Not Too Odd, Not Too Maxi. Is This Mini Just Right?



We recently got our first time behind the wheel of the latest iteration of the Mini Countryman, the 215-horsepower John Cooper Works model, and were left less than enthused despite the inherent fun factor that a JCW badge brings. Our time with the crossover suggests the Countryman is just too weighty and soft to properly wear the badge.

We have also spent loads of time in various Mini Clubman trims and, despite the oddity of its configuration, this model may be our overall favorite in the current Mini lineup. But it is decidedly not a volume seller, which Mini needs.

Enter Paceman. At just over 162 inches, it's actually a smidge longer than a Countryman, though the wheelbase and track widths of both are identical. Overall height is down some 1.6 inches, 0.4 of that accounted for by the standard Sport suspension setup. The body, however, changes entirely.

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The greenhouse section of the Paceman does that Evoque-like window-pinch toward the rear pillar.

Remember the original "basketball shoe" two-door Toyota RAV4 of 1996? This sort of compact activity vehicle may be coming back into favor, though it will only be a stylish niche rather than a volume fashion craze. Mini refers to the Paceman as a Sport Activity Coupe... or SAC. It lives up to its acronym, as well as craftily combing its sleekness with difficult-to-reach seatbelts for front passengers and troublesome rear-seat entry for those traveling in back. So it satisfies the definition of a coupe body on every level. Only by being crossover-ish does the Paceman avoid joining the misfits of the Mini range: the Coupe, Roadster, and Clubman.

The other king of style in the crossover market right now, which comes to mind while staring at the Paceman, especially in profile, is the Land Rover Evoque, itself absolutely not the most practical set of wheels out there. The greenhouse section of the Paceman does that Evoque-like window-pinch toward the rear pillar. Apparently, this is the look affluent hipster folk want in order to convince them to buy a more grown-up car.

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Then there's the pricing, which sets the Paceman model-for-model about $1,500 north of the Countryman.

Mini's plan with the Paceman is clearly to nail a fashionable niche. Having the two doors is one giveaway. Building the vehicle as standard with what is normally the Sport suspension is another. Then there's the pricing, which will see the Paceman living around $1,500 north of the Countryman model-for-model. We are frankly a little ookie – to use a highly technical industry term – about this seemingly arbitrary price premium. It's like paying more for unrefined sugar, though here you're admittedly getting all of that added lifestyle zest, but it's a strategy that BMW has mined effectively with its X6 before, so who are we to argue? Besides, what would you pay to be the most bitchingest on the block? It's a strange science. This tested 181-hp Mini Cooper S Paceman with six-speed manual should start at just near $28,000 when it arrives in North America next March.

At this point, you may be surprised to hear us admit that we like it. The drive time we had over torturous roads showed us that Mini understands the gaps it must fill as it tries everything it can to expand its finite lineup. The Paceman is the seventh model for the reborn Mini company, and is a much more convincing fit in our minds versus the recently launched Mini Coupe and Roadster. On the four Pirelli Cinturato P7 runflats – 205/55 R17 91V is standard for the Cooper S – the more nimble Paceman helps convince us to accept the Countryman as a necessary part... a part that accounts for 30 percent of all Mini sales globally now. And we understand the limitations of the coupe lifestyle, but hell, the entire Mini proposal is a compromise if all we're talking is practicality.

2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman interior2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman front seats2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman rear seats2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman rear cargo area

Mini is back to its bench-splitting ways, as rear seating is only available as two separate seats.

Cargo room is perfectly normal for the Paceman at between 11.7 and 38.2 cubic feet, but the space is useful and straightforward with excellent load-in height and width in back. As for passengers, Mini is back to its bench-splitting ways, as rear seating is only available as two separate seats. We did our usual sit-down test in back, and knee and head room are there for adults up to perhaps 6-foot 2-inches in height. We never really liked the cabin-length center rail separating the passenger pods in the Countryman, and seeing as how that model was also initially offered in the US with just rear buckets, began offering a bench as an option and then made it standard equipment, we expect a proper church pew to be available for the Paceman eventually as well. One thing we do approve of, however, is power window switches that have migrated from down low in the cluttered center console to on the doors, a welcome bit of rationality that is also coming to the 2013 Countryman.

Beyond the styling improvements versus the Countryman, we really like the Paceman because it gets back to how a Mini should drive. It's not so much go-kart – as company press materials announce many times over – as it is a completely acceptable and honest compromise that errs on the thrill side. The stance change and lower center of gravity create most of the car's change in temperament since actual weight is only about 15 pounds less than the equivalent Countryman trim. Our Cooper S tester comes in at around 3,030 pounds, adding about 55 pounds when you opt for the six-speed automatic.

2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman engine

We won't give the Cooper S Paceman go-kart status, but it comes commendably close.

While there is no adaptive suspension, the default settings for the corners of the Paceman are pretty fine all around with just the right balance between sporting and everyday. As a no-cost change, you can order your Paceman with the normal suspension, which raises things by that 0.4 of an inch and softens the ride a touch.

With the six-speed manual model, the Sport button on the lower part of the center console governs both throttle response and steering feel. Should you opt for the automatic, the shift timing is also affected. The reverb on the exhaust is also slightly upped, though we weren't really able to tell a clear difference. Standard on the Cooper S trim is an Electronic Differential Lock Control that works in conjunction with the stability control software. The system is is essentially Mini's form of front brake-steer, and EDLC does as solid a job on the Paceman as it does on any sporting front-driver at reining in the understeer that arises when going into, through, and out of curves. We won't give the Cooper S Paceman go-kart status, but it comes commendably close.

2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman driving2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman headlight2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman wheel2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman rear hatch

The Paceman feels true to the brand, and that is good.

The Cooper S' 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine does a more convincing job here than in the Countryman, too. Its 181 horsepower peaks at 5,500 rpm, while the 177 pound-feet of torque are at full load all the way from 1,600 on up to 5,000 rpm. Push the pedal to the metal, and the torque goes overboost for brief overtaking spurts of 192 lb-ft in the heart of the rev range. It is all – especially with the manual – as smooth and satisfying as we have come to like on a Mini, so the Paceman feels true to the brand, and that's a very good thing. Acceleration to 62 miles per hour is 7.5 seconds with the manual gearbox, and maximum speed is set at 135 mph. Fuel efficiency is also better with the manual by about 17 percent versus the automatic, so there's yet another fine excuse for telling your significant other that it's manual or nuthin'.

We expect Mini to do its usual full range of model variants on the Paceman body as time marches on, but the range will launch in March 2013 in both front-drive and All4-equipped trims. The JCW variant figures to please us much more than the Countryman JCW has done, plus the Paceman is also a nice reassurance after the Coupe and Roadster sidetracks. The pricing strategy is questionable, sure, but people buy Minis because they want them, never because they need them.