TX – When Porsche AG first announced plans to offer a cross/utility vehicle, there were howls of protest from Porsche loyalists who feared their cherished, macho brand would be desecrated by wealthy suburban twits.

Years later, similar consternation rolled through the global community of Mini Cooper fans when Mini announced plans for a CUV.

How can an auto maker whose brand is based on making premium B-cars with go-cart handling dare to sell a big, clunky SUV for soccer moms, they wondered.

The answer to that question is easy: Auto makers have to grow to survive, and today that means offering a utility vehicle of some kind.

The Cayenne now is Porsche’s biggest seller. Far from tarnishing the brand, the CUV is filling Porsche’s coffers during tough times and ensuring the survival of its precious sports cars, whether purists appreciate it or not.

After two days of driving the new Mini Countryman here, we can predict it, too, will play a crucial role by expanding the brand’s reach and reeling in new customers and more revenue.

And while the Countryman is larger, it definitely is not clunky. Mini has done a stellar job of capturing the essence of the brand and translating it into a roomier, more practical package. It also is functional and distinctive-looking without being boring or odd.

The CUV has the sharp go-cart steering and handling expected from a Mini, as well as a tight, well-sealed body that is apparent every time you slam its doors.

The turbocharged 1.6L Prince engine in the “S” version, recently named one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 2011, does an especially impressive job of motivating the vehicle, without the nervousness found in comparable high-output engines such as the 1.6L turbo in the Nissan Juke.

With 181 hp, 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of torque and 192 lb.-ft. (260 Nm) of overboost capability, the turbo can power the top-line vehicle with all-wheel drive and 6-speed automatic transmission to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.3 seconds. And even with the thirstiest AWD configuration, the engine delivers 24/31 mpg (9.8-7.6 L/100 km).

The front-drive version with 6-speed manual hits 60 mph in an impressive 7 seconds flat.

In fact, with Mini’s 6-speed manual, the Countryman is fun to drive even with the base, naturally aspirated 121-hp engine, which delivers a noteworthy 27/35 mpg (8.7-6.7 L/100 km).

Only when the base engine is hooked to an automatic transmission does the powertrain seem overmatched, taking almost 11 seconds to hit 60 mph.

The AWD system, a first for Mini, is called ALL4. It uses a direct-drive center differential, positioned directly alongside the transmission’s final drive, and a rear differential with an integrated electro-mechanical clutch.

Under normal driving conditions, up to 100% of the engine’s power goes to the front wheels and under extreme conditions up to 50% can be shifted to the rear wheels. On some brief off-road excursions, the system works fine, although clearly this configuration is designed to improve traction on snowy and slippery roads, not the Rubicon Trail.

’11 Mini Countryman
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle
Engine 1.6L DOHC I-4
Power (SAE net) 121 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 114 lb-ft. @ 4,250 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) Text
Compression ratio Text
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 102.2 ins. (259.6 cm)
Overall length 161.7 ins. (410.7 cm)
Overall width 70.4 ins. (178.8 cm)
Overall height 61.5 ins. (156.2 cm)
Curb weight 2,954 lbs. (1,340 kg)
Base price $22,350
Fuel economy 27/35 mpg (L/100 km)
Competition Nissan Juke, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V
Pros Cons
Go-cart handling Some chintzy interior bits
Excellent fuel economy Mini quirkiness
Powerful turbo engine Base engine needs oomph

Dimensionally, the vehicle is quite a bit larger than the standard Mini Cooper Hardtop, weighing in at 2,954 lbs. (1,340 kg), with a length of 161.3 ins. (409.7 cm) and a 102.2-in. (259.6-cm) wheelbase. That’s an increase of 400 lbs. (181.4 kg), 15.7 ins. (39.9 cm) and 5.1 ins. (13 cm), respectively.

But unlike compact CUVs from some auto makers, there is no mistaking what it is, or wondering what-on-earth it is.

A wide frame around the lower part of the body and strongly flared wheel arches emphasize the vehicle’s sporting personality while the headlamps, short overhangs and tall greenhouse clearly identify the vehicle as a Mini.

Sitting inside, the cabin is open and airy, with a surprising amount of headroom. The instrument panel is dominated by Mini’s almost cartoonish round central display and extra-large air vents at the side for a modern, functional look.

For those unfamiliar with Mini, some of the switchgear will seem quirky and out of place. But if you like the vehicle, you’ll get used to it.

A standard ambient-lighting feature creates color highlights throughout the entire door panel in the night mode. Driver and passengers can change the color of the lighting from orange to blue using a toggle switch.

Seats are supportive and comfortable. The rear seats move fore and aft 5.1 ins. (13 cm) independently. The backrests can be folded flat, creating 41.3 cu.-ft. (1.17 cu.-m) of storage space in the cargo area, compared with the 24 cu.-ft. (0.68 cu.-m) available in the Mini Hardtop with the rear seats folded down.

Overall, plastic textures, finishes and trim pieces look a little chintzy in spots and could have been executed better, but interior quality overall is better than most CUVs with base prices starting in the low $20,000 range. The Countryman starts at $22,350 including a $700 destination charge.

A well-equipped Mini Cooper S Countryman with AWD will be less than $30,000, the auto maker says.

The vehicle is based on the Mini Hardtop and Clubman platform and does not incorporate any BMW X3 or X1 components, company officials say.

It is assembled by Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik AG & Co. KG in Graz, Austria, which has done contract assembly of numerous BMW vehicles, most recently the X3 CUV.

Company officials say the Countryman will not outsell the Mini’s most-popular Hardtop model. However, it is expected to become the auto maker’s No.2 seller in the in the U.S. lineup, once it goes on sale in January.

Unlike the Porsche Cayenne, it’s hard to imagine this CUV generating angst among Mini brand aficionados. It’s just too charming and well-engineered.

dwinter@wardsauto.com