What It Is
A longer, lower, and more stylish two-door crossover take on the Countryman.
It's hard to argue against its rather chipper and charming demeanor.
The two-door shape makes rear leg room that much tighter than the Countryman's.
It doesn't make sense until you drive it.
The first thing you're probably asking yourself is "What exactly is that thing?" That's a very good question. Undoubtedly, it looks like a Mini, in and out. And it kinda looks like a crossover. But it only has two doors. Mini identifies it as a "Sports Activity Coupe," which makes sense in BMW terminology, except that the BMW X6 has four doors and is also called a Sports Activity Coupe.
Then you just stop caring, because it's a Mini, and that's all that's really important if you're looking at one.
Last year, Mini sold 66,123 vehicles in the U.S., a record for the brand. Just over 21,000 of those were Countryman crossovers, representing the second-best-selling vehicle behind the Cooper hardtop. Mini thinks there's some space in the middle to attract a new customer, one whose needs are unmet by the current lineup.
That's why the 2013 Mini Paceman exists. Mini has undoubtedly lost shoppers who've come into the showroom thinking that the Cooper hatchback is their perfect car, except that it's unavailable with all-wheel drive. Then, they get to the four-door Countryman and surmise it looks too stodgy. They end up with something else entirely, like a Nissan Juke or BMW X1.
This is because a Mini is purchased for its aesthetic; it need not be conventional. And there's nothing as unconventional as niche-ifying an already niche crossover, and having us drive it through the tropic jungle villages of Puerto Rico, straying from the tourist traps and their smooth streets in favor of narrow, unkempt roads that wouldn't pass for alleys in the U.S. mainland. Perhaps it was simply a demonstration of the "Not Normal" mantra Mini has been pushing since last year. After all, no one thought Mini could make a cheeky subcompact hatchback, price it starting in the $20,000s, and actually sell it in the U.S. when it arrived on our shores more than a decade ago, yet it did. Could the Paceman share any of that magic? We'd find out.
WalkaroundBesides lacking two doors, the new rounded rectangular tail lights, and a redesigned hatch, it's hard to pin down what all Mini has changed in the Paceman to make it have the squat, aggressive stance it has. But upon closer inspection, there's a little more to it than that. The roof has been lowered 1.6 inches, which cuts into rear-passenger headroom. The hood line has a steeper rake, the grille has been tweaked, and a character line contours around the rear wheels replacing the flush panel in the Countryman.
It carves some new ground for the Mini brand, looking like a Cooper hardtop that's been hanging out with Barry Bonds. You don't realize how bit it is until you're standing right next to it. Everything is exaggerated. Walking around to the back of the Paceman, the winged "Mini" badge is about the size of a hockey puck; the "PACEMAN" lettering runs across the back as if it were from Porsche. The Paceman Cooper S models we drove -- front- and all-wheel-drive -- were equipped with optional 19-inch wheels. To put that into perspective, that's nearly twice the diameter of the 10-inchers found on the 1959 original Mini.
And yet the largest wheel and tire package ever offered on a Mini, along with the rest of the design, works, looking nearly identical to the 2011 concept car that inspired it. It's the most serious-looking vehicle to date to come from a brand that prides itself on not taking itself too seriously.
Sitting DownThe Mini Paceman Cooper S comes with supportive front bucket seats that, while lacking in much give, do a great job of bolstering the back in just the right spots with little fatigue. They come covered in a tartan-pattern cloth that looks like it's straight out of the 1980s, which is plenty acceptable given Mini's appreciation for tongue-in-cheek kitsch.
Opting for the "lounge" leather yields a soft, smooth surface that's better-feeling than what BMW offers in most of its cars. It's not surprising if you're used to the interior of most British cars, as the interior is typically one of the highlights in your average Brit-mobile. But it is when it's from a brand that's as much an institution to the U.K. as bangers and mash, then handed over to the Germans, especially in a vehicle that costs around 30 grand.
In back, two buckets look and feel much the same as the ones in the front, albeit lacking in head and leg room for taller passengers. A small piece of aluminum scaffolding separates the two chairs, and a middle chair isn't available -- unlike the Countryman. Beyond that, there's 16.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the seats, which is about right for a compact hatchback. While the Paceman isn't quite the ergonomic perfectionist that parent company BMW is with its cars, Mini isn't supposed to be. It's retro without trying too hard. Heck, for sake of modernity, Mini moved the Paceman's window switches from the center console to the doors. That has to count for something.
DrivingThis is a tale of two crossovers. Coming standard on the Paceman is the sport suspension, a $500 option on the Countryman, that equips the it with stiffer springs and shocks as well as thicker anti-roll bars that will keep it flatter in aggressive cornering. If you don't want it -- and we really can't see why you wouldn't given how well it worked on roads that make even Detroit's look well-maintained -- Mini will let you order the Paceman without them. But be warned: There's no rebate for doing so in the Paceman.
Both our Paceman Cooper S All4 and front-drive model were equipped with an available six-speed automatic transmission, although a manual is available. For leisurely driving on the steep hills of Puerto Rico's backcountry, the Paceman did all right, although for the sake of fuel economy, its transmission was hesitant to kick down a gear or two.
On the lower dash, there's a toggle switch that changes it up a bit. Click it down and Sport mode brings the Paceman Cooper S to life, firming up the steering feel, sharpening throttle response, and uncorking the exhaust to give the car a little crackle when downshifting. Everything becomes more immediate. In Sport mode and with the transmission slipped into its own Sport setting -- sliding the shifter to the left -- the Paceman S transforms from a refined little commuter into a canyon-carver. Or traffic carver, as the case may be.
On the last 90 miles from the middle of nowhere to San Juan International Airport, we became acutely aware that speed limits are suggestions on Puerto Rican highways; most drivers drive like they're in paradise with not a care in the world. Perhaps because they are. They traverse the hilly roads at 10 mph under the speed limit and camping in the left lane. Unfortunately, there was a plane to catch, which gave us a good idea to test the car's passing power and handling in the midst of the rolling chicanes that were our traffic surroundings.
Boost from the turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder comes on strong with minimal lag. And the suspension stays composed in driving over rough stuff and sudden lane changes. Having the chance to drive the front-wheel-drive Paceman S back to back with the All4, we didn't notice too much of a difference in steering feel, but the All4 is definitely the more planted car, lacking front-wheel tug known as "torque steer" when floored from a standstill. It's definitely worth the $1,700 premium if your commute involves either a short highway on-ramp where you need to get up to speed quickly or twisty stretch of road where the 40- to 50-percent power to the rear wheels makes handling more predictable.
SummaryWhile barely longer than a Mazda Miata, the Mini Paceman Cooper S isn't all that mini. It's a tall, somewhat heavy sonofagun that you wouldn't think could handle as well as it does based on the laws of physics. Positioned above the Countryman, you wouldn't think there'd be a market for it, except that Mini is having it built in Austria by a contractor known for profitably turning out small-volume models. If Mini sells a few thousand of them, it'll be in the black. But this Mini may be a surprise hit; the Paceman isn't exactly a bad deal.
The Paceman starts at $23,900, including destination and handling. The Cooper S's turbocharged engine is well worth the extra $3,600 for a 60-horsepower gain, pitting it squarely against the top-level Nissan Juke. While the Paceman measures up well against the Nissan, it has something the Juke doesn't: Livability for adults who want to have a sprightly, entertaining car when the time calls for it and a more mature, premium-feeling experience when you're not in a mood to stoplight race. By comparison, the Juke is like a Chihuahua that accidentally downed a can of Red Bull, but it doesn't ever come down.
Fun and planted, it's nearly impossible to not smile when you're driving the Paceman Cooper S. And that's really what Minis are about: The emotional attachment you develop with them. Mini isn't chasing the volume the rest of the BMW range is. It's supposed to be an acquired taste. It has a reasonable amount of cargo space and can haul four people if the front passenger doesn't mind moving his or her seat up a little.
Does it make sense when the Countryman offers more practicality at a cheaper price? No, not really. But my job isn't to tell you about Mini's marketing viability studies. My job is to tell you if the Paceman is any good. It is. Very much so. Now let's see if Mini can sell them.