S ANYBODY who had a mullet or a perm in the 1980s will tell you, fashion has an awful lot to answer for. People make weird choices in the name of it, and even cars fall victim to it.

In the early 2000s a nostalgia craze was plundered by carmakers. Chrysler had the dreadfully underdone PT Cruiser trading on looks alone. Form overlooked function when VW resurrected the Beetle as a four-wheeled handbag around the same time, and numerous other forgettable, fashion-focused vehicles have been and gone. But not every style savvy car is mutton dressed as lamb.

Since the Mini brandís reimagining by BMW in 2001, its playful and accessible city-slicking hatchbacks have fruitfully fused retro style with modern substance far more readily than the glut of other throwbacks.

Then in 2011, model diversification sprouted a chic, premium offering for the en vogue small-SUV segment.

But as little more than a jacked-up hatch, the original Mini Countryman never quite lived up to its SUV billing, and left us wondering whether it was just another fashionable failure.

Enter the clean-sheet, second-generation F60 Countryman. Six years on, itís new from the ground-up and the biggest car to ever carry a Mini badge. Overall length has grown by 202mm, now 4299mm including an extra 75mm added to the wheelbase to open up greater cabin space.

Itís immediately clear that Mini has made real inroads towards practicality for the Countrymanís second go around. Itís much more SUV-made-Mini than a Mini worked into an SUV, and brings a new functional side to the table in the nick of time, ready to defend its niche against a debutant challenger from Audi.

The Audi Q2 launched in Oz barely a month before the new Countryman, putting a unique spin on the design-driven small-SUV theme. Where the Miniís styling pays lip service to the brandís heritage, the Q2 is thoroughly modern and somewhat outlandish to look at. Its artistically sculptured bodywork is littered with distinctive details that make it impossible to mistake for anything else.

A pinch over $1000 separates the entry-level variants of the two. Additional standard kit for the Mini Countryman Cooper has seen its price rise by $3400 compared to its predecessor, but itís still the more affordable car here at $39,900, with the Audi Q2 Design starting from $41,100. Sadly, a bare-bones Q2 was unavailable for our comparison, leaving us to evaluate the Q2ís merits in the form of the dolled-up Edition #1 version of the base car (see sidebar, p114.) A sizeable chunk of early Q2 adopters have sprung for the extra tinsel with a total price of $47,800.

Our test car tallied a difficult-to-swallow $49,400 after taking into account a $1600 assistance package which adds safety features that are standard in the Mini. By contrast, our Countryman fronted up almost devoid of options, with only a smattering of cosmetic touches lifting its ticket price by $900 to $40,800.