Cars have become expensive rolling gadgets, full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we'll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.
Oh wow, I thought, feeling the keyless entry engage just as soon as I gripped the handle of the Mini Countryman. Then, with a tug of the door, a winged Mini logo appeared on the asphalt at my feet, projected from a recessed light tucked just inside the door handle. I had to laugh. Like a good unboxing, I was already enjoying the Countryman experience and I was still standing on the curb. You might hate the projected logo; I get that, it’s a gimmick. Others, like me, will think it’s a fun, novel approach to path lighting. That makes it the perfect litmus test. Mini’s a brand that loves to express itself, and you by extension, through quirky, yet sophisticated applications of tech. I drove it for a week: four days on the congested, narrow streets of Amsterdam and another three in the wide-open countryside with my family of five. Boy was I sad to give it back.
Mini, like Rolls-Royce, is part of the BMW Group. The 2017 Mini Cooper S Countryman was built in January 2017 by my fellow countrymen and women here in the Netherlands. The model I’ve been driving came equipped with options valued at €14,630 (about $16,375) above its €25,616 (about $28,665) base price, for a recommended retail price of €57,610.44 (about $64,480) after Dutch we’d-rather-you-buy-an-electric-car taxes and fees.
Mini purists — and there are many — will be put off by its size. That’s not a Mini, it’s a Maxi, they’ll sneer, as if the mere presence of the BMW-built five-passenger Countryman is reason enough to be offended. See, it’s a subcompact crossover that towers over the original Austin Mini Countryman from the ‘60s. As such, it wears the Mini badge with a wink and a nod, a cheekiness expressed in wonderful and unexpected ways from the boot to the bonnet.
If BMWs are the ultimate driving machine, then the Mini is the ultimate gadget machine... from the ‘90s. Don’t get me wrong: the Countryman I drove is very modern by car standards, but modern gadgets can be transformed over time with system updates. These usually add free new features like updated turn-by-turn maps or even Apple CarPlay — a feature that’s coming to all newly-built Countrymans starting next month. Minis can’t do that: the model I tested will never be Apple CarPlay compatible even though it’s only five months old. That makes it more like an old Walkman than a smartphone.
And people loved their Walkmans.
Because it’s a Mini, my Cooper S Countryman test ride featured an iconic center console that harkens back to the original, anchored by a modern, 8.8-inch 1280 x 480 pixel transflective multitouch display. It’s nowhere near as dominating as the center display found in Tesla’s rolling tablet, but it’s responsive, easily viewable in direct sunlight, and big enough for a split-screen view without being too distracting. The display is flanked by a dynamic ring of LED lights that change colors and intensity depending upon function. Switch to eco mode, for example, and the lights surrounding the display glow green for an instant. The ring of lights will then reset itself to indicate changes in volume and RPMs, or however you choose to configure it. (You can dim or disable the ring lights altogether.) I found the light ring to be informative, not obnoxious, but I also like the look of old-school arcades. The center display was great at presenting highly detailed navigation maps while driving and colorful animated tutorials while parked. And believe me, if you buy a Countryman you’ll want to take the time to read the onboard tips and tricks to make the most of your Mini. (More on that later.)
The Countryman was also fitted with an optional heads-up color display that automatically lifts into place at startup. It can also be stowed via a throw-switch on the center console. I found the HUD to be incredibly useful while driving, far more so than the much bigger central display. Everything I needed to know while driving was displayed onto the smokey transparency of the HUD: no passing zone warnings and 3D navigation illustrations would appear just in time, while the speed limit and my current speed were always on display. If I wanted to hear a different audio source, I could scroll through the available options without ever taking my hands off the wheel or my eyes off the road.
I was disappointed to find out that the Countryman’s implementation of the iDrive infotainment platform didn’t support display mirroring like some BMWs. The option to cast a video onto that 8.8-inch display while I waited for my daughter to finish her gymnastics class felt like a missed opportunity.
Let’s face it, we spend a lot of time listening to stuff in cars, be it conference calls, podcasts, or most importantly, music. My Countryman test ride came equipped with an optional (€790, or $750 if configured in the US) Harman-Kardon sound system that blasted 410 watts of whatever through 12 speakers: five tweeters, five midrange speakers, and two bass speakers under the front seats. Mini puts the eight-channel digital amp in the luggage and adjusts the sound to specific vehicle and ambient conditions.
The Countryman could source music over DAB/DMB, FM, AM radio; USB; aux; or my personal Spotify account. (Pandora and SiriusXM satellite radio is also supported in the US.) I mostly used the DAB+ radio option because the choices were endless and my Spotify playlists were slow to propagate.
Calls and music all sounded great and worth the cost of the upgraded sound system, in my opinion. I rarely put the volume above 40 percent which was already too loud for my dad ears, but even at 70 percent I didn’t hear any noticeable distortion. And no, even with that bass speaker under your ass, it’s not going to feel like the thump of a big ol’ Kicker subwoofer in the hatch, but I tested the car in quiet and reserved Amsterdam, not LA.
All Minis are built upon a modified version of the same iDrive computer system we’ve already seen in our ScreenDrives of the Rolls-Royce Dawn and BMW 530i. BMW’s iDrive has proven to be highly skinable across car divisions. On the Rolls, iDrive is very serious, indeed. But on the Mini, the UI is bright and playful with big, bulbous icons and lively animations. (Mini never uses the term iDrive in its documentation.)
There are many ways to interact with iDrive. When parked, I preferred to reach out and touch that big, 8.8-inch touchscreen display directly. The display supports multitouch for pinching and zooming on maps, for example. It’s also just as sensitive and responsive as any modern smartphone or tablet, which is great when focused, but not really a great thing when you’re driving. That’s where iDrive’s wheeled Controller comes in.
I found the Controller to be quite intuitive to use once I understood its movements. It turns left and right like a dial as you’d expect from its shape, but it also rocks to the left or right, or forward and back. You can also press down. And in some menus you can even trace letters to spell out the names of contacts or places. The Controller is flanked by a series of dedicated menu buttons for quick and assured access to functions. These include pulling up the main Menu or your Media, Maps, Navigation, and Comms; to open Options or go back to the last menu item.
For the most part, however, there’s very little reason to take your hands off the wheel while driving. With my hands at 10 and 2, I had access to a full suite of controls as you’d expect. My right thumb was in charge of iDrive’s voice activation (or Siri with a long press of the voice button when paired to my iPhone), media playback, and phone calls, while my other four digits were in control of the wipers. My left hand was in charge of the cruise control, turn signal, and lights.
The Mini’s built-in voice control worked well, thanks to dedicated microphones positioned directly above the driver and front passenger. People I called said my voice was “perfect,” meaning it sounded like a normal call (high praise). My Mini had a note-taking feature which let me record voice memos, and I was surprised by the clarity and isolation of my voice.
Unfortunately, the Mini’s built-in voice assistant wouldn’t allow me to send or display texts when paired with my iPhone. It did, however, understand “call my wife,” an association I told Apple about years ago. If I pressed and held the voice assistant button to activate Siri, I could send texts, but they still wouldn’t display in the Messages section on the center display. I also couldn’t figure out how to make Siri play Apple Music tracks through the Mini’s entertainment system; it would just start playing the last locally stored iTunes song instead.
And if I can, I’d like to give a shoutout to all the old-school toggle switches scattered above and below the center console in a nod to the original Mini’s industrial design. Besides, why should jets have all the fun?
My Mini Cooper S Countryman test ride came equipped with the usual sensors to help automate some of the driving experience. I already mentioned keyless entry, enabled by a transceiver in the Mini’s little remote control fob, which allowed the Countryman to be locked or unlocked by pushing a small button on the door handle. Other sensors automatically turn on the lights when it’s dark or the wipers when it’s raining — all standard stuff in today’s cars.
The Countryman also came with four ultrasonic sensors and a couple of cameras. The sensors — two up front and two in the back — assist with obstacle detection and avoidance. The rear sensors help when parking, but they also let me kick a foot under the bumper in order to open or close the hatch when my hands are full. A camera in front helps fine-tune navigation by reading road signs (and tuning the speed guidance in the HUD, for example), while another camera located above the rear license plate is activated on the center display when backing up. The Mini’s optional (€600) Active Driving Assistant used those cameras and sensors to monitor and adjust my speed (and even brake) to help avoid collisions with other cars and pedestrians. It also dimmed my high beams automatically for oncoming traffic. The Driving Assistant worked well in combination with the optional (€390) Active Cruise Control to monitor and maintain a safe distance from the vehicles ahead of me while driving on the highway.
The sensors also helped immensely with parking on Amsterdam’s narrow and congested streets. For starters, the right-side mirror would automatically dip while in reverse to give a clear view of the curb. The split-screen view on the spacious 8.8-inch display was especially useful when backing up to show both a live rear camera view and an illustrated view that used colorful bands to indicate the proximity of nearby obstacles (yellow to orange to red, in order of increasing risk). And as you’d expect from a $60,000 car, the Countryman was equipped with enough intelligence to parallel park itself.
Other intelligent technology worth mentioning is the autostart engine that shuts off at stoplights and then starts again when the onboard camera sees the light turn green (or you release the brake); an optional Qi wireless charging option for phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8; auto-dimming / power-folding side mirrors; and a little Mini-supplied Bluetooth tracker so you don’t lose your keys. And if there’s an accident, the Mini Countryman is prepared to automatically call emergency services with the car’s exact location and status.
Car software is the often the weakest point and the Mini Countryman is no exception. It’s not terrible — it is based on iDrive, after all — but the Mini’s most egregious issue was introduced by its €1,700 “professional” navigation system that’s built upon Here maps. The Countryman doesn’t support Android Auto and new models won’t get Apple CarPlay (and Apple Maps) until next month.
To put it simply, the Mini’s overpriced navigation option wasn’t as reliable as the free Google Maps installed on my iPhone. There was one particular stretch of new (as of March) highway just east of Amsterdam that my very expensive “Pro” navigator knew nothing about. Fortunately, my wife, who was seated next to me, was able to pull up Google Maps on her phone just as the Mini’s navigation began to freak out. It showed a juttery green field on the map and pleaded with me to turn around on the highway. I had enough of these snafus during the week, both big and small, that I came to distrust the Countryman’s navigation which meant running Google Maps in parallel to fact-check the Mini’s turn-by-turn instructions. (Note: you can update the Mini’s maps, but at a price. More on this later.)
The Mini Connected app available for both iOS and Android was useful enough, I guess. But really it’s just a stopgap until CarPlay is supported. I was able to set my destination in the app before entering the car and then the Countryman’s navigation would take over. At least in theory. It only worked about 50 percent of the time. Maybe it would have worked 100 percent of the time had I given it the chance, but it was so slow to recognize my device even after it was paired that I grew impatient and resorted to keying in my destination on the touchscreen (and then confirming the route with Google Maps on my iPhone). The Mini Connected app could also be used to locate the vehicle after it was parked (something Apple Maps does as well), and to track the Bluetooth tag attached to Countryman’s keys.
I have a confession to make that risks discrediting myself as a reviewer of cars, even if it’s just car tech: my last car was a 1970 Karmann Ghia, which I sold a few years ago. Oh sure, I’ve driven a wide range of other cars in the meanwhile, but those were all base models owned by a rental or car-sharing service. I’ve never owned a modern car.
So imagine my surprise to find out that in 2017, 10 years after the first iPhone shipped with Google Maps preinstalled, the Mini Countryman that I was driving would run essentially the same software already installed — forever. Oh sure, I can update the Here-sourced maps, but only if I pay a one-time fee of €79 for a single update or €102 for a couple of years’ worth, even though my Countryman test ride was equipped with the optional €1,700 “professional” navigation system. And if I want the iDrive update that’s adding Apple CarPlay to Minis in just a few weeks, well, I’d have to buy a brand-new Mini. That’s right, there’s no upgrade path.
This stale thinking related to software is why so many people are eager to see Silicon Valley disrupt the automotive world. How is it possible that Tesla remains one of the few cars that can be software upgraded over the air — something that even the dumbest smart toothbrush can do, but not a $60,000 car?
There was so much tech packed into my test car that I spent the entire week tinkering with the car’s settings until it was finally set to my liking… just in time to return it to BMW. But like my first iPhone, I enjoyed going through all the options and discovering every single nuance of this rolling gadget. Most people aren’t like me — but many Verge readers are.
I should note that the Countryman customization packages differ by country, often varying widely in bundled features and pricing. And there are many options to choose from — “10 million possible combinations” according to the Mini USA website.
Clearly, I can’t recommend the professional navigation package found on my European test Mini as it’s not worth anything close to the €1,700 price. But if you’re buying a new Mini Cooper S Countryman built after July then iPhone owners, at least, can still get Apple CarPlay support. You’ll definitely want that 8.8-inch display option on the center console, even if it’s just for the split-screen view while backing up. I’d also recommend the following tech-focused packages, but all other options are a matter of personal taste and style:
- € 790 Park Distance Control sensors
- € 390 Reversing camera
- € 390 Active Cruise Control (ACC)
- € 600 Driver assistant collision avoidance
- € 610 Heads-up display
- € 790 Harman-Kardon sound system
- € 460 Electronically opening and closing tailgate
And because this is, after all, a Mini, I’d also pay €130 for the exceptionally engineered foldout picnic bench. It turns the rear bumper into a rather comfortable seat for two with ready access to a 12-volt power socket. What better way to immerse yourself in 410 watts of sound while simultaneously exalting: Look at me, I drive a Mini!
Photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge