Mini's new plug-in hybrid packs thrills into a compact cruiser

The Countryman ALL4 is more spacious and eco-friendly than ever.

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    From the moment it appeared at the LA Auto Show, the new Mini Countryman ALL4 plug-in hybrid seemed to run in a different pack than other affordable EVs. That's due in large part to the Mini's heritage. Driving a Mini always meant having a good time, and the argument for strapping into a Countryman is as much about whipping around in a grown-up go-kart as it is about conserving fossil fuels.

    For those keeping track, this technically isn't the first-ever Mini EV -- it's just the first widely available one. BMW built the purely electric Mini E between 2009 and 2010, and it was really more of a rolling tech demo than anything else. To make things trickier, even if you were lucky enough to live in one of the two markets where it was available, you could only get it on a lease. Not so this time: You can snag a Mini Countryman ALL4 hybrid for about $37,000 at your local dealership.

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    That's not bad for a hybrid that's this fun to drive. In case you're unfamiliar, here's the thing about Minis: They're fast, agile things, and this hybrid is thankfully no exception. An electric motor works in tandem with a 3-cylinder Turbo engine to produce 221 horsepower, enough to push the Countryman from zero to 60 in about 6.7 seconds. In my experience, that has made it a perfectly snappy city ride: This plug-in hybrid has enough oomph to beat others off the line, which helps tremendously with jostling for position in crowded lanes.

    The Countryman obviously isn't as insane as a Model S or a BMW i8, but it feels like a far cry from other, more practical hybrids. That effortlessly quick feel is aided by the Countryman's all-wheel drivetrain. Mini says this is the most affordable hybrid with AWD. For me, having spent my entire life fighting lousy Northeast winters, this is a big deal. Snow obviously isn't a problem now, though, so the Countryman hybrid's AWD mostly shined when taking swooping curves a little too fast on the Jersey Turnpike.

    Gallery: Test Drive: Mini's new Countryman hybrid | 15 Photos

    It's on those sorts of flat stretches where the Countryman really comes into its own. With sport mode enabled, it tears across asphalt with utter confidence — just make sure to have your power settings correctly configured. Since the EV charging infrastructure in my corner of Jersey kind of sucks, I left the Countryman in "save battery mode" most of the time.

    That setting lets the conventional engine do most of the work, and switching into the Green driving mode helps the battery recharge; it look a little over two hours of commuting to recharge the dry cell. The downside is, the hybrid Countryman has a fuel tank that's about two gallons smaller than the normal model, so in trying to recharge the battery, I've been topping up the gas more frequently than I expected. When the battery has sufficient power, though, kicking the car into MAX eDrive is good for a laugh. From there, you can use just the electric motor until you hit 78 miles an hour.

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    So yeah, you get the point: The Countryman is generally a blast to drive. The interior experience, though, can feel dicier. Don't get me wrong, the all-leather trim and seats are comfortable enough, and there's more cargo space and headroom than in prior models. Still, I can't get over how clumsy the infotainment and navigation system can be. Most of the time you'll probably use the control dial down by your right side, and it works well enough. Using the touchscreen (available as part of the $2,200 "Technology" package) is a total pain, though.

    The interface, especially when it comes to navigation, rarely sticks to touch-based interaction norms, and accessing submenus can be tricky at best. Unless you're not in a rush to get somewhere, you'll almost certainly want to use your smartphone for navigation. If you do decide to use the built-in navigation, you'll at least get the next direction on the list (along with current speed) on a reflective heads-up display that rises up from the dash in front of you. Companies are clearly aware of the difficulties that come with crafting software for in-car use, but man: It still feels like we're a long way from truly good, intuitive car interfaces.

    All told, the Countryman hybrid is far from perfect. I wish I could wring more than 12 miles out of the battery, and a gas tank wasn't smaller than a regular Mini's would've been nice. Still, the stuff it gets right is considerable — BMW squeezed a lot of fun into a compact package. For people looking for a more thrilling way to be green, this might just do the trick.

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