2014 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4: It's cute, but it's tough

A freak heat wave melted most of the snow and ice. But Mine Hill Road here, at midnight on the first official day of winter, was still tricky.

Temperatures had fallen from unseasonably warm to definitely cold, if not freezing. Dense fog patches compromised visibility. There were wet spots aplenty — some of them actually slippery black ice.

We proceeded gingerly. But there was no compelling reason to be coy in this environment in the 2014 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4. The little wagon is equipped with permanent all-wheel drive, a system that instantly and democratically distributes engine power and torque between front and rear wheels (that is, between front and rear axles) for maximum grip on a variety of road surfaces.

The Cooper Countryman S All4 isn’t the first vehicle many of us would think of as a snow runner, mud crawler or general-purpose off-roader. But, based on our 720-mile drive in weather fair and foul over all kinds of roads, we must give credit where it is due. The compact wagon performed quite admirably in mush-strewn environments.

In fact, it did so well it almost changed my wife’s mind about what to buy to replace our current 2002 Mini Cooper hatchback. Almost. Mary Anne remains upset about the Mini’s “routine” repair costs, such as tire replacement. Also, that irritating rattle in the power sliding-glass roof, which no one seems able to fix at any price, tempers our joint enthusiasm for the brand.

But the Countryman S All4 hits all the notes that made us fall in love with Mini in the first place. It is the cutest compact wagon available. It is distinctive, and it exudes personality. The Countryman S All4 is city-friendly, reasonably fuel-efficient and fun to drive. The thing can run!

We discovered as much driving here on Interstate 87. Many motorists on that road seem to have no respect for small cars. They apparently assume that small equals slow, whatever lane you’re driving in.

Their assumptions give birth to bullying, mostly in the form of tailgating. But the Countryman S All4 handled that rudeness quite nicely. It scooted out of the way with moderate pressure on the accelerator summoning its 1.6-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder gasoline engine to get to work. That small but mighty power plant delivers a maximum 208 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque. The delivery is smooth, consistent — no coughing or hesitation, no begging for timeout.

It occurred to us that maybe the bullies were just messing around — trying to get us to speed up into the waiting arms of the law, thereby relieving evildoers of a potential traffic citation. If so, they not only underestimated the highway prowess of the Countryman S All4, they also underestimated the car’s Innocence Appeal.

Innocence Appeal? It is this: Put two senior citizens in a car as cute as the Countryman S All4. Load it up with well-wrapped Christmas packages. Give the driver — me, in this case — an overabundance of gray hair. Dress the co-pilot, Mary Anne, in her best school-lady outfit, including spectacles. You’re a traffic cop? Who are you going to arrest: us, or the joker in the revved-up Dodge Charger trying to push us out of the way?

Aside: Dear tailgating bully, you deserved that ticket. Merry Christmas. Perhaps you will change your behavior in the new year.

There is so much to like about Mini cars — that’s “MINI” to those of you who are product-nomenclature purists. They fit easily into your daily driving life, if not exactly into your wallet. The Countryman S All4, for example, starts at $27,400. By the time you add “desirable options,” you are looking at $35,900. That’s a corporate gift to Mini rivals, many of which, such as the Nissan Juke, offer more carrying space and just as many desirable options for a lot less money.

There also is the matter of fuel economy. Lightly loaded — with only driver and front-seat passenger — the Countryman S All4 gets a fairly decent 25 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. That drops about three mpg in each case with the addition of 220 pounds of Christmas gifts and fix-up tools.

Mini’s engineers contend that the Countryman S All4 can run well on 89-octane gasoline. But real-world experience tells me that is a marketing ploy. The owner’s manual instructs us to use more expensive premium gasoline for “best performance.” Our experience: Follow the owner’s manual and be happy.