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Countryman maximises the Mini

But though Europe's top-selling Volkswagen Golf is in the five-door Mini Countryman's sights, in price and its ability to be tailored to each buyer make it appeal more to the prestige car buyer and, in doing so, ironically, compete with products from its parent BMW.

Mini today said the Countryman, which goes on sale in Australia in January at pricing and final specs still unknown, puts 'clear water' between it and the existing Mini models and claims the bigger hatch will lure a different audience.

That may be true. Inside the Mini Countryman uses its 130mm longer wheelbase to offer excellent legroom for the two rear passengers - a three-seat rear bench is available as an option - and its high profile for a tall ceiling height.

It is clearly aimed at the Mini buyer with more than one friend and though rival five-door cars can offer more room in the boot and a cheaper price tag, nothing really spells exclusivity like this latest model. In the flesh, it's big. At 4.1m long it is almost medium size hatch class and that is enforced by its near 1.6m height.

The wheels are 17-inch - though 16s are standard on the base model and 8s are available - and pump out the guards so that, combined with the 'wheel at each corner' design, make it look even more toy-like than the three-door model. But it is balanced - certainly more so than the asymetrical lines and doors of the Mini Clubman wagon - and attracted curious but not divergent opinion this week.

Part of the reason for the acceptance is that the Countryman is presented as an all-wheel drive. Mini doesn't exactly term it an SUV because it doesn't see it ever being a softroader. Rather, it points to the AWD system - an on-demand system from Haldex - as providing extra traction for those icy or gravel roads that may be an impediment to reaching your favourite ski field or surf spot. Global car audiences love SUVs and even pseudo-SUVs.

Mini says that the Countryman "bridges the gap between the classic Mini concept and a state-of-the-art Sports Activity Vehicle".

"The design of the Mini Countryman exudes originality, performance, a dependable robustness and versatility. And yet the customary MINI charm and individual allure remain resoundingly intact.''

There's no new badge to identify the Countryman. Rather, trainspotters will need to pick out the five-door design and if in doubt, will recognise the Countryman's hexagonal-patterned grille that stands more vertical than that of the other Mini models.

The engines will follow existing Mini trends in Australia, with Cooper and Cooper S in diesel and petrol confirmed but Mini says the full John Cooper Works program is unlikely.