NEW YORK – The Countryman, a Mini on steroids that made its North American debut at the auto show here, will bring new buyers to the brand, a top U.S. executive says.

Jim McDowell, vice president-Mini brand, expects most Countryman sales to be incremental when it goes on sale in the U.S. in February. Currently, 65% of Mini sales in the U.S. go to the hardtop model, with the Clubman accounting for 20% and the convertible 15%.

The new 4-door Countryman not only will be the biggest model in the lineup, it will be the most fuel-efficient cross/utility vehicle on the market, Mini says. In Europe, the CUV will be powered by a range of 1.6L gasoline and diesel engines, averaging from 44 mpg to 66 mpg (5.3-3.6 L/100 km), depending on the powerplant.

The vehicle, taller than the hardtop model and boasting a 6-in. (15.2-cm) longer wheelbase, also features all-wheel drive, dubbed ALL4 by Mini.

McDowell says current Mini transaction prices average $29,000 at present, with most buyers spending about $3,000 on options. That’s $1,000 less than it used to be, but “people are a little more careful with their pennies in this recession,” he says.

Mini buyers tend to keep their vehicles five or six years, McDowell says, longer than the industry average of three years. Most buyers have no other brand on their consideration list when they come to buy a Mini, he says, though some cross-shop Scion models, the Mazda 3, Toyota Prius and Volkswagen GTI.

Mini, which didn’t offer any sales incentives in its first few years, now is making reduced-rate financing available.

“We hope as the economy recovers that will no longer be necessary,” McDowell says.

Mini is not subsidizing leasing, and its lease penetration remains low at about 15% of sales. About 40% of buyers pay cash, with the rest financing over four to five years.

More than half of Mini buyers pre-ordered their cars in the past, but custom ordering has plummeted in more recent times.

“That’s dropped dramatically to below 20%,” McDowell says. “But we expect it to grow above 20% in the next few months.”

Mini sales were virtually flat in March, growing a mere five units. The brand is up 2.5% for the first quarter, according to Ward’s data, and McDowell is targeting a 4% increase for all of 2010.