Let’s just get the obvious out of the way: This is one of the most unfair comparisons ever.
Comparing the MINI Countryman to the Buick Encore is like deciding between a big, fat piece of warm apple pie a la mode or a plate of somewhat stale ethically sourced vegan wheat biscuits.
When I first framed this comparison up, I actually thought the two cars had a lot in common. I saw two relatively new subcompact crossovers that are both unconventional choices — they’re not the obvious picks in their segment and you could argue that both are a bit more premium than your average mainstream brand.
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But then I drove the MINI for about two seconds and immediately questioned my decision to compare these two vehicles: We’re all car enthusiasts here — we love MINIs, so I quickly realized that I was basically setting the Buick Encore up for a huge and unfair loss.
The Buick Encore, however, outsold the MINI Countryman last year by nearly six times, so maybe it does have a fighting chance!
Similarities and Mostly Differences
I have a hard time accepting the fact that the Encore outsells the MINI by so much — we’re talking 78,500 Encores versus 12,700 Countrymans. But they do have a few similarities. The obvious choices and top three sellers are the Jeep Renegade, Subaru Crosstrek, and Honda HR-V, but these two CUVs skew a little more to the luxury end of the segment, starting in the mid-$20,000s and climbing above $30,000 when well equipped.
But that’s where the similarities end. These two crossovers could not be more different.
Starting with style, the Encore is one of the dorkiest looking subcompact crossovers in the segment. It looks squished and the proportions are all wrong, so it ends up looking like a little piggy on stilts. There is an upside to those awkward proportions, however, and that is excellent headroom, and it’s also easy to get into and out of.
The MINI, on the other hand, looks fantastic. It’s fun and unique and takes everything we like from the smaller MINIs and applies it to a bigger crossover, but losing none of the cuteness or personality in the process. The MINI can also pass as looking sporty and a bit rugged, where the Encore just looks odd.
More Differences Inside
Moving inside, the MINI’s interior is also much cooler than the Buick. Our tester had a beautiful brown quilted leather (which is optional), and it’s simply a lot more interesting to look at. I also love the retro toggle switches, colorful lighting, and the big circular dashboard display. This interior shines and has a lot of personality, so it’s a happy place to be, where the Buick is a lot more functional, but it looks drab in comparison.
Some people, however, might find the MINI’s interior a bit confusing. Some of the controls are not entirely obvious and things are placed in strange places sometimes. I’m also not a fan of the infotainment system — the menu structure isn’t that intuitive and, although it looks cool, it’s not that easy to use. It’s based on BMW’s iDrive system, so you can use the touchscreen or control it with a rotary knob. You can also draw letters on top of the knob with your finger to input addresses and stuff so you don’t have to waste time scrolling through the letters. I don’t love either option – just give me a touch keyboard on the touchscreen.
While I love the MINI’s unique interior, the Buick’s is a lot more familiar. It’s easy to get used to and although I think it’s a bit boring, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The weirdest thing to me is that the door sills come up very high, so it feels like I’m sitting in a tub, and as a result, the sightlines are quite bad. Just something to keep in mind if you’re a shorter driver.
I do, however, prefer Buick’s infotainment system over MINI’s. It’s more straightforward and user-friendly, and the fact that it comes with a 4G LTE wifi hotspot is a huge bonus. The screen also has a matte finish that seems pretty resistant to fingerprints.
The Buick isn’t even that much more practical than the MINI, making me even more confused as to why so many people buy it. The MINI is rated to have more rear seat legroom and the Encore beats the Countryman for cargo capacity, but just a by a little bit. The Encore has 18.8 cubic feet (532 L) in the trunk and 48.4 (1,370 L) with the rear seats folded flat, while the MINI has 17.7 (501 L) in the trunk and 47.6 (1,347 L) with the seats folded (and they split 40/20/40, which is handy), so it’s not a big enough difference to be a huge deal. I also found it difficult to find a comfortable driving position in both cars.
On the Road
I was somewhat surprised by how this MINI drives. I thought that it would be too big and heavy to be fun, but it actually drives really well, just like the smaller MINIs. I especially love the heavy and responsive steering. Driving MINIs just makes me so happy, and that’s really hard to pull off in this segment.
The MINI we tested was the sportier Countryman S model, so it has an unfair power advantage over the Buick. The base Countryman comes with a 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine with 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque, but this S model gets the upgraded 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 189 hp and 207 lb-ft; it’s enough to make the MINI feel alive so that passing people and zipping around town is very entertaining. Our S model has an eight-speed automatic, which isn’t perfect because it has hard shifts from time to time, but you can even get it with a six-speed manual, which is nice. Base Countrymans get six-speed autos.
Driving the Countryman, it just reminded me of why I enjoy MINIs so much — you can’t underestimate how fun they are and they don’t take themselves too seriously. This car puts me in a good mood with its balanced handling and fantastic suspension, which is stiff enough to feel sporty, but not so stiff as to be uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, compared to the MINI, the Buick is unstimulating and it takes itself very seriously. Fun just isn’t part of this car’s vocabulary. Yes, it’s at a huge disadvantage here, but it would still pale next to the base three-cylinder Countryman as well. It does everything you need it to, and the only real problem is that it lurches into gear when you start from a stop, which is jarring and makes the car seem a bit unrefined.
The Buick is powered by a turbo 1.4L four-cylinder engine with 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque paired to a six-speed automatic, and the little CUV actually gets going pretty decently off-the-line or during a pass. There isn’t much to comment on how the Encore drives: it’s completely average and there are no major knocks against it. It’s definitely a comfortable setup with a softer suspension, and I think a lot of people might like that.
The Sales Question
So why does the Encore outsell the Countryman six to one? It probably comes down to a few things: Buick has a better dealer network, MINI doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to reliability, and pricing is a huge factor. The Countryman is also different, and some people might be scared off by that. The Buick is much more affordable than the MINI, even though the MINI has more tech and luxuries available. The base Countryman starts at $27,450 ($29,235 in Canada), while the Encore starts as $23,915 ($25,195 in Canada) – all prices including destination charges. As tested, our top trim Encore rings in at $35,675 ($36,990 in Canada), while our fully loaded Countryman S stickers at a heftier $41,000 ($49,111 in Canada). Adding to the MINI’s cost is its need for premium fuel, while the Buick runs on regular fuel.
The Verdict: 2017 MINI Countryman vs Buick Encore Comparison
To wrap it up, I love the Countryman’s sporty, balanced driving dynamics, funky looks, and fun interior, but it is a lot more expensive and has a sometimes confusing infotainment system. The Buick counters with a better infotainment system, comfortable ride, and a much more affordable price, but is boring in almost every other aspect. It does nothing wrong, but it also doesn’t shine in any one area either.
For me, the MINI wins this comparison hands down — it’s so much fun and I love its personality. I would definitely scrap some of the expensive options to keep the price lower. But the fact that the Encore outsells the Countryman by such a huge margin really tells you what the market wants. Most people want something that’s easy to drive and familiar, and fun driving dynamics isn’t something that a lot of people care about. If you want a driver’s car, go for the MINI. If you want to play it safe, the Buick is a better choice.
Like a piece of apple pie with ice cream on top, the MINI will be a lot more enjoyable than the vegan wheat biscuits, but like the Buick, the boring vegan snacks will be a healthier choice and will still keep you full (and probably more regular) even though they’re not as tasty.