When the BMW X6 was introduced there was no one clamoring for a less functional, sportier version of the X5. Yet sales followed at a pace that made BMW look like geniuses, and other automakers took note. Now MINI has introduced its own crossover coupe in the MINI Paceman. Is the Paceman another answer to a question no one was asking? Or is it another brilliant move?
This was the question I kept asking myself from behind the wheel of the Paceman, and I got my answer. It came around mid-day, climbing into the Spanish mountains with the Mediterranean in full view. Corner after corner, our Cooper S test car made the case that the Countryman never quite proved — that a 3,000 lbs crossover has a right to wear the MINI badge.
Many cars that look better in person than in photos. Count the Paceman among them. The Paceman has wider rear flanks than the Countryman, and is simply more voluptuous in person. The 3/4 rear view looked rather dramatic the first time I saw it. I immediately got the sense that the Paceman was a bit of a playground for the MINI Design team. The rear lights are turned horizontal, which helps visually lengthen the car. They have a jeweled quality that looks all the more impressive lit up. Add to that the subtle creases and curves of the body lines and we have a MINI that looks sculpted in a decidedly modern way.
Obvious care and intention went into crafting the Paceman’s shape. In our eyes the results are striking. From the refreshed grille up front, to the sloping rear window, the Paceman has a unique visual identity that speaks of its sporting potential. Luckily, our drive through the western island of Mallorca saw that potential realized.
Throughout the elevation changes and tight corners, the Paceman never felt out of its league. The feedback and general composure was not only miles ahead of any other small crossover, but a significant improvement over the Countryman. This isn’t by accident. MINI has re-calibrated the electric steering and endowed the car with more of that all-important characteristic: feel. With a relatively quick ratio and a bit more nuance in the corners, the Paceman simply feels more eager than the Countryman.
A revised suspension also helps the Paceman’s case. Essentially, MINI took the Sport suspension from the Countryman, optimized it for this car, and fitted it to the Paceman as standard. Because of these adjustments, the Paceman sits one cm lower than the R60, which impacts how the car looks, but more importantly, drops the center of gravity slightly. It may not sound like much, but the better body control of the stiffer suspension, along with the lower ride height, gives the Paceman a more agile feel. Those concerned about outright comfort can still opt for the standard suspension, but be warned, it’ll be a lot less fun.
For all its capability, the Paceman is still no MINI Hardtop. I could feel the extra 200-300 pounds when pushing the car hard. That said, for a crossover with no right to do so, the Paceman produced ear-to-ear grins in the Mallorca canyon switch-backs. Our front wheel drive Cooper S test car lacked the neutrality of the All4 set-up, but it weighed less and felt much closer to the R56’s reflexes than any Countryman we’ve ever driven. This despite being nearly identical in weight. In total, each model of the Paceman weighs around 30-40 lbs less than the Countryman.
Another of the more obvious changes between the two cars is the lack of rear doors. However, simply removing two doors wasn’t a straightforward exercise. MINI Design had some aesthetic issues to solve in removing two doors from a car the height and length of the R60. The Paceman’s front doors are actually smaller than they appear. A large 5-6″ lip on the trailing end of the door increases the visual length of the door and moves the cut-line further towards the rear wheels. It works well for the design but creates an issue opening the doors in tight parking spots.
While the exterior features major changes over the Countryman, the interior (at least up front) sees only minor but welcome tweaks. Yes, the window controls have moved to the doors. Does that impact the character of the car? Absolutely not. In fact, I welcome the change. MINI can be MINI in a number of ways and the placement of window controls has confused people for years. In my mind, it’s a welcome change and one that we’ll eventually see across all MINIs.
MINI Design also addressed the massive grey plastic surround in the center of the dash that cradled the speedo and center vents. The secondary part of the trim is now the same color and pattern as the dash, effectively making it disappear from sight. This reduces the visual weight of the design, making it much less of an eyesore.
In the back, things are decidedly different than the Countryman. With the rear doors gone, MINI has locked in a rear bucket seat layout. While similar to the four door Countryman, the Paceman’s rear seating has crucial differences. For example, the seats have a deeper bottom cushion with more aggressive side bolstering. The result is comfortable and more secure in the corners. Headroom was more than adequate for my 6’2″ frame despite the sloping roofline.
Exclusive to the Paceman are optional factory 19″ wheels. These aren’t JCW wheels either. However, in talking with MINI, the best setup for both comfort and handling feel is still the standard 17″ option. Comfort aside, those 19″ wheels fill up the wheel wells very nicely.
Drivetrains across all models are identical to the Countryman. The US still only gets the Cooper, Cooper S and JCW (starting spring 2013). However, one notable difference to the 2012 Countryman is the updated clutch. Both the manual-equipped Paceman and 2013 Countryman will have the upgrade, which allows for better engagement and more feel.
With the Paceman, MINI didn’t set out to right the wrongs of the Countryman. Clearly the Countryman is doing just fine, with sales exceeding that of the hatch last month in the US. Yet with the Paceman, MINI had an opportunity to prove that their larger platform can be more of what people think of as MINI-like. On the switchbacks of Mallorca it did just that. I can also say that as someone who lived with a Cooper S Countryman All4 for a year, the Paceman is a revelation. It’s quick-witted and more MINI-like in its attitude, yet it stays true to BMW’s “Sport Activity Vehicle” ethos.
Look for the Paceman to hit US dealerships in March of 2013, with the Cooper S priced around $28,000. That’s about $1,500 more than the comparable Countryman, and this price offset will hold across the entire lineup. The range will include the Cooper and Cooper S at launch, with the JCW following shortly thereafter.
Does a crossover coupe make sense? Obviously, if you don’t like the look, go elsewhere. But if you connect with it, the Paceman is an intriguing and entertaining proposition for those looking for a all-weather, vehicle with quick wits. It’s also practical than expected, with more boot space than the Countryman and roomier, more comfortable seating than the R56.
I’ll be frank. In concept, I struggled to look past the size and weight of this car, especially coupled with the lack of rear doors. Yet in the flesh, all those concerns melted away while the style, presence and driving experience of this car took over. It won’t be the practical workhorse the Countryman is for many. Yet for those who are willing to trade a little practicality, the Paceman offers a lot of style and rewards that compromise with a significant handling upgrade. All-in-all, the Paceman is a welcome addition to the MINI line-up, but most of all, a welcome iteration on the Countryman.