Car ReviewsFirst Drive

MINI Cooper S Paceman First Drive

You could be forgiven for wondering about the various Minis now on the market. There’s a hatch, a cabrio, a coupe, a roadster and now, here’s another one (the MINI Cooper S Paceman), says Paul Murrell.

The Paceman borrows its platform from the high-riding Countryman, mixes in a two-door format and delivers more rear space than the other two-door Minis. For the record, it’s officially a “sports activity coupe”, another meaningless conglomeration of words that tell intending buyers almost nothing.

The MINI Paceman is all about design. Whichever way you look at it, this MINI just wants to be different. And it is, as long as you have never seen the Range Rover Evoque…same rising belt line, same narrowing side windows, same hunched stance. It’s an Evoque viewed through a Luna Park distorting mirror. Fortunately, the Evoque is a great looking machine and the MINI Paceman achieves similar levels of visual appeal, apart from the bulbous snout and headlights that occasionally appear cross-eyed.

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Minis have always been about the joy of driving and the new MINI Paceman continues the principle. It’s not as go-kart-like as its 1960 predecessor, but it does a very good job of delivering sharp, smile-inducing steering and performance. The steering ratio is quick and accentuated by the chunky little steering wheel.

Less expected is the quality of the ride; the MINI is quite accomplished over everything but the very worst of surfaces. This is a car you could quite happily point towards an interstate capital and arrive feeling relaxed and content. Part of the Paceman’s ability is down to its longer wheelbase compared to other Minis, plus some extra weight. The trade-off (because there always is one) is the loss of sense of engagement you get in lower-riding and lighter Minis.

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The silly docking key is still fiddly to insert and remove, but at least it has a place to live in the car when you’re driving. The little wheels for fan speed and temperature take some getting used to. Electric window controls have finally moved to the logical position in the doors. And then there’s the trademark central speedo, dominating the interior like a wayward Frisbee. Despite its size, you’ll probably never look at it, relying instead on the digital speed readout directly in front of the driver.

No doubt you’ll eventually get used to the cruise and sound system controls mounted apparently on the wrong sides of the steering wheel. You will never, however, get used to the sun beating in through the sunroof with only a flimsy mesh covering to protect you from sunstroke. The completely unnecessary switch protector loops and overhead controls mimic aircraft design, as does the new handbrake which makes access to the auxiliary and USB inputs problematic.

And yet, despite all these complaints, the MINI interior is still a heap of fun and certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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The cheapest MINI Paceman is the Cooper, priced from $35,900 (plus ORC). It’s an appealing package that includes alloy wheels, trip computer, cruise control, Bluetooth and USB input, rear parking sensors, tyre pressure sensors, rain sensing wipers and dark-sensing headlights. Step up to the MINI Paceman Cooper S and you get a punchier turbocharged engine, 17-inch alloys and some additional trim to remind you that you’ve spent $44,100, or $46,450 if you aren’t keen on changing your own gears.

As always, MINI is ready to grab a bigger bite of your bank account, if you are willing to allow it. The top of the line JCW (which stands for John Cooper Works) comes complete with even more poke, delivered to all four wheels, and even more kit, but you’ll pay dearly for it: $58,600.

Still not feeling the financial pinch? The MINI people suggest it’s all about personalising your new Mini; we think it’s all about maximising the return. Tick a few options boxes and see just how close you can get to a $100,000 driveaway price. Sat nav? $1150. Tick. Leather? Budget up to $3185. Tick. Nineteen-inch wheels? $2700 (or $4810 for the most expensive). Tick. Those stripes look hot. $260. Gotta have the glass roof? $2587. Get the picture? The options list runs to five pages in the brochure.

Show some restraint and you still get a well-equipped package with plenty of interior space (the original 1959 Mini also had plenty of space inside, but only in relation to its diminutive exterior dimensions). It may be my memory, but the first of these re-invented Minis was a triumph of design over common sense – there were simply so many competing design elements inside, it was hard to know where to look and what to take seriously. The new-new MINI seems to have grown up a little. There’s still a lot of clever-clever-design, but the overall effect is more mature, more serious.

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In the rear are two individual seats separated by Mini’s distinctive central runner containing a couple of cup holders, held in place with overly complicated fixings (the sunglasses case under the front armrest uses a similar fixing). You’ll curse the cupholders every time you lower the rear seats to increase luggage space, because you’re sure to forget to remove them first.

On our test vehicle, the over-riding sense of build quality and durability was seriously compromised by the rear parcel shelf rattling in its brackets. It probably could have been fixed with some double sided tape or foam rubber, but at this price, you don’t expect to hear the clatter of plastic on plastic over every bump.

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Like most Minis, the Paceman comes with a selection of four-cylinder power plants. The base model makes do with an underwhelming 1.6-litre. Add a turbocharger, as in the Cooper S, and this engine takes on a completely different personality. Suddenly there’s plenty of flexibility at low revs and hills don’t require you to immediately select a lower gear (or press the throttle harder so the auto box selects a lower gear for you).

There’s more than enough power (135kW) but what makes the MINI fun to drive is the 240Nm of torque that comes on song from just 1600rpm. And for additional fun, there’s an overboost function that releases 260Nm for short bursts. Fuel consumption is claimed to be 6.6L/100km (7.5L/100km in the auto) but the MINI really tempts you to be a bit more enthusiastic, so you probably won’t ever see figures as low as that. I drove the auto Paceman with some verve and managed 8.7L/100km over 302km of varied roads and conditions.

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PRACTICAL MOTORING SAYS

It’s hard to see where the MINI Paceman fits in the scheme of things. It sits on the Countryman platform so it’s heavier, high, and has good ground clearance. But it lacks any AWD attributes or underpinnings. The extra length pays dividends in rear seat space, but there’s still only room for two back there and intending occupants have to find their way in and out using the front doors. Or maybe we’re missing the point: the Paceman looks hot. And perhaps that’s the only justification it needs.

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MINI PACEMAN COOPER S

PRICE from $44,100 (+ORC) WARRANTY three-years/unlimited kilometres SAFETY five-star ANCAP (Countryman) ENGINE 1.6-litre, four-cylinder direct injection turbocharged petrol POWER/TORQUE 135kW/240Nm TRANSMISSION six-speed automatic BODY 4.12m (L) 1.80m (W) 1.52m (H) WEIGHT 1330kg TOWING 750kg (braked) FUEL TANK 47 litres THIRST 6.6L/100km (combined – claimed), 7.5L/100km (combined, auto)


Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober