Mini Paceman Cooper S: a signpost to the future
Mini Paceman Cooper S
What exactly is it? A larger three-door Mini hatchback/coupe (you choose) based on the Countryman crossover.
Powertrain: 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo-petrol four producing 135kW/240Nm. Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, front-drive. Combined fuel consumption 6.6/7.5 litres per 100km (manual/automatic), 0-100km/h 7.5/7.8 seconds.
Anything interesting in the equipment list? Sports seats and sports suspension are standard. The Cooper S also carries a dynamic traction control system, pushbutton Sport mode, 17-inch alloy wheels and stainless steel trim elements.
Price: From $55,000 (estimated).
The Mini Paceman is a coupe version of the Countryman crossover wagon.
Ask not whether the world needs such a car. If there’s one thing parent company BMW has done brilliantly with Mini all these years, it’s been to develop and market the brand to keep pace with the times. Or at the very least, keep it interesting.
Back at launch in 2001, Mini was a retro curiosity that could easily have boomed and then gone bust. But BMW has kept it moving and kept it relevant to two completely contrasting demographics: enthusiast drivers and ethereal followers of fashion. That’s something to be admired.
Paceman: rest assured, there is a reason.
Brand new idea
Mini is no longer just a car, of course. It’s a brand. The Paceman is the seventh variant in the range and outwardly the most unusual. If there’s one thing Mini’s marketing department would like me to convey to you it’s that Paceman is not simply a three-door Countryman.
So I blew it in the first line. But that’s what it is. However, I will concede that all of the body panels from the A-pillar back are unique, and the downward slope to the roofline does give the Paceman a unique look.
Of course, the Countryman is a crossover with four-wheel drive capability. The Paceman is not, if only by artifice: you can have the coupe with the “All4” drive system in Europe but not in New Zealand.
It’s being sold here only in top Cooper S form, with front-drive and the same 135kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo engine as the Countryman Cooper S.
I travelled to Australia to drive the Paceman, for no other reason than the car does not land here until May.
For that same reason I cannot tell you how much it will cost, although it will be more expensive than the equivalent Countryman because that’s how it is with coupes. A price tag around $55,000 for the Paceman Cooper S is likely.
Forget about the likely: the Paceman Cooper S is not fast but it is lively. The 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo engine has an astonishingly flat torque curve and the steering/chassis are as crisp as any other Mini. Which is to say very crisp indeed. This is fun and you won’t forget it.
The back of the car boasts ‘P A C E M A N’ in massive script across the tailgate (a new style of badging for Mini) and ornate horizontal tail lights, another significant departure from tradition. So it is quite different from other Minis, even if it is very much the same.
Four chairs for Mini
Here’s more evidence from Mini that Paceman is a proper coupe: it has four seats, not five. They are four good seats and, unlike the standard Mini hatchback, the rear chairs are entirely fit for adult occupants. You can even slide the cupholder from front to back, thanks to a rail through the middle of the car.
The main elements of the dashboard come from the Countryman and so the driving environment suffers from the same slightly downmarket plastics as that car. It’s not as nicely finished as the standard Mini hatchback, although the styling is certainly up to scratch: massive central speedometer, circles everywhere, stubby buttons.
In an attack of good sense, the power window switches have been moved from the centre console (in other Minis they are hard-to-reach retro-style toggles) to the door armrests, just as in a regular car.
Next thing you know, they’ll be ditching the dinner-plate-sized speedo. In fact, it’s thought Mini is doing exactly that for the next-generation model in 2014. Changes are afoot.
The Paceman is not nearly as self-consciously strange as I was expecting it to be. I also did not think I would like it so much. I hope those two things are not connected.
Perhaps it’s because the all-wheel drive option has not been picked up for our market or the crossover styling is balanced out by the low ride height of the sports suspension and that wedge-shaped roof.
But if you forget all the theory about genre bending and repurposed platforms, what the Paceman presents is simply a larger alternative to the Mini hatchback. One with a sporty demeanour and suitably idiosyncratic style, but proper space for rear passengers and luggage.
To put it in context, the Paceman is pretty much the same size as the current Volkswagen Golf GTI: the wheelbase is 18mm longer in fact, while overall length is just 98mm shy of the VW, which you can put down to Mini’s characteristic wheel-at-each-corner stance. It’s taller, sure, but only by 57mm. Make more sense now?
My feeling is that BMW has decided Mini is now a big enough brand to stand on its own, without having to endlessly reference the British original. In the bigger picture, while it has promised its cars will always be smaller than most rivals, that doesn’t mean they all have to be small per se.
Minor amendements like moving the window switches to the door or adding horizontal tail lights are getting us ready for more substantial changes to come. Because while they might be subtle, they are also quite contrary to the retro-detail of Mini that BMW has clung to so determinedly for the past decade.
Don’t forget: an all-new Mini hatchback will be launched next year.
This much is known: Mini is intent on producing many more cars than the 300,000 it sold globally in 2012. That means a broader base of models and probably some bigger, more conventional cars in the years to come.
There’s even talk of a Mini sedan to help the brand push through further into the American and Asian markets.
With Paceman, BMW ostensibly tells us its Mini brand likes to think outside the square. It does so using an existing box of bits, with little real risk or cost. Clever.
But get past the semantics and really, Paceman is indeed that bigger, more conventional Mini I was just talking about. Which makes BMW an even cleverer manufacturer and marketer of cars, in my opinion.
Paceman opens another niche for Mini. But it’s also a signpost to the brand’s future.
NOT A DAMP FIZZ AFTER ALL
Whether the Mini purists who lament the gigantism of the modern models are also potential customers who need to be pleased is a moot point.
Even so, it stands to reason that BMW’s exploration of new, larger segments for Mini would be more acceptable to more people if it also produced a properly small city car. A mini car, if you will.
It did just that in 2011, with a concept called Rocketman. The car is larger than the classic Mini but still just over three metres long (so a full metre shorter than the Paceman), made of high-tech lightweight materials and offers a three-plus-one cabin.
Rocketman was a showstopper but by January 2012 BMW had decided to go no further with the project, citing difficulties in meeting handling expectations and safety regulations from the radically reduced platform.
Or not. Rocketman suddenly reappeared in second-generation form as part of BMW Group’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games in London last year.
The maker stated that Rocketman “approaches classic Mini territory in terms of dimensions, while advanced technology underpins a lifestyle-focused mobility solution”.
Surely the company wouldn’t wheel Rocketman out again if the project was a non-starter? With the UKL1 platform underpinning the next-generation Mini from 2014 and engineered for greater flexibility in size, Rocketman could join the range as a production car within the next five years.