2012 Mini Cooper Countryman ALL4: the maxi-Mini

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The Mini Countryman ALL4 is the anti-SUV.

MINIS are the Jack Russell terriers of the auto world: small on the outside, big on the inside; cuddly and cute one minute, hair-on-fire intense the next, and always awesomely competent.

I never met a Jack Russell I didn’t like, nor a Mini. But at first the ALL4 made me think that what makes the mini-Mini so endearing was working against this larger model. The ride hammered me senseless.

The biscuit-tin body boomed and echoed. The clutch grabbed. The zippy steering would be overpowered by the big motor . . . but then the all-wheel drive and the clever cornering brake control kicked in.

The ALL4 straightened out and shot through the bend at the top of my hill, gripping with claws instead of mere tires. My attitude began to evolve. It’s still a Jack Russell, just a bigger, tougher one.

The original British Mini debuted in 1959, and caught on like fish & chips. Its transverse engine, front-wheel drive, rubber suspension, monocoque construction and super-efficient interior (aided by shoving the wheels out to the corners) within sub-sub-compact dimensions were revolutionary.

Cranked-up Cooper S versions stormed the European rally circuit. I first drove one in 1970 and was stunned by its cheerful belligerence—125 miles per hour on 10-inch wheels? By the late 1980s, the Mini had been surpassed in safety and comfort by other little cars, but it kept on selling because it was such a hoot to drive.

That Mini never made it to the USA, but we weren’t remotely ready for it anyway. In 1994, BMW bought the Rover Group and got Mini in the deal.

The Bavarians created an all-new German Mini, which came to America in 2001. It’s been a smash hit.

Compared to the Smartcar, the Scion iQ and even the Fiat 500, today’s Mini no longer seems so small. The Hardtop is a foot wider and nearly two feet longer than the original.

This Countryman model is 15 inches longer yet. At 13 feet 6, it’s the sport-ute of the family, yet it’s still just the length of a Honda Fit.

A Mini SUV—isn’t that an oxymoron, like giant shrimp? Only if you think a Jack Russell isn’t a real dog. The Countryman has four proper doors and a comfortable, well-bolstered bucket seat inside each one. Head, shoulder, leg and foot room is ample.

The seats are divided by a unique central rail, along which cupholders are stationed. The controls are unique too; some of the switches require puzzling out. Overhead there are two sunroofs. Beneath the liftgate is space for a week’s groceries.

The ALL4 model has the Cooper S motor, a turbocharged four that sends 181 horsepower and 171 pounds of torque to a 6-speed manual gearbox. (A 6-speed, paddle-shift automatic is a $1,250 option.)

BMW says the ALL4 will hit 60 miles per hour in 7.3 seconds, but it feels faster. Top speed is limited to 130. I’ve been averaging 29 miles per gallon.

Power means little without agility, and even the “big” Countryman has that to spare. BMW endowed its Minis with MacPherson struts at the front wheels and multi-link, trailing-arm rear suspension, with anti-sway bars fore and aft. Then there’s traction and skid control, electronic braking distribution, the aforementioned cornering brake control, and communicative, speed-sensitive steering. Brilliant brakes, too.

Base price of the ALL4 is $27,750. Add the Sport, Premium and Cold Weather packages, which include everything from satnav to seat heaters, backup beepers to Xenon lights, and the total becomes $31,250. Small isn’t necessarily cheap any more. But it’s really good. And Mini is beginning to be a rally champion again, too.

I once watched a Jack Russell face down a bull elephant—12 pounds of bristling, eye-popping, stiff-legged fury snarling at five or six tons of bemused tusker. After careful consideration, the elephant decided to retreat.

This came to me when I found myself comparing the ALL4 to another hot SUV, the Porsche Cayenne Turbo. Hardly in the same league, you say? You might be surprised. Like that elephant was.