What to make of the Mini Paceman? Essentially a two-door version of the Countryman, it sits in an extremely narrow niche, but a niche none the less. And that really is the trick with Mini, isn’t it?
As far back as the 1959 original, and then again with BMW’s 2001 remake, Mini has been exploiting unexplored markets. And whether it was a practical, affordable family car with revolutionary packaging, or a retro-styled, premium-badged version of what others had been doing for years, this little name is synonymous with big success.
But what of this, the seventh model in the current not so Mini line-up? A chopped down Countryman designed to appeal to… Wait, who is this designed to appeal to? “We think of it as a psychographic rather than a demographic,” says Graeme Grieve, Mini’s European sales director. “It’s not a car that we define by age or gender.”
Sounds like he doesn’t know either, and I’m not surprised. The official description doesn’t help; Mini bills the Paceman as the world’s first “Sports Activity Coupé in the premium small and compact segment”, but who wants to tell their SUV-driving friends that they’ve got a small SAC?
Unlike the Oxford-built hatch, Clubman, Coupé and Roadster, the Paceman runs down the production line at Mini’s plant in Graz, Austria, where the Countryman is also built. It uses the Countryman’s floorpan and front end, but mashes them somewhat uncomfortably with a rakish, “coupé” roofline and a slightly odd, bulbous rear. It’s not pretty, although there are a few nice details, such as the way the rising waistline and sloping roof converge at the rear of the car, and the little Mini logos in the indicator lenses.
Inside it’s as per the Countryman as far as those in the front are concerned. That means a centrally mounted speedo the size of a dinner plate that houses the satnav, audio and fuel gauge. The rev counter is tucked in its own binnacle behind the steering wheel, and includes readouts for fuel economy and the odometer, although you must crane your neck to read them on account of a driving position that has you sitting up very high with not enough reach adjustment in the wheel or height adjustment in the seat to get comfortable. The gearlever is also a long way down, enhancing the impression that this is more SUV than coupé.
Access into the back is perfectly acceptable thanks to wide doors, and the two individual rear seats are sumptuously appointed, with a rail running between into which you can slot all kind of shapely holders for cups, sunglasses and even phones. However, while there’s enough head- and foot-room for one six-footer to sit behind another, their knees will be squashed, which you don’t get in the Countryman.
At 330 litres, the boot is a decent size for a coupé, but small for an SUV, and there’s a useful false floor under which you can hide all of the clobber that you know you should really be clearing out.
You start the Paceman using a key shaped like the Starship Enterprise, and should be impressed by the chunky solidity of the interiors fittings and switches, even if their location doesn’t always follow logic. At least for this car Mini has moved the window switches to where you’d expect them to be, near the door handle, rather than hiding down by the gearstick.
Under BMW ownership, Minis have always felt uniquely weighty in their controls, but the Paceman is in danger of becoming a caricature, darting left and right with the smallest movement of the steering wheel and so responsive to pedal inputs that you charge about like a kitten on catnip.
The turbocharged four-pot is a gem though, with greedy reserves of low down torque and, in a straight line at least, a linear power delivery and rasping exhaust note. Select “Sport” mode, which sends the throttle mapping and steering into total hyperactivity, and you also get pops and crackles on the overrun which, no matter how immature it might sound, is a complete giggle.
Suspension is by MacPherson struts up front and multi-link at the rear, and has been tuned to offer a sportier drive than the Countryman, which includes lowering the car’s ride height. It’s not been a great success, however, the Paceman rolling excessively around corners and handling fast direction changes with the composure of a ship in a storm. What’s more, despite traction and stability controls and an electronic limited-slip differential purported to mimic its mechanical namesake, it struggles to put its power down through corners, spinning its inside wheel, which in turn causes the electronics to kill the power momentarily, so that the end result is that forward motion comes in a frantic series of lurches and constant readjustment of the steering wheel. As a result, the Paceman is a car in which you tend to need several bites at the same corner. A sports coupé it is not.
However, neither is it like an SUV, for while the ride quality is acceptable, the main controls are just too sensitive. Rather, it sits in an uncomfortable position between the two; difficult to drive smoothly and frustrating to drive quickly.
The harsh reality is that you can have all of this car’s good bits (the build quality, the gimmicks, and the drivetrain) in Minis that are more attractive, more practical or better to drive. But, one might argue that the Paceman should be applauded for being unique in a market where conformity is the norm.