The One Mini Should Have Taken Rallying

2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4

It needs to be said: Mini using the Countryman as their World Rally Championship racer's bodystyle of choice has done them no favors on the marketing front. And that's what it's all about in motorsports these days: marketing and image. We have just driven the 2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 through Frankfurt's surrounding rural areas, and even in thick snow where few souls dared to tread, it has singularly rekindled some faith in the John Cooper Works sub-brand – a glorious name whose credibility has been threatened by portly and somewhat pointless products like the JCW Countryman.

The JCW Paceman is a little quicker than its Countryman relative, a little lighter, hunkered down lower, and better looking. We can't say we're crazy anymore about the stock Chili Red details and black exterior they keep showing us at these launches, but that's just paint. Then there's that projected pricing of $36k-plus that puts us on the verge of yelling "¡No mas!" But the All4 system on our 215-horsepower Paceman worked extremely well when paired with a set of exceptional Pirelli Sottozero Winter 210 Serie II tires (sized 205/55 R17 91H all around). The combination of all-wheel drive and good rubber encouraged us to gradually up the average speed and enthusiasm the further we drove along.

And the JCW hunkers four-tenths of an inch lower on its standard sport-tuned dampers and springs. This is just the start of why the hip point and yaw point – and all those other points – render the Paceman JCW's driving so satisfying. Whereas the electro-assisted steering on some of the lower-slung Minis has suffered slightly since the very first incarnations of those models, the Paceman seems to work with it. We were forcing oversteer coming into several of the day's curves, and the steering and sheer physics of the chassis readily obliged. Just get your inner ear in sync with the 3,252-pounder's lateral momentum and you're golden. The odd center handbrake is calibrated not to really snap the car around at will, but we learned to muscle it and deal with the onboard chorus of chimes warning us that we were using the handbrake as a handbrake.

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Mini has utterly nailed the JCW Paceman's sport exhaust.

We didn't miss the optional Aisin six-speed automatic – in our book, it utterly defeats the purpose of JCW models – instead revelling in the heightened driving engagement and enjoyment of the manual. On our German jaunt, the six-speed Getrag stick proved to be a terrific tool for negotiating great slippery curves with heel-and-toe grace.

Then there's the sort of sporty Sport button. In this case, steering effort thickens, the exhaust crackles and pops when you lift off the gas, and the throttle itself tightens its sinews a bit. All of which is fine by us; toying with the suspension any more would hurt the car's balance. So, it's essentially an emotion button, and in that sense it does as much as the company ever promises it'll do. Mini has utterly nailed the JCW Paceman's sport exhaust – it adds just the right rally-highlight-film atmosphere.

2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 interior2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 front seats2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 rear seats2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 rear cargo area

The sport suspension is the only way to go, so thank heavens that JCW Minis cannot opt for the comfort chassis.

A caveat: The regular Paceman comes standard everywhere outside North America with the lower and more rigid sport suspension, while ours is the only continent that goes against the grain and selects the comfort setup. Given our journalistic desire for all Minis to be dynamics powerhouses, the sport suspension is the only way to go, so thank heavens that JCW Minis cannot opt for the comfort chassis.

As on the JCW Countryman, this Paceman gets the uprated 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 215 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of popping torque. Tapping into the overboost mode that provides 221 lb-ft between 2,100 and 4,500 rpm almost happens too readily when one's foot is on the floor. In fact, we did it often, if only to be bathed in the exhaust's crackling backdraft upon lifting said foot from said floor. Like the Sport button, the overboost is one more "fun" function that at least has the practical application of easing the overtaking of white-knuckled Swabians on snow days.

2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 engine

This Paceman is one of the better JCW treatments.

Inside, Mini has taken to oversaturating its opulent sea of plastics with chili red detailing and more oodles of sporty cuteness. Yes, all is functional, and we are very happy with the window switches now being located on the doors, but the factory-installed pimping kitsch has got to reach a limit at some point, no? We want a stripper JCW, and we don't mean a GP edition, which has its own particular strain of kitsch going on.

We will go out on a limb and say that dynamically this Paceman is one of the better JCW treatments, judging from our vigorous test drive in Germany's deserted winter hinterlands. Yet the monster trucklette arrives this month just in time for winter to melt away. Sort of a pity, that.

2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 rear 3/4 view2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 front detail2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 front fascia2014 Mini John Cooper Works Paceman All4 exhaust tip

Thankfully, our few stints on the no-snow-drift Autobahn showed us that the hottest Paceman acquits itself nicely under everyday interstate-style cruising. Of course, we liberally explored the 127-mph top speed on the no-limit portions, but the versatile 1.6-liter turbocharged engine can average around 85 mph over long distances and feel right at home, too. Being on the 17-inch wintry Pirellis instead of the 18-inch standard run-flats proved to be a major bonus. That their more pliable sidewalls and compound would help curb impact noise and harshness was to be expected, but what we didn't foresee was their better directional stability.

After a hard day of driving, we came away authentically surprised at how much we enjoyed this hot edition of the seventh Mini. Now, if Oxford and Munich had only used this Paceman bodywork for their WRC effort instead of the Countryman tubster, perhaps they wouldn't have exited rally racing after only one year.