I am hurtling down the side of an Austrian mountain in a modified 1997 Mini that is ironically just big enough to provide my final resting place should this go dreadfully wrong. I am being driven by Finnish rally legend Rauno Aaltonen. He is living up to his nickname, The Flying Finn. He is chatting in the same controlled conversational patter he’d been using in the hotel lobby; as we hit icy hairpin after icy hairpin, I am reminded we are not in the hotel lobby. I am clutching the door handle and inquiring about his wife, his children, and how he hasn’t killed himself yet.
At 73, his extraordinary racing career may be behind him, but there is never an instant when he is not in full control of this car. I glance down periodically, to see him performing the left foot braking he is famous for. The convoy of brand new Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL 4s and Mini Coupes trying to keep up to us all have superior safety features, most notably the dynamic traction control that is mandatory on all new cars in Canada as of September 1st of this year.
And this, actually, is the point.
Traction control, like ABS, will save lives. Sensors detect when your car is beginning to skid or lose direction. We’ve all felt it; you’re turning and either take too much speed into the corner, or you hit ice and it takes over. Traction control will automatically bring pressure to the brakes on the appropriate wheel, or pull back a bit on the engine’s power – or both – to allow the driver to regain control. Much of this happens before the driver even realizes they’re in trouble.
Kuehtai is a tiny ski village 45 minutes from the storied town of Innsbruck, Austria. Bringing this string of Minis here in December is a perfect, if unexpected, trial. In a day of testing that combines both off-road and on-road experiments, you soon abandon any notion that Minis are fair weather vehicles. If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.
The Cooper S Countryman ALL 4 is like a maxi Mini. A full four door car with a back seat you can actually put two adults in, it still features the trademark Mini dash with its giant speedo. The silhouette remains undoubtedly Mini, and for the legions of the brand’s fans that have had to relegate it to a second or weekend car, the Countryman might be the answer.
But can it safely handle a Canadian winter?
First order of the day: turn off the traction control. Here is the genesis in understanding how this technology works. Because it limits wheel spin, the traction control is counter-productive if you’re bogged down in snow. You need to get out, and it will keep you there. In most makes of cars, you can flip it off and get yourself unstuck. If you’ve acquired your car in warmer months, there’s a chance you won’t remember this, if you were told at all.
I’m learning this the hard way, of course. As I stall the diesel Countryman I’m driving 3 times in front of a coterie of instructors and PR people, I finally learn that each time the car stalls, the traction control will automatically come back on. Stall it, start it, hit the button to turn it off. Stall it again, start it again, hit it again. The difference? With the traction control on, I cannot get unstuck. The second it’s off, so am I.
The diesels, which we don’t get here in Canada, are, I’m told, a little bulkier to get into first gear. This makes me feel slightly better.
The off road exercise is a trail up a snowy hillside. First gear all the way, traction control off. The marked track has two incredibly tight turns; I’m reminded just how nimble these vehicles are. The only real obstacle for some is the chance of an uphill stall, and remembering to punch off the traction control. In a way, the more it happens, the better it gets committed to memory. I’ll remember this in any car I drive.
It’s a great way to reinforce the only real time you need the traction control switched off: when you’re bogged down in deep snow, or digging up an incline at very slow speed. It probably won’t happen often, but it’s good to know how your car can – and should – work.
The snowy climb is impressive, but a trek on the twisting roads into the next town tosses in all the real world elements: pavement to ice and back, local drivers used to the narrow roads whizzing by, and long downhills that just induce a slide.
We’re invited to drive a nearly-ready prototype on this road. The John Cooper Works Countryman will be introduced next year. It takes off from the Cooper S Countryman ALL4 in lower, stiffer suspension and torque delivered equally to front and back axles until you reach 80km/hr, when it becomes front wheel drive. The ALL4 is front wheel drive until it loses traction, when up to 60% of its power can be delivered to the rear wheels.
The spiffier Works car is noticeably more secure on the road. But it’s relative; the All4 delivers an uncompromised ride that higher profile vehicles would be hard-pressed to mimic. High in these mountain towns, the landscape is dominated by smaller cars. Our North American love affair – and presumption of safety – with hulking SUVs is being sorely tested.
The purpose of racecars – or rocket ships – is often bandied about. NASA research gave us long distance telecommunications and water filters; from the world of racing, we got ABS and traction control. And it’s men like Rauno Aaltonen, who I’ve experienced instinctively and manually making the car perform this way, who remind you it’s those willing, talented pioneers who contribute so much to what we take for granted.