First Drive: 2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman

mini-cooper-s-paceman

The crossover coupe is becoming the automotive equivalent to a tattoo -- a popular way to prove your nonconformity. The Range Rover Evoque redefined what a Land Rover could be; the ZDX tried to accomplish the same thing for Acura. For Mini, which broke from its quirky compact car roots last year with the Countryman crossover, the swoopier, two-door version, called the Paceman, demonstrates a continued commitment to weirdness. But does it actually break new ground for Mini or does the arrival of another crossover simply cement the betrayal of the brand's roots? And should anyone want one? Let's go for a drive and find out.

New shape, similar clothes

Mini head designer Anders Warming says he's grown comfortable working within Mini's established design language. The Paceman reflects that comfort, wearing the brand's classic cues so naturally that you might think Sir Alec Issigonis had a two-door crossover in mind when he penned the original BMC Mini. In fact, it may be too familiar and pleasant. There are some novel touches: a sloping roof, voluptuous rear fenders, horizontal tail lamps, and enormous "Paceman" lettering across the tailgate -- but the Paceman has nowhere near as disruptive and interesting looking as earlier Minis, not to mention its higher-priced target, the Evoque.

The interior likewise retains all the essential Mini qualities, including an enormous center speedometer, toggle switches, and a delightfully small steering wheel. Specific details from the Countryman's cabin like a sliding center rail and a nav-screen readout at the center of the speedometer carry over unchanged. In a small concession to practicality, the window switches have moved from the center console to the door (that change also applies to the 2013 Countryman). Even better, there's a surprising amount of room in back despite the rake of the roof. Still, the Paceman won't be winning over conventional crossover buyers on the merits of its utility. It gives up 3 cubic-feet of cargo capacity to the Countryman and comes only as a four seater. Furthermore, the ergonomics remain, well, eccentric. Locating controls takes time even for those initiated in Mini's interior eccentricities, as does learning to use the iDrive-like infotainment system.

It's all about the clutch

Mechanically, the Paceman is identical to the Countryman models we've driven, with a two minor exceptions -- one good and one potentially unfortunate. The first change, which also applies to the Countryman going forward, is a new clutch surface for the manual transmission. If that sounds inconsequential, then you probably haven't read of our travails with our long-term Countryman's clutch, which required replacement after fewer than 20,000 miles. Though we cannot, of course, comment on whether Mini's changes improve durability, the difference in drivability is apparent. Driving a front-wheel-drive Cooper S Paceman through Palma, Mallorca's ancient looking and congested capital, we experienced none of the difficult engagement that characterized our long-term Countryman from the day it arrived. The Paceman still isn't exactly quick off the line as the 181-hp turbocharged four-cylinder struggles against more than 3000 pounds (essentially the same as the Countryman).

We're less excited about the Paceman's slightly lower and stiffer suspension. Extra handling capability is all well and good on pothole-free roads like the ones that line the coast of Mallorca, but we shudder to think about how that might affect the already bone-jarring ride we've experienced when driving the Countryman back home. We recommend specifying the optional Countryman-spec suspension (it adds no extra cost). In any event, the Paceman's real-world handling is indistinguishable from that of its four-door brother, despite a slightly lower center of gravity. That means much better body control than the typical crossover and better steering than some sports cars. Most of the time it's easy to imagine you're grabbing the wheel of a good-old-fashioned Mini Cooper. Only when the road narrows and the turns tighten to blind switchbacks does the Paceman's bulk and tendency to understeer betray it to be a considerably larger vehicle.

Conclusion

We're not sure how many more times Mini will be able to apply the same character cues to a new niche. We also wonder if there's a saturation point in the market for coupe-like crossovers. But that day of reckoning has not yet arrived. With a base price that will be higher than that of the Countryman but still thousands less than an Evoque, the Paceman brings crossover coupe styling to a new audience. More important, the Paceman is charming, eccentric, and fun to drive, exactly like a modern Mini should be.

On sale: March 2013
Base price: $28,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.6L turbo I-4, 181 hp, 177 lb-ft
Drive: Front- or four-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic
EPA Fuel economy: 25/32 mpg city/highway (est.)

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