By Nat Shirley
Monday, Feb 18th, 2013 @ 11:45 am
 
There's no getting around it - the MINI Paceman is definitely a bit of an oddball.
Described by MINI as a unique blend of sports "activity" vehicle, coupe and hatchback, the Paceman is essentially a two-door version of the Countryman soft-roader with unique sheetmetal aft of the A-pillars.

As such, it lands in the semi-premium crossover coupe class, bringing the population of the segment up to...well, one. Technically, the Range Rover Evoque Coupe is similar in concept, but a starting price far north of the Paceman means few buyers will cross-shop the two.
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What are we to make of the Paceman, then? Does it blaze an intriguing new trail for MINI, or is there a reason no other automaker has ventured into this market space before?

We journeyed to the serpentine mountain roads outside of Ponce, Puerto Rico, to find out.

Carving a new niche
Last year, the Hardtop and Countryman combined to make up 75 percent of MINI's overall sales. The idea behind the Paceman - which represents the seventh model in the automaker's ever-expanding lineup - is to create a new segment by combining the best qualities of the automaker's two volume models: the performance of the Hardtop and the practicality of the Countryman. But right off the bat, it's apparent that the Paceman also brings something else to the table - a style all its own.

Short from nose-to-tail, relatively tall and sporting subtly muscular rear hips, the Paceman has a stocky look that fits perfectly with MINI's trademark "Bulldog stance." Although there are a few awkward touches, like the XXL-sized MINI logo on the rear tailgate, it also manages to appear athletic thanks to a rising beltline and blacked out window pillars.

Both the Paceman and Countryman ride on a 102.2-inch wheelbase, but the Paceman is slightly lower and, surprisingly, about a half inch longer overall than its four-door sibling. The nearly identical dimensions mean that, despite its high fashion exterior, the Paceman is actually fairly useful as a people- and cargo-mover. The rear bucket seats are perfectly habitable for average-sized adults during around-town trips, and when folded they unlock 38.1 cubic feet of space - almost as much as the Countryman and a full 15 cubes more than the Hardtop.

Up front, the interior is standard MINI fare: eccentricity abounds, with elements like an enormous speedometer mounted at the center of the dash and fiddly secondary controls requiring some time for MINI neophytes to get used to. Still, the sightlines are superb, and MINI wisely moved the window switches - mounted at the bottom of the center stack on other models - to a more intuitive location on the doors.

Like the rest of MINI's model range, the Paceman will be offered in Cooper and Cooper S trims initially, with an extra-spicy John Cooper Works performance model to follow soon after launch.

The Cooper features a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 121 horsepower and 118 lb-ft of torque, just enough to allow the crossover-coupe to saunter from 0-60 mph in 9.7 seconds.

We sampled the Cooper S, which is powered by a turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter that produces 181 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque (an overboost mode pushes peak twist to 192 lb-ft for short bursts). It reaches 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, or 7.2 seconds with the $1,700 ALL4-branded all-wheel-drive system.

A six-speed manual is standard across the model range, and a six-speed automatic is available as an extra-cost option.

With prices starting at $23,900 for the Cooper and $27,500 for the Cooper S (before destination), the Paceman carries a $1,200 premium over the Countryman. However, it does feature extra standard kit in the form of a lowered, sport-tuned suspension (a softer setup is a no-cost option) and sports seats.

On the road
The Paceman proved to be a capable ally in the struggle to preserve man and machine from the meandering livestock, aggressive 18-wheelers and other obstacles that line the narrow, winding streets of southern Puerto Rico.

When tossed into a corner, the Paceman's precise steering inspires confidence, and the sport suspension does a reasonable job of keeping the crossover's body movements in check while maintaining a livable ride. Ultimately, it can't quite match the telepathic responses of the lighter Hardtop, but it isn't that far off, either.

Given the horsepower-saturated nature of the automotive world at present, the Cooper S doesn't feel downright fast, but the turbo four is eager to rev and almost completely lag-free.

Unfortunately, MINI didn't bring along any stick-shifted Pacemans, but the Aisin-sourced automatic was a smooth operator during both spirited driving and mellow cruising. Its only downside was paddle shifters that were slow to induce ratio swaps and configured in an inconvenient push/pull setup. Much of the rest of the industry has adopted a left-to-downshift, right-to-upshift arrangement, and it might be time for MINI to follow suit.

We didn't have the opportunity to measure fuel economy, but MINI estimates the automatic-equipped Cooper S Paceman will return a respectable 25/32 city/highway mpg, while the ALL4 model should be good for 23/30 mpg.

Leftlane's bottom line
As an offbeat niche model with upmarket pricing, the Paceman is something of an acquired taste. Value-focused buyers might find more to like in traditional compact crossovers like the Mazda CX-5, and enthusiasts in need of a spacious AWD ride can get much more bang for their buck with a Subaru WRX hatchback.

It might not excel in any one area, but the Paceman is a superb all-arounder, offering practicality, fun, efficiency and all-weather capability in equal measures. It's the Swiss army knife of MINI's lineup, with the added bonus of standout style.

2014 MINI Cooper S Paceman base price range, $27,500 to $29,200.

Words and photos by Nat Shirley.