MINI is a car brand that means a lot of different things to a great many people. For some, it’s about economy. For others, it’s style. For many, MINI is about performance. Thing is, they’re all right. MINI is a brand and a range of cars intended to live in a variety of sweet spots at the intersections of these often conflicting areas of focus. As I left the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico, behind the wheel of a Starlight Blue MINI Paceman Cooper S ALL4, I wondered just where on that multi-axis spectrum of MINI-ness this particular car would land. For MotoringFile, this would be our second time behind the wheel of MINI’s larger 2-door. Gabe drove the R61 back in November of last year. You can find his thoughts here, but this time around it was up to me and the beautiful island of Puerto Rico to see what MINI’s new slope-backed 2-door was all about.
It must first be understood just exactly what the Paceman is. Or rather, what MINI intends it to be. To think of the Paceman as simply a 2-door Countryman would be a significant oversimplification. In truth, while the cars share footprint, chassis and power train, from the A-pillars back, the Paceman is a wholly different car both inside and out. From its sloped roof, to its flared hips, to its
standard 19″ wheels and its wedged belt line, the Paceman is making a significant visual statement: “I will not be ignored.” Inside, it’s a different car from the dash backwards. It’s four different seats, and not just different upholstery. The shape, bolstering and positioning is different. The interior door and rear passenger wall panels are specific to the Pacemen both in their shapes and their details. Only one significant detail from the Countryman remains: that terrible handbrake.
In the Paceman, MINI is going for a lounge effect inside with deeply inset interior panel arm rests and four bucket seats. Overall, it’s a package heavily emphasizing the style aspect of what makes a MINI a MINI. It’s intentional. It’s evocative. Frankly, it’s a great looking car both inside and out. Those R61-specific seats are more comfortable too, making the Paceman a MINI that’s very much about experience. In my interaction with the car, the interior changes to the Paceman only really had one drawback compared to the Countryman: rear head room. MINI has dropped the rear seats down lower in the car to compensate for the Paceman’s sloped roofline, but it still wasn’t quite enough for this 6’3″ motorer. Where I can sit straight up in the back seats of the Countryman and have head room to spare, in the back seat of the Paceman, I was about 3″ too tall. It would be utterly unsustainable for anyone taller than 6′ to sit back there further than a couple blocks. On the bright side though, ingress and egress into the back of the Paceman was about on par with the MINI Clubman.
Aesthetics and ergonomics are important, but looking at a car and sitting in a car are an incomplete experience. Is there any substance to all that style? More specifically, is it any good to actually drive? In short, yes. The Paceman is very good to drive, in fact, which my co-driver and I quickly discovered as we navigated the urban streets of Ponce before winding the car up first the highway, then the narrow, treacherous mounting roads that snake into the island’s center. Here again, the Paceman set itself apart from its Countryman sibling. Equipped with the MINI Sport Suspension (standard on the Paceman Cooper S), our test car did an admirable job soaking up the rather rough roads that Puerto Rico served us. Even on the 19″ wheels (also standard on the PMCS), the Paceman aptly walked that line between comfort and road feel. Turn in was crisp, and like the R60, the R61 has terrific steering feel — better feel, in fact, than anything else MINI produces.
On the freeway, our Paceman was well-behaved, comfortable and made spirited driving easily accessible. Visibility in the Paceman was actually very good. I’d expected the sloped roof and narrower rear window to compromise the view out the back at least some, but in practical experience, I could see just fine. It’s not as good as the standard MINI Hardtop hatch, but then, what is? It’s certainly no MINI Coupe, which basically has no rear 3/4 views at all, but I digress.
Galloping down the freeway, the Paceman’s relative bulk added to its sense of forward motion. This was a car that was taking us places. Yet that bulk also hurt the car’s performance. Our Paceman was essentially as heavy a spec as one can buy from MINI. It was the All4 model, fitted with MINI’s humdrum and heavy automatic transmission, plus all the bells and whistles such as the panoramic glass roof. While hardly slow, the Paceman suffered a bit for its burden in terms of available, useful power. It’s just not as fast as it should be — not as fast as it deserves to be. Making the car put on speed wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t effortless the way say, a Cooper S Hardtop is effortless. That’s down to purely power-to-weight ratio. In the end, I found myself driving the Paceman Cooper S the way I’d typically drive a standard MINI Cooper Hardtop. Power and speed were there, but I had to wring out the motor to get them. Put 5,000+ rpms through the wheels and it’d certainly get out of its own way, just not quite with the amount of enthusiasm I’d hoped for.
This event didn’t feature the just-debuted JCW version of the Paceman, but just like its Countryman fraternal twin, the extra torque and 30 more horsepower offered in the JCW are badly needed in this car. Or, if you go the other direction (remove the All4, the heavy glass roof and the bulky automatic transmission) this car will only get better and better for every stone of weight it sheds. Yet truth be told, the power-to-weight ratio on the Paceman would prove to be my only genuine complaint, especially as the next part of our day’s journey began.
Having escaped the city, we turned off the freeway and up one of the area’s numerous mountain roads. These are treacherous paths. While brilliant in their switching back and their changes of elevation (and let’s not forget the amazing views), these roads were about a lane-and-a-half wide by typical american standards. This would be fine were they one-way streets, but they weren’t. As though blind corners on a narrow two-way road weren’t harrowing enough, these roads were often rough, devoid of guard rails or markings of any kind, and menaced by aimless populations of stray dogs, cattle, chickens and other wildlife. If I sound like I’m complaining, I don’t mean to. I do, however, wish to accurately set the stage for just what the Paceman was up against while we put it through its cornering paces. There was quite literally no room for error, and seemingly no care taken as to the specific quality of the road surface. This, on a twisting roller coaster of a mountain road. Imagine the Tail of the Dragon, at three-quarters its current width, with no markings or guard rails, and with a road surface that, in places, has potholes and cleaves to rival the worst of neglected roads in Chicago or Detroit. Yet through all of this, the Paceman performed with precision and poise.
Engineering a car to go quickly around a corner is relatively easy. Making a car go comfortably over rough roads is also a pretty straightforward proposition. Getting a car — particularly a small car — to do both? That’s not easily managed. Yet what MINI has done with the Paceman, even with the Sport Suspension and 19″ factory wheels, is make a car that manages to do both well. Our mountain route twisted like the squiggles of a polygraph, leaving no room for anything but the truth of how the Paceman handled. Around each bend, and with each quick change in direction, the Paceman didn’t feel heavy anymore. It felt planted, confident and like it was ready to roll over anything in its way. With the Sport button pushed (always push the Sport button in a MINI — it’s a rule) both the throttle response and the steering input were perfectly matched to our driving task. Nothing about the car felt laborious or cumbersome, even after later spending time in the JCW GP for comparison. The Paceman more than earned its MINI wings on that mountain road by giving me all the feedback I needed, and none of the drama I didn’t. Could I have navigated the road more quickly in other cars? Of course. Yet in the Paceman, the experience of driving that mountain road was somehow perfect for what I’d want this particular car to be. If this is my sporty, rolling lounge car, then it’s not about shaving seconds. It’s about that feeling of engagement with both the car and the road. If I simply want to go fast, I’ll ride a motorcycle.
In short, my day with the MINI Paceman was utterly enjoyable. Beyond wanting more power, the car was basically everything I’d hoped it would be. I came to Puerto Rico wanting to like this car, yet not knowing if I really would upon actual inspection. Yet in nearly every respect, the Paceman did not disappoint. It’s better looking in person than any photograph of it I’ve ever seen. I can’t emphasize this enough. There are details about this car that just don’t seem to work when you see them in 2D, yet in the flesh, it’s simply a lovely car. Throughout, there are dozens of key details to not just set this car apart, but make it special. It has a particular Paceman-ness that’s difficult to describe without naming the laundry list of little things that the MINI design team has done to make this car special.
As I try to put my finger on exactly what the Paceman is, I keep coming back to this idea of refinement. What we have here is a small, 2-door car. In fact, it’s nearly identical in size and weight to a VW GTI. At first blush, what’s to set it apart? It’s got available all-wheel-drive and a glut of available creature comforts. That’s something, but not particularly exciting. No, I think it has to come back to that sense of care — that injection of art and passion into a car that would otherwise be, well, just another VW GTI. To say that it’s “better” than a GTI would simply be inflammatory and not particularly useful. It’s certainly different, and perhaps that’s what makes the Paceman so remarkable. It’s a really interesting mix of otherwise familiar elements. It’s a Countryman underneath, yet it’s somehow so much more than the R60 in terms of aesthetics, poise and …yeah, I keep coming back to refinement. This is a car MINI could have done on the cheap. It could be identical to the Countryman inside. It could have the same tail lights. It could have the same boot lid. Yet it doesn’t. It’s its own car — a new expression of what a “big” MINI can be, and I can’t help but say that this time they’ve finally got it right. They’ve really done it well, this car, and not for any one reason. No, they’ve done it well because the MINI design and engineering teams have quite transparently cared intently about this car — about its details. It’s built on the foundation established by the R60, but it’s been refined. It’s been clarified — infused with better ingredients for a more full-bodied aroma. Hang on, now I sound like a coffee commercial.
All I can say is that the MINI Paceman, like the JCW GP, is a car aimed squarely at fans of the MINI brand. I know that sounds like heresy for many MotoringFile readers, but bear with me. Where the GP (and I’d also contend the Coupe, Roadster and all of JCW) exists to swell the arteries of MINI fans focused on performance, the Paceman’s appeal has a different aim. The R61 is aimed straight at the heart of people who love the MINI style — at people who revel in that sculpted, European aesthetic. Does that make the Paceman more of a lifestyle accessory than a car? It could have, if MINI hadn’t been very, very careful with it. Truth is though, the Paceman has as much performance, and as much economy as it needs to properly carry a MINI badge in my opinion. It’s still an intersection of those key MINI criteria. It’s just heavier on the style end. It’s also just heavier, but fantastically so. This is a car that would be a pleasure to own. It’s a pleasure to drive, a pleasure to look at, and a pleasure to ride in. It’s something special, and frankly, in JCW spec it’d be everything some MINI fans are really looking for.