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Massive Mini Countryman targets family car market

Image caption The classic and the Countryman are very different, yet they are clearly both members of the Mini family

A new Mini will hit the road later this month - one that has moved miles away from the marque's roots and seems to defy much of the logic of the tiny original.

At a driving event for the media this week, the new Mini Countryman was met with much head-shaking by puzzled, albeit curious, motoring journalists.

The car was described as strange, competent, expensive, risky, even dull - there was no consensus view.

But one thing is certain - the Countryman is different, whether compared with rivals or with Minis made in the past.

Park it next to a classic and there are clearly more differences than similarities. At almost twice the size, the Countryman clearly lacks the low-slung go-cart-like characteristics of the original.

It is tall and bulky, its bulging bonnet has a protruding upper lip, and the wheel arches can only be described as butch.

Yet somehow it still looks like a member of the Mini family, the way a mother might resemble her child, or the way a teenage boy might have inherited some of his grandfather's quirky characteristics.

Snow and mud

But unlike the purist classic, the Countryman comes across as having a split personality.

Image caption The Countryman is reasonably capable off road

Take it off road and the 4x4 version handles rutted fields and slippery mud slopes with aplomb.

A rally Mini based on the Countryman's chassis will presumably deal with such conditions even better when the marque returns to the FIA World Rally Championship next year.

Yet Mini executives are eager to stress that it is not an off-road car - indeed, the standard version is front-wheel drive only. It is a crossover, they stress, built primarily for the road, but also perfectly able to deal with snowy roads or potholed country tracks.

On the road, the drive has little in common with its nippy hatchback sibling. The ride is high and floaty and the steering much less precise.

But smaller Mini-models are not the Countryman's main rivals, so comparing it to those is perhaps unfair.

Instead, the roomy car is pitched as an alternative for drivers who have chosen not to buy Minis in the past, precisely because they have been too small, or at drivers who have outgrown the hatchback or the convertible.

Volkswagen's Golf, Ford's Focus, Toyota's Rav4 and Suzuki's SX4 are named as competitors, but its main rival will be Nissan's hugely successful Qashqai crossover, according to Mini product manager Lee Connolly.

"Nissan's been doing an extremely good job here and we want a slice of their cake, for sure," he says. "The crossover segment is a growing market that we want to be part of."

Stretching the brand

Three quarters of the Countryman's customers will be families, Mr Connolly predicts.

Image caption By 2013, Mini will have six models in its stable

But targeting customers who are looking for practicality could backfire if it alienates traditional Mini customers who are looking for a funky and youthful experience.

Hence, the Countryman risks stretching the Mini brand to its limits, perhaps damaging its carefully honed image in the process. Launching it thus poses a significant risk for its parent company BMW.

But that, executives say, is a risk worth taking as building on the roaring success of Mini's existing hatchback, convertible and Clubman models could also prove hugely rewarding.

"This is arguably the most important launch since we introduced the New Mini in 2001," says Mr Connolly.

And it is the first of many. Over the next couple of years, two more Minis - a roadster and a coupe - will go on sale, bringing the British-based carmaker's model line-up to six - not counting its experimental electric Mini E.

Though unlike the other five, the Countryman will not be produced in the UK, but in Austria.

Ian Robertson, member of the BMW Group's management board in charge of sales and marketing, has long been convinced the marque is ready to be expanded further and hints that there might well be more to come.

But any such decisions are unlikely to be made until the Countryman has won over the buying public.

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