THE MINI Countryman raised plenty of eyebrows when it hit the streets seven years ago... because it wasn't very mini at all.
Any initial scepticism was soon swept aside, however, as the new car quickly won buyers over, proving that it was possible to combine the cheeky charm of the MINI brand with more family-friendly crossover dimensions.
The second-generation Countryman, launched this year, has grown up even more.
At some 20 centimetres longer and 3cm wider than its predecessor, it is the biggest and most versatile model in the iconic marque's 57-year history. It is also still unmistakably a MINI, despite some more rugged styling.
The extra space is instantly noticeable in the cabin, where there is plenty of head and legroom and there is the genuine prospect of seating three in the back in relative comfort, at least on shorter journeys.
The 40:20:40 split rear seats can also be specified to slide back and forth by up to 13cm, prioritising either passenger legroom or load capacity, as well as folding down to expand the 450-litre boot to a very healthy maximum of 1,390 litres.
There's even an optional cushion that folds out from the underfloor storage space and rests on the tailgate lip, creating what MINI is rather grandly calling a ‘picnic bench'. It's a little gimmicky but fits the brand's quirky image.
Interior quality is in keeping with the premium status of a BMW-produced car with tactile, soft-touch surfaces and a reassuringly solid feel to all the switchgear.
The dashboard is built around the familiar circular dial which houses the infotainment system, now with touch screen functionality, and is illuminated by lights that change colour with driving style.
Power comes from a choice of two petrol or two diesel engines or, for the first time in a MINI, a plug-in petrol-electric hybrid.
Cooper and Cooper S models can be had with two or four-wheel drive but the hybrid and a high-powered John Cooper Works version only come with the latter.
The Cooper S I drove features a 2.0-litre,192ps petrol engine which, in my car, was paired with a super-smooth eight-speed automatic transmission and the ALL4 all-wheel drive system.
Despite the extra bulk of the Countryman this set-up delivers the sort of performance that you associate with the Cooper S badge - racing from 0-62mph in just over seven seconds and on to a top speed of 138mph.
Quick throttle response gives the car an urgent feel under sharp acceleration, which is accompanied by a satisfying growl from beneath the bonnet, while and well-weighted steering, solid grip and great body control make for some nimble and agile handling.
It doesn't quite have the go-kart-like qualities of its smaller siblings but the Countryman still offers plenty of encouragement and fun for the enthusiastic driver.
The pay-off for this is a slightly firm ride which, while acceptable in a normal MINI, might not be to everyone's taste in this more family-focused incarnation.
Standard equipment levels are good across the range and include air conditioning, satnav, Bluetooth and rear parking sensors.
As with all MINIs, though, you have to tick quite a few options boxes to get the real high-end kit as well as the cool extras and personalisation details that bring out the Countryman's character - things like leather upholstery, heated seats and funky interior mood lighting.
A number of options ‘packs' bundle many of these together to offer some savings but you'll still need to add a fair amount to the starting price to get your car just the way you want it.
MINI Countryman Cooper S ALL4 Auto
Mechanical: 192ps, 1,998cc, 4cyl petrol engine driving four wheels via 8-speed automatic gearbox
Max Speed: 138mph
Insurance Group: 24