Countryman is a more grown-up Mini but still playful

Back in the day, vintage Minis were so narrow they could drive on sidewalks. They were so short, the only view out the driver's side window was often another car's hubcap.

Then BMW came along and cashed in on the cute-as-a-button British classic, adding a couple of feet of length, six inches of height and a 21st-century makeover to the compact it resuscitated in 2002 and rechristened as its own Mini brand.

Mini, which had its best U.S. sales month ever in April, is offering a new take on its popular two-door.

The 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman is an ever-so-slightly larger four-door that, befitting a retro model coming up on its 10-year anniversary, has a sort of prepubescent quality. It's still cute, but in its bigger form, it's slightly more awkward looking.

The Macaulay Culkin of compacts, the Countryman is 15 inches longer than the modern Cooper hardtop — the better to accommodate doors, back-passenger legs and groceries in its rear cargo space. It's a car that finds the middle ground between fun and practicality.

The version of the Countryman I tested will appeal to fans of the movie "Italian Job" — drivers who wish there were a Michael Caine driving school to tutor them in the finer points of maneuvering through stairwells. The Cooper S Countryman ALL4 is the sporty, all-wheel drive version.

It's equipped with a turbocharged, direct-injection 1.6-liter engine that comes to speed quickly. It's also outfitted with permanent all-wheel drive that does the hard math, calculating driver speed, steering and acceleration so it can distribute the car's engine power and torque between the front and rear axles and keep the car planted in turns.

Painted an inspiring metallic blue with a pair of retro white racing stripes running up its bonnet, my tester was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission that was torque-y enough for me to make a game of joining freeway traffic. A six-speed automatic is available in two of the Countryman's three trims.

Although the 18-inch wheels on my tester were an upgrade, the run-flat tires were standard. I was aware, and appreciative, of both as I plowed through potholes so cavernous they might have led to China.

As a whole, the Mini lineup demonstrates the playful side of German engineering, and the Countryman is no exception. The interior is truly unlike any other car on the market.

There are dozens of unique design cues, from the key fob that nests in a compartment next to the push-button start to a start-up sound reminiscent of a vintage Pac Man arcade game.

Splitting the car down its center is a rail that begins just south of the center console and runs through the front bucket seats to the two matching seats in the rear. Positioned along this rail is a mount for a cellphone or other device at the driver's right elbow, followed by a captain's chair armrest.

In the rear seat, the rail incorporates two cup holders (one of which has a removable ashtray) and finally a hard-shell case for glasses.

Generally, I applaud bold departures in design, but even I found it a little bizarre to lock a random assortment of car amenities into movable positions along a rail. Time will tell whether this design was wise.

Most striking about the Countryman is an interior feature that's become a Mini Cooper calling card: The enormous speedometer topping the center console.

Big as rapper Flavor Flav's clock necklace, it's a 61/2-inch-diameter circle, the upper half of which is an analog speedometer. Embedded in its lower half are the controls for a glorious Harman Kardon stereo system.

This circular theme is mirrored in the door pulls, the vents, the speakers embedded in the doors — even the toggles that control the outside mirrors.

These toggles are part of a larger aviation theme in the Countryman. There are also flip switches near the rearview mirror to control the car's interior lighting and to operate the windows. Even the parking brake is shaped like the yoke on a Piper Cub.

Unfortunately, the Countryman occasionally sounds like an airplane. The soundproofing on the undercarriage in particular seems a bit weak. And there's a glitch with the screen that disguises the panoramic moon roof. When the windows are open, the screen rattles.

The entire reason to buy the Countryman instead of the two-door Cooper is the extra space. I found the Countryman more than adequate for my legs, sitting in the driver seat or in the rear.

To get this extra space, however, meant the car had to grow its wheelbase, so it's not quite as easy to do a U-turn or park in a tight spot as in the Cooper hardtop. But the go-kart steering that has become a Mini hallmark remains.

Mini may have made its name on nostalgia, but the auto market thrives on fresh ideas.

With its Countryman, Mini expands its offering of fun, stylish and affordable cars for the hip, young and fabulous with a four-door for the young and hip when they become less fabulous — settling down and spawning kids.

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