Mini has become one of autodom's foremost illusionists, using essentially the same silk handkerchief and top hat to conjure up new tricks, each a variation on its predecessor, each a surprise. Since its 2002 revival, BMW's Mini subsidiary has expanded its model menu steadily, repurposing the basic elements. Thus the current lineup represents two versions of one basic front-drive architecture and three versions of one engine across a range of seven models, with more on the way.
The 2013 Mini Paceman is the latest addition to the family, and it's another indication that the product planners don't feel constrained by definitions. The dictionary says that mini refers to something small of its kind. The revivalist BMW Mini of 2002 was certainly small, but it was almost two feet longer, a foot wider, and nearly a thousand pounds heavier than the original Mini Cooper.
This may have mattered to purist devotees of the original 1960s Mini, but it didn't matter to those who flocked to the BMW sequel, a jaunty three-door hatchback that was distinctively cute and very entertaining to drive.
However, when BMW began expanding on the theme, literally, with Minis that weren't quite so mini, many of those who bought the three-door versions became purists in their own right, haughtily dismissing the variants as heresy. (The reaction is similar to the response of Porsche 911 owners to the company's introduction of the Cayenne SUV.)
By that reckoning, the Paceman could be viewed as one of the more heretical of the variants. It's based on the same foundations that support the five-door Countryman, Mini's version of a small scale crossover SUV, and while it's not quite as tall and has only three doors, it is nevertheless substantially bigger than the basic three-door hatchback, which is now known as the Mini Hardtop.
While this may provoke disdain from the latter day purists, to those who harbor no preconceptions the Paceman may well look like the perfect Mini. It successfully expands the dimensions of the basic Mini Hardtop without spoiling the smaller car's distinctive proportions, its front end styling is unmistakably Mini, the increased size yields a corresponding increase in interior volume, which pays off in a back seat that is actually habitable by people, rather than just parcels.
Another plus: like the Countryman, the Paceman offers the option of all-wheel drive (Mini calls its system All4), the only two Minis with this feature.
Other elements of the Paceman powertrains are tried and true. Engine choices boil down to a 1.6-liter 16-valve four-cylinder in three states of tune: naturally aspirated in the base version, turbocharged in the other two, sending power to the front wheels via either a 6-speed manual transmission or 6-speed automatic. The All4 option is offered only with the turbocharged engines.
Increased dimensions add up at the scales, and with a minimum curb weight of 2940 pounds, the non-turbo version of the 1.6-liter is a little anemic towing a Mini as big as the Paceman. The Paceman S gets a 181-horsepower turbocharged version of the engine, which generates enough thrust to produce respectable acceleration, and there's also the John Cooper Works (JCW) edition, raising the output ante to 208 horsepower for about $5000, roughly $158 per pony.
In addition to more interior volume, increasing the practicality index versus the basic Hardtop model, the Paceman's furnishings are high quality, and like the rest of the Mini family the inside story blends design elements from the 1960s with contemporary features such as navigation and contemporary telematics, as well as sporty bucket seats.
The latter day Mini has thrived on its brash individuality, but the trait that sustains its popularity is an exceptionally high fun-to-drive index. Although the Paceman weighs in about 400 pounds heavier than the smaller Hardtop, driver gratification is still a strong suit.
While the Paceman shares the same 102.2-inch wheelbase as the Countryman, the design isn't a mere three-door version of Mini's biggest hauler. Although it's 16 inches longer than the Hardtop, Paceman preserves the proportions of its smaller cousin, with the same downsloping roofline, lower than that of the Countryman, and a rising beltline. The design is reminiscent of the Range Rover Evoque, and like the small Range Rover includes the option of a contrasting color for the roof, a rare option in today's market.
As you'd expect, the Paceman has its own alloy wheel designs, eight of them in fact (17-inch standard, 18- and 19-inch optional), as well as a going away view, distinguished by oversize round taillights, that differs from that of Countryman.
As with the exterior, the Mini design team works overtime to remind owners that they're in possession of a car that thumbs its nose at convention, and the Paceman is no exception to this ethic. This can require some familiarization on the part of the owner. In particular, the center-dash speedometer takes some getting used to, while the tachometer rides atop the steering column. That speedo has expanded over the years, and is now about the size of a dinner plate, dominating the entire dashboard. On the other hand, it makes a very good home for the optional navigation system.
Speaking of options, Minis offer many, telematics, cosmetic, and performance-oriented. The idea is to give owners lots of latitude to customize their cars, and of course increase the corporate bottom line.
Paceman's interior materials are of high quality, the standard seats are sporty and supportive. The relocation of the power window switches from the center stack to the doors is a welcome update. Retro has its limits.
Mini proclaims itself to be a purveyor of fun, as well as mere transportation, and it's hard to find fault with that proposition as applied to the new Paceman. While increased size and mass take a little edge off its straight-ahead performance versus comparably equipped basic Mini Hardtop models, we found the turbocharged Paceman S model with all-wheel drive gets across intersections briskly, and sprints to 60 mph in just over seven seconds. Top speed is 128 mph.
Several states of tune are available. The standard Paceman engine is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that produces 121 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. The turbocharged version of this engine in the S model is rated at 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. The John Cooper Works version generates 208 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque.
Like all Minis, the Paceman has a rigid chassis, exceptional roll stiffness, quick steering that's laser precise, and eager responses. And it's these traits, more than acceleration, that make driving this or any other Mini so enjoyable. The connection between driver and machine verges on sports car territory, making even the most ordinary trips a treat.
There are a couple asterisks to the foregoing. For one, in a market increasingly obsessed with fuel economy, the S model's EPA ratings, 26/32 mpg City/Highway, are only so-so for this size class.
More important, the combination of firm suspension tuning, limited suspension travel, and low-profile run-flat tires on the S can become punishing on patchy pavement.
Nevertheless, the Paceman provides a relatively unfiltered driving experience that's rare today.
Mini Cooper Paceman's price ladder makes it a relatively expensive proposition versus other cars competing, more or less, in the same segment. For example, the Volkswagen GTI provides interior space and cargo capacity similar to a Paceman S, plus an edge in performance, for about the same money. On the other hand, the Paceman offers the option of all-wheel drive and maintains Mini's unique persona and engaging dynamics, with a substantial practicality edge versus the Mini Hardtop. For those drawn by the brand's distinctive looks and dedication to fun, and are unconstrained by some misplaced sense of brand purity, this Mini may be the most appealing of them all.
Former NewCarTestDrive.com editor Tony Swan filed this report from Detroit. Swan has served as editor of Motor Trend magazine and as a senior editor at Car and Driver.
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