It’s a potential problem for any automaker, and frankly, the reason why this column exists. For companies with multiple brands, the bean counters, PR teams, and engineers put in long hours trying to ensure that there’s some daylight between their nameplates. A Chevy shouldn’t be too much like a Buick, Volkswagen rarely overlaps with Audi, and uh, well, you won’t be confusing a Smart Fortwo with a Mercedes CLA anytime soon. But BMW is increasingly a different story.
BMW still builds some of the best cars in the world. But sales have expanded year over year since 2009, and that’s because it’s been expanding both up and downmarket. While that’s been going on, its entry brand Mini has moved upmarket. No longer the cheap and cheerful British runabout it used to be, Mini now has a lineup of affordable and upscale small cars. For proof, look at the Clubman’s Bentley-on-a-budget interior.
Sure, you won’t be cross-shopping a John Cooper Works hatch with an M2 anytime soon, but Mini’s latest SUV, the Countryman, has a lot more in common with its parent company BMW’s entry-level crossover, the X1, than you might think. For decades, Bavaria’s Ultimate Driving Machines (at least until very recently) have been either rear- or all-wheel drive. But for the first time in a U.S.-spec model, the X1 is front-wheel drive. And instead of sharing its platform with a host of other Bimmers, the X1’s closest cousin comes from Merrie Olde England. So which is the better choice, the German or the Brit? That’s what we’re going to find out in this week’s Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape:
The compact X1 has been around since 2009 in Europe and the rest of the world, and has been on sale stateside since 2013. The results have been promising: Over 35,000 X1s have been sold in the months since the introduction of the second-generation model in late 2015. Those aren’t Ford Escape numbers, but for a premium brand those numbers aren’t bad. Starting at $33K (the all-wheel drive xDrive model starts at $35K), the X1 has a 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four that sends 228 horses and 258 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic. That’s good enough to make it the most powerful crossover in its class.
Inside, there’s room for five, with most of the trappings you’d expect from BMW. And despite its blasphemous layout (at least to brand purists), there’s enough excitement to make the X1 live up to its Hofmeister kink and kidney grilles. Excellent handling and surprising agility, good power, and an engaging enough ride to make you forget which wheels are driving the car — no small feat for any compact people mover.
But while front-wheel drive is a departure for BMW, it’s been a part of Mini DNA for nearly 60 years. Like the X1, all-wheel drive is available on the Countryman (known as All4), but despite its rugged looks, most customers will likely be fine with the standard setup. At 169.8 inches long, it’s 6 inches smaller than the Bimmer, but it’s nearly 8 inches longer than the outgoing model, making it the biggest Mini ever. There’s also room for five here, and it’s available with the bold colored, quilted leatherette that’s available in the Clubman.
Unlike the X1, there are a number of powertrains available in the Countryman. The base Cooper is powered by a 1.5 liter turbocharged inline-three for 134 horsepower, the Cooper S has a 189 horse 2.0 liter four, and the range-topping Cooper S E plug-in hybrid puts out an impressive 221 horses and 258 pound-feet, bringing it within striking distance of its German relative.
Curiously, Mini’s website compares the Countryman with the Audi Q3 and the Mercedes GLA 250, but not the X1. There are still a few things up in the air, namely pricing and driving impressions (gas-powered models will arrive early 2017, the hybrid later that year), but for the money, we’d rather have a pricey Mini than an entry-level BMW.
The X1 does an admirable job of hiding its un-BMW-like roots and delivering an engaging driving experience — sadly that’s no small feat for most compact crossovers. But at the end of the day, we’d rather drive something that isn’t engineered to compensate for what it is. The X1 thankfully doesn’t cheapen the BMW name. But the Countryman embraces the quirky, iconoclastic Mini legacy while still giving modern customers what they want.