Just how much Mini do you need? These days, there are so many choices that you can almost buy a Mini on a custom-tailored basis, selecting from the original hatchback, the Clubman wagon, the convertible, the coupe, the roadster, and the five-door Countryman crossover. Beginning next May, Mini will add a large three-door hatchback to the mix, the Paceman, which was previewed as a concept at the 2011 Detroit auto show and is, in effect, a smaller and more stylish Countryman.
Happily, there's more to the Paceman than the mere deletion of a couple of doors. The need to redesign most of the Countryman's side panels for the three-door allowed Mini designers to give the Paceman a unique look. This is a much sportier-looking bigger Mini, almost coupe-like in silhouette with its sinking roofline, more steeply raked tailgate, muscled rear fenders, and shapely new wraparound tail lamps. The result looks surprisingly similar to a three-door Range Rover Evoque and certainly isn't short on appeal.
The Paceman's interior will look pretty familiar to anyone who drives a Countryman. The only rear-seat option is a pair of individual chairs that can also be had in the Countryman, and the only other interior change is that the electric window switches have been relocated to the doors from the center console, an improvement also destined for the 2013 model year Countryman. Door count apart, the Paceman is structurally much the same as the Countryman and shares the same wheelbase and track. But its roof is 1.6 inches lower, costing occupants only 0.4 inch of headroom, partly because it rides 0.4 inch lower. That's consistent with this Mini's mission of providing a more dynamic driving experience than the Countryman while at the same time providing more space than the standard Mini Cooper hatchback. Apart from a lower center of gravity, the Paceman benefits from stiffer springs and dampers, and its power steering assistance has been retuned to suit its racier mission. The Paceman is some 44 lb lighter than the Countryman, too.
We drove a pre-production, 1821hp Paceman Cooper S All4. The U.S.-spec Paceman will mirror the Countryman's powertrain choices: a 121-hp normally aspirated four and a 181-hp turbo four. You'll also be able to choose between a two-wheel-drive S and a normally aspirated Cooper and between six-speed manual and automatic transmissions. Mini officials told us that our test car was pretty close to final production specification, not least because it isn't wildly altered from a Countryman. But you only need drive a few feet down the road to feel that this car is different, especially if you've just stepped out of a front-wheel-drive Countryman Cooper S, which we had. The Paceman is tauter, more agile, and more tossable, and it feels more willing to be driven hard.
The changes also minimize one of the Countryman's less appealing dynamic oddities, which is steering whose resistance can suddenly diminish when you strike a bump, a reaction that can suddenly have you steering deeper into a corner than you planned. In the Paceman, this handling tic is still there, but it appears a lot less often. You'll more likely notice a ride that turns turbulent more rapidly than the Countryman's when the pavement turns bumpy, and the same faint uncertainty is there when the car is spearing along at speed. Neither the Countryman nor the Paceman is unstable, but you don't feel totally confident that the car will maintain an arrow-straight trajectory when the wind whips up and the road turns choppy, either. And given the Paceman's firmer ride, you need to think carefully before ordering the optional larger alloy wheels that further rob it of suppleness.
Although the All4 Paceman's steering weight is less prone to sudden fade-outs, steering feel is still lacking. You'll also detect the writhe of torque steer under hard acceleration, although there's less of this aboard an All4, of course, than in a front-wheel-drive Countryman. If you floor the throttle at 1500 rpm or less, the turbo's initial laziness forces you to drop down a gear more often than you'd like, but once it's spooled up, the turbo engine hauls this Cooper S to 62 mph in a tidy 7.5 seconds, although its power delivery can be a bit sudden if you aren't delicate with the accelerator.
As a daily transport tool, the Paceman is decently practical, and its rear seats are fairly easy to access. Headroom will be a bit tight for those over six feet, and making your escape will be a struggle for those who cast a broader shadow. The trunk is not generously dimensioned, but the rear seats fold forward. In other respects, the Paceman is much the same as the Countryman, right down to the same set of small flaws, including excess wind noise, an occasionally rattling dashboard, and the general sense that this car is not as refined as it should be.
Still, there will be plenty who find this decisively more stylish Mini hard to resist, especially as it's more practical than a regular Mini. The best Mini for your money remains the regular 2013 Cooper S, but Mini is asking only $650 more for this stylish Paceman compared with the Countryman, and it's easy to imagine it finding an enthusiastic following.
2013 Mini Paceman Cooper S All4
On sale: May 2013
Base price: $28,400
Engines: 1.6-liter turbo in-line four, 181 hp, 177 lb -- ft
EPA mileage: NA