A "big Mini" sounds as contradictory as "jumbo shrimp," but here it is.
The new Mini Cooper Countryman will be the first all-wheel-drive-optional four-door model to wear the automaker's winged crest when it arrives in early 2011.
It will also be the biggest.
Yet when compared to any other similar-sized sport utility vehicles on the market (say the Honda Element or upcoming Nissan Juke and Mitsubishi RVR), the Countryman will still be the smallest of this funky bunch.
Luckily, small doesn't mean crowded or cramped, which is how tall folks are made to feel when climbing aboard or extricating themselves from the basic Mini or even the extended-length Clubman.
The Countryman is about 15 centimetres taller than its siblings and is also 10 centimetres wider for added shoulder and elbow room.
The rear doors are generously proportioned, allowing easy access for two adults perched atop flat-folding bucket seats. A three-place rear bench will reportedly be a no-cost option.
Opening the big rear hatch accesses a decent-sized storage compartment. With the back seats folded, there's about 25 per cent more capacity than you'll find inside a Mini Clubman.
Both rows are divided by a full-length console that Mini refers to as a "Centre Rail."
Here, the cupholders, USB plug-in ports (for your portable music player) and arm rest slide fore and aft along aluminum tracks
Each back seat can be adjusted forward or back up to 13 centimetres, whether you need to max out passenger leg room or cargo space.
The control panel will be familiar to anyone who has been in a Mini, especially the large circular display pod in the middle of the dash that contains the speedometer, fuel gauge, audio controls and the optional navigation system.
The higher output John Cooper Works package that's optional on the Mini Cooper S and Mini Clubman S won't be available — at least initially —for the Countryman, but a Sport option with a lowered ride height (for improved handling) and unique wheels will be offered.
This type of variety is just what the Countryman needs to reach a wider audience than either the Cooper or Clubman.
With more size, room, seating and all-wheel-drive capability, it is, quite literally, a big step in a whole new direction to become a Mini for the masses.