German carmaker BMW has already made a splash in the plug in electric car market with the i3 and more recently the electric Mini. Now it’s trying to win more hearts with the Mini Countryman plug in hybrid, part of its shift to being “climate-neutral by 2050” and cutting its carbon footprint from car production by 80% by 2030.
The Countryman is not a new model in itself. The petrol version has been on the market since 2010, adding a subcompact luxury crossover SUV to the Mini range, and there have been previous Countryman PHEV models. 2021 sees the release of the latest iteration, offering an all-electric range of up to 61 kilometers combined with the same 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine found in the BMW i8.
Picking up the vehicle from BMW HQ in Melbourne’s east, I was given a brief tour of the vehicle before heading to the first stop. What I like about the updated interior is how Mini have combined modern technologies such as the touchscreen infotainment and the digital dashboard, without completely removing the classic button and switches which are central to the Mini identity.
The exterior design includes the union-jack tail lights (which I think look really cool), and updated LED head lights which now include Mini branding.
BMW have simplified the pricing with a more simple tiered package system. Mini says this gives customers more ability to customise their Countryman without having to pay a premium on every checked box.
So now you have two packages to choose from, the Classic Option and the Signature Option.
For today, I was given the signature model with all the bells and whistles, and a cream coloured exterior with classic Mini stripes. It being an organised road test, I was given a strict timetable.
First it directed me to drive about 30 minutes into Melbourne’s CBD to pick up my lunch, followed by another 25 minutes drive to Elham Beach to eat that lunch. Later I would drive back across the city to learn the art of Kintsugi.
Driving into town, my initial thoughts were “this is a cool car”. And let’s be honest, it is a cool car, and it’s a fun car. The Countryman model offers a more luxurious interior, and a more roomy one which is excellent for someone who is 6’5″ like me. But luxury isn’t what you’re buying here, you’re buying a fun drive.
The combination of the electric motor and the petrol engine gets you from 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds, but it feels a lot zippier than that thanks to the instant torque from the electric motor. Suspension is firm but does absorb bigger bumps fairly well, particularly for a Mini vehicle which are generally known for a slightly stiffer suspension to give that go-kart driving feel. The extra weight from the battery means a slightly heavy handling experience, yet still a very lively one – again, as you would expect from a Mini.
Having picked up my lunch in town and driven to the beach, I was met by Brendan one of BMW’s reps. When picking up the car I was told to not open the boot until I got to the beach. What awaited me was a cute little picnic setup.
Eating lunch with Brendan, we discussed the Countryman and how it fits into the market. He explains how Mini sees this car as the answer to the inner city couple or family who wants to shift a little more towards sustainability but isn’t ready to take the plunge to go electric. I can see where they’re coming from, the Countryman hybrid does give you that bit of everything, and represents an appealing halfway mark between combustion and electric.
Being an inner-city person myself, and as someone who does not own a garage and lives in an apartment, the Mini represents a package deal of driving electric with the backup of the petrol engine, without the need to find a way to charge. The electric range of up to 60km would also cover more than my average drive to and from work.
Unfortunately, my battery was only 3/4 charged at the time of picking it up earlier in the morning, so by the time I had left the lunch site my battery was almost out and I was using just the petrol engine. The Countryman is an AWD (all-wheel drive), but only when both the petrol engine and the battery are working in tandem. Switch the car to all-electric mode and it turns into a 2-wheel drive using the back two wheels. If you’re out of battery or switch the car to power save mode (using only the petrol engine), you’ll also be reverting to a 2-wheel drive but using only the front 2 wheels.
After a 30 min drive across town I’m taken to an industrial building turned arts precinct and given a one-hour workshop on Kintsugi, the traditional Japanese art of adding value to broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.
This workshop, followed by dinner at the sustainability-focused (and chef-hatted) restaurant Matilda in South Yarra, all kept on the theme of sustainable urban living. And that’s really the target demographic here, those in the city who want (and can afford) to make a small step towards a lower carbon footprint.
The Mini Countryman seems a good attempt by BMW to throw much into one single car. Want to have an electric drive? You got it, at least for a distance. Still want an impressive sounding engine found in some of BMW’s sports models? You still got that. Want the convenience and style of the MINI but without compromising on space? You can have that with the Countryman. Want modern features like touchscreen navigation and an all-digital dash while keeping the more traditional buttons and switches? It’s all yours, but at a price.
The Mini Countryman seems to me to be a tasting plate of almost everything a modern car could offer – a tree change without the move to the countryside, if you like.
The compromise is that while you get a bit of everything, you’re not getting the full serving of everything. The max electric range of 61km is fine if you only drive in and around town, but it’s well short of the range you can get for all-electric vehicles in a not too distant price category. With the price of electric vehicles coming further down, the future of hybrid cars seems a little uncertain.
For now, though, at a time when the majority of electric vehicles on the Australian market command an on-road price tag of $70k+, the Countryman Hybrid can be considered a decent value proposition, particularly if you’re already a fan of the Mini brand.
I personally loved driving this car. The more I drove it, the more I enjoyed it. The mix of digital technology and manual switches and buttons did a lot for me, and it’s a great looking vehicle that is comfortable to drive, even for someone 199cm tall, while still being compact. It will be interesting to see how Countryman hybrid’s value proposition resonates with the Australian market.