By Zack Klapman
Every automaker faces expectations. Making the people happy is their job, and it’s a tough one. Some woo new buyers, promising vast improvements over previous failures. Others are faced with the challenge of evolving a popular model without offending its fan base.
It’s the second one that VW faced with the 2012 Golf R. Following the success of the R32, VW had to appease to the Jim Jones devotion of the R32’s fan base. A wrong move could mean pitchforks.
On the other side is the 2012 MINI Countryman S ALL4. The MINI name is the conjoined twin to pint-sized responsiveness; a brand built on small practicality with the abilities of a hare. Both 5-door hatches are under a lot of scrutiny.
Mini Countryman S All4
Here’s the problem with this car: people were expecting the larger Mini Countryman S All4 to drive exactly like a MINI Cooper. That’s a stupid thought, because of physics. At 3,260lbs, it isn’t heavy, but because larger in every way, it won’t be as rigid or agile as the regular MINI Cooper. Sorry everyone, but a 7-series won’t feel like a 3. What the grumblers missed is that this car actually handles quite well (.89g to the Golf’s .86g). On highways, back roads I found the chassis responsive, the AWD allowed rotation on dirt roads. It’s not mini, but it’s still a MINI.
The 1.6L turbo-charged engine’s 181hp/192ft-lbs is fine, but a bit weak by today’s standards (especially compared to the 256HP in the Golf). Our tester had a 6-speed auto, but you want the manual.
Inside are 4 captain’s chairs done in the traditional MINI style (in lieu of a middle seat, there’s a useless accessory rail system). They were comfortable and bolstered well enough, though they are second fiddle to the chairs in the VW.
The interior is also standard MINI: contrasting colors, cool plastic creations, a giant center-mounted speedo (cute years ago, but needs to go away. I never took my eyes off the digital). It definitely has more style than the Golf. However I would like a variation in lighting to break up the wall of orange.
The Countryman’s problem (besides being pricey at $35k) is that people wanted it to be a MINI Cooper JCW, an unfair fault. I didn’t. MINIs are great in the right environment, but the Countryman could go from the city to the snow, and carry 4 adults just fine. And it still has the MINI gene, so it’s still a driver’s car. It’s a crossover with (expensive) character.
Volkswagen Golf R
So, the Golf R has 75 more horsepower than the MINI, 52 more ft-lbs of torque, and doesn’t look like a sad catfish. Should be a shoe-in, right? No, and Volkswagen has the R32 to blame.
The first R32 was a success because it was a new idea: big VR6 engine, AWD, 2-door hatch. What’s not to like? The second one was basically the same, updated. Both were quick, stiff, and sounded incredible. New and different is a tough act to follow, but not impossible.
But what happened is the “R” isn’t justified. That letter on a car used to mean a lot more, but today it’s a marketing tool used by every marque. Yes the Golf is fast, makes good power, and is only offered with a 6-speed MT, but it leans too much in the corners, the shifter felt spongy and you cannot turn traction control off. That TCS is like putting weights in Ali’s boxing gloves. I assure you, VW, the slalom numbers would be better without computer supervision.
Where does that leave us? The Countryman is to the MINI Cooper what Charlie Murphy is to his brother, Eddie: people expected Eddie Murphy 2.0, but didn’t get him. But what they did get is a hilarious comedian that (deservedly) attained massive fame through Chapelle Show. Put aside your idea of what you think a MINI should be and should be and judge it for what it is.
The Volkswagen Golf R is a good car. It’s fast, comfortable, pretty good looking, and feels slightly more deserving of its price than the MINI. It did let me down, but despite my sour grapes, I can’t ignore the superior power and looks. Plus, it doesn’t have that silly center rail.
(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by Mini Cooper.)