PORTLAND, OR – A big Mini may be an oxymoron, but it also looks like a darn good idea.

The new Countryman, the largest Mini ever, is hitting the market at the perfect time, just as the Small CUV sector is beginning to bulge with new entries to keep pace with rapidly rising consumer demand.

It’s also well-positioned, with generous interior room despite a footprint that is much smaller than most of its competition and a price that undercuts many of its key luxury-brand rivals. That combination helps the new Countryman live up to Mini’s fun-to-drive, bang-for-the-buck DNA in spite of its more practical design and dimensions.

The 5-seat Countryman reaches 169.8 ins. (4,313 mm) in overall length, extending 8.1 ins. (206 mm) beyond the first-generation model. That makes it about an inch longer than a Buick Encore but at least 3 ins. (76 mm) shy of an Audi Q3 and new Jeep Compass.

Although it’s narrower than the Compass, it has a longer wheelbase at 105.1 ins. (2,670 mm), helping stretch interior volume while ensuring the Countryman meets Mini’s mission of maximum around-town maneuverability.

The new front-drive model is slightly bigger than Mini’s own Clubman, which measures 168.3 ins. (4,275 mm) overall. But company officials say it’s character, not size, that separates the two models for buyers, contending the Clubman is meant to be a sporty, elegant, gentleman’s car, while the Countryman is bolder, with a more rugged, masculine design.

“On paper there are similarities, but I’d be surprised if people were looking at both,” says Justin Berkowitz, Mini product planner.

Powertrain choices include a turbocharged and direct-injected 1.5L 3-cyl. entry-level engine (a 2015 Wards 10 Best Engines winner in the Mini Hardtop) in the Cooper Countryman and optional 2.0L turbo DI 4-cyl. available in the Cooper S All4 all-wheel-drive model. The 1.5L generates 134 hp and 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) of torque, while the 2.0L cranks out 189 hp and 207 lb.-ft. (281 Nm).

The base Cooper can be had with either an automatic or manual 6-speed transmission. For the first time, buyers can order the base Cooper with AWD, which like the Cooper S models, is offered with an 8-speed sport automatic or 6-speed manual.

A higher-output version of the 2.0L will be featured in the top-of-the-line John Cooper Works Countryman All4, which won’t hit the U.S. market until later in the year and was unavailable here for test drives. It generates 228 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (349 Nm) of torque and can be had with either a manual or automatic transmission – both good for 6.2-second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) sprints.

Also on tap is a plug-in hybrid powertrain mating an electric motor with the 1.5L 3-cyl. for combined output of 221 hp. That option will reach the U.S. in June and boasts a 7.6-kWh lithium-ion battery capable of delivering 24 miles (39 km) of range between charges.

Countryman styling is unmistakably Mini inside and out. The new model has no carryover parts save for certain wheel caps, but it is distinguishable from the outgoing model mainly by its more substantial presence, longer rear overhang and revised fascia. Headlamps also are new and more horizontally oriented, no longer extending as far back toward the windshield.

Inside is standard Mini fare, with airplane-style switches, a touchscreen (also controlled by a console dial) at the center of a huge circular display and sport gauges, seats and steering wheel. Optional accent lighting that changes colors as you drive flows along the inner door panels, down to the footwells and around the central infotainment screen. There’s added bling in the chrome-like surrounds that adorn vents and dials.

The Countryman comes well-equipped. Standard are a panoramic sunroof, luggage rack, leatherette seating, 6.5-in. (16.5-cm) touchscreen, rear camera with park assist, Bluetooth connectivity, rain-sensing wipers and dual climate controls for $26,100, plus $850 destination and handling.

Stepping up to a Cooper Countryman with AWD takes the base to $28,100. The Cooper S starts at $29,100, or $31,100 with AWD, and adds such things as LED headlamps and heated seats. The John Cooper Works model will base at $37,100. Prices for the hybrid model have not been announced.

Those stickers will undercut many of the Mini’s key luxury-brand competitors, including the Q3 ($31,800) and Porsche Macan ($47,500), brand executives are quick to point out.

We tested the 2.0L-powered Cooper S with both 8-speed sport automatic and 6-speed manual transmissions on a variety of roads in and around Portland, and the Countryman lives up to its billing as a people-hauler that is sports-car fun to drive. Steering is quick and precise and traction sure-footed. With its more compact, new-generation AWD system, the Countryman is extremely confident even on the snow-packed roads of Mt. Hood.

While you can’t go wrong in choosing the manual, the 8-speed automatic with paddle shifters is every bit as fun to drive. It includes Mini’s Dynamic Damper Control system that offers three settings – Mid, Sport and Green – that vary the shift points, engine note and steering and suspension settings.

The 2.0L is smooth and quiet and packs enough punch even for Mini’s biggest model. Fuel economy also is as expected, averaging 27.0 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) on one leg of our journey up and down mountain roads and along the highway, a click better than the CUV’s 26.0 mpg (9.0 L/100 km) EPA rating.

Passengers won’t feel claustrophobic in the Countryman. There’s plenty of elbow room for those up front, and rear seats are comfortable for two adults (but not three). The 40/20/40 split rear seats also slide 5 ins. (127 mm) fore and aft to extend either legroom or cargo capacity.

Mini says there’s more than 6 ins. (152 mm) of added rear legroom compared with a Q3 and almost 10 ins. (254 mm) more than in a Mercedes GLA250. Cargo capacity, at 17.6 cu.-ft. (498 L) with the seats up, also is greater than in those two competitors.

With the seats down, the new model offers 5.4 cu.-ft. (153 L) of additional storage from the first-gen Countryman that bowed in 2011. The cargo bay includes an optional foldout picnic bench, a cushion that pulls out to cover the loading sill for tailgate seating.

Flaws are few. The Countryman hits the showroom this month without Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity, though the automaker promises that omission will be rectified soon. Some of the trim options are flashier than others, but overall materials inside are top-notch and no fit-and-finish gaffes were evident in our test vehicles.

U.S. Countryman sales declined 23.9% last year to 12,706 units, according to WardsAuto data. That’s a little more than half the model’s peak in 2014, so it isn’t a bold prediction to say the new version should do better in a market ravenous for small CUVs.

With greater versatility and comfort and a still-high fun-to-drive quotient, plus a new plug-in model on the way, the now more practical Countryman is Mini’s biggest play yet at mass appeal.

dzoia@wardsauto.com @DavidZoia