Back in the day, holidays meant piling into the back of the family car with the siblings and puttering across state borders to exotic locations like Desaru or Cameron Highlands.
The North-South Expressway was a mere glint in the eye; getting anywhere was a slog on Malaysia’s trunk roads, which were crumbling, one-lane-in-each-direction affairs.
You had to watch out for three things: landslides, motorcycles with no headlights and daredevil lorry drivers, who would pass each other at a speed differential of 1km per year, head-on collisions be damned. But we, the kids, would be oblivious to all this, plugged into our Walkman through a shared set of earphones. Fun times.
With multi-lane highways now criss-crossing our northern neighbour, such journeys are no longer as colourful today. So when the PR officer at Mini rang me up and asked if I would like to take a press car with a customer convoy up to Kuantan, taking the old road cutting diagonally across to the east coast, instead of the longer but faster highway via the capital, how could I say no?
ENGINE 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder turbo
POWER 192hp between 5,000rpm and 6,000rpm
TORQUE 280Nm from 4,600rpm
0-100 KM/H 7.4 seconds
TOP SPEED 225km/h
And that was how I found myself in a brand new Mini Countryman on a trip down nostalgia lane. Granted, this is not the classic Fiat 131 from those days, but it is retro-styled, down to the oversized circular dials and old-fashioned flip switches in the cabin, so it is close enough. Drum brakes, 64hp engines and climate control by way of window crank, I do not think I would miss.
Truth be told, with all sorts of autonomous-driving gadgetry these days like adaptive cruise control and lane assist, most cars could practically drive themselves to Kuala Lumpur while you nap. But this is not that kind of car, and this is not that kind of road.
No, the 150km, dual-laned B-road of Federal Route 12 that winds from Segamat, Johor to our destination in Gambang, near Kuantan, in Pahang, demands your full knuckle-whitening attention, with its steep terrain, tight corners and rusty vehicles that already ought to be scrapped when Singapore was still part of the Federation. Each begs to be overtaken.
The Cooper S model receives the familiar turbocharged four-cylinder motor that needs to be worked hard to eke out its 192hp and 280Nm. Maximum torque arrives only at 4,600rpm. It is an additional 400rpm later before the last horse bolts from the stable.
You have to rev the nuts off of this engine, but the rewards are worth it. There is something so satisfying from listening to the engine howl all the way to the red line, and then the “prrrrrapt” sound the exhaust kicks out as the gears shift, releasing the built-up boost from the turbocharger. It eggs you on to do it over and over again: five hours of sheer bliss, flipping the paddle shifts, flooring the accelerator and leaving others in your dust.
While the general bigness of this crossover – in particular, its higher ride height – would suggest less-than-inspiring handling, it had few problems keeping up with the more go-kart-like hatches in the convoy over twisty tarmac.
Having said that, while the Countryman is no slouch, the Mini 3-Door is definitely more focused as a lean, mean driving machine. What you do gain, though, is lots of interior room, especially in the rear, but all occupants enjoy so much headroom, they could wear top hats and still not brush against the roof lining.
It is the perfect kind of car for family road trips, with the kids glued to their iPads while you, the driver, make progress past endless palm plantations, rustic kampungs and the occasional small town. Some things do not change, do they?