Critics sniffed when Mini introduced its Mini Cooper Countryman a few years ago. Here was a classic car brand known for making small, quirky machines that raced with the big boys, Little Engines That Could. Now Mini was diluting the legacy by pandering to the Compact Sports Utility Vehicle crowd. It was just another concession, in a long line of them, to the uneducated masses that didn’t understand automotive integrity.
Of course, if car writers ran the business, every vehicle would be stripped raw so as to maximize its lap time at Laguna Seca. But it turned out that BMW knew what it was doing with the Countryman. The vehicle became Mini’s second bestseller, just behind the iconic hardtop. Yes, the Countryman sacrificed a bit of performance for the sake of extra storage, but it didn’t sacrifice that much, and it was almost as cute as the original. It wasn’t Lady Sybil, but it wasn’t quite Lady Edith, either.
But whether or not it’s true that Mini lost its performance-based soul with the Countryman, the car’s success did have the unpleasant effect of causing the company to believe that it was something other than what it was. Now they’ve produced the totally fine Mini Cooper Paceman, essentially a coupe variant on the Countryman, with the same wheelbase and platform. As one of my fellow hacks wittily put it, “some people like doors, some people like fewer doors.” But Mini has decided to market this new car as the avatar of an irrepressibly wacky lifestyle brand.
For example: Last week, to celebrate the Paceman’s international cotillion, Mini flew dozens of car writers to Puerto Rico for 24 hours, for no other reason, they told us, than “it’s a nontraditional location for a product launch” and “people here know how to have a good time.” True statements, but still.
Immediately upon our arrival in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, Mini hustled us over to an architecture and design school, sat us in white plastic school desks in a hallway, and bathed us in an endless shower of marketing bull-pucky. Video screens, placed every few rows, played commercials that depicted Mini customers as irrepressible individualists who liked to “keep the kid inside alive,” a quality, according to the commercials, exemplified by driving around with a large psychedelically painted rubber duck on your roof.
Mini, the representatives of Mini said, is not a normal brand of car, according to its new slogan, “Not Normal,”displayed on ad posters thusly:
Mini is for “people who want to cut across the grain,” said a guy from Mini. He then asked us if any of us had gone to the Super Bowl. None of us had, unsurprisingly. Then he showed us a shot of him at a Super Bowl party, sponsored by Playboy Magazine, where he and several bunnies leaned against a Mini that was wearing a Mardi Gras mask.
Totally Not Nor Mal.
The car-writing gig resembles an endless episode of "The Amazing Race," except that not many women get to play and no one ever wins any money. Few people leave once they’ve weaseled their way into the rolling scam. But occasionally, some of the members of the corps will attempt to clear away their half-drunk, jet-lagged fogs and commit actual acts of journalism.
“Mini did really badly in recent quality and reliability studies,” one of them asked. “How do you respond to that?”
A murmur went through the desk-bound, as though we’d just watched a fellow slave throw off his chains.
“We think we’re very responsive to our customers,” said a guy from Mini. “In fact, we just moved the window switches from the center console to the door handles because they asked us to.”
That didn’t answer the question. So another journalist asked the same question.
Window switches, the Mini guy responded. On the door handles.
“OK,” he then said. “I’m sure you guys are hungry, so let’s get you to dinner!”
Earlier, a different Mini marketing guy had said, “The world is a serious place, and it’s getting more serious all the time.” Thank God Mini was here to lighten our load.
The next day, mercifully, the marketing talk ceased and they actually let us drive the car. We’d been warned that our drive would be beset with more hazards than Old Testament Egypt. There would be stray dogs, and horses, and chickens, and potholes. This all proved true. We also encountered winding mountain passes without guardrails, blind one-lane hairpins, barreling opposite-lane semis that made the truck in Duel look like a Sunday driver, and, in one occasion, a pickup towing a go-cart very slowly.
We had a royal-blue number with “All 4” all-wheel drive, a sport suspension, and an automatic transmission with an optional sport mode operated with Mini’s idiosyncratic two-tiered paddle shifters. It was equipped with the Cooper S-level 181-hp engine, and the Paceman needed every one of those ponies to throw us up the mountain.
These turns were tight, and to get through them with any kind of efficiency, you needed a car with tremendously precise steering, as well as a transmission that didn’t balk for a second. The drive demanded more technical skill than I actually possess, but Mini builds its cars for just such throwdowns. Anyone who complains about reduced performance in these slightly larger models clearly has excessive standards. It was a constant and frequently nauseating battle that required total attention. By any account, this was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The car stretched taut and handled itself beautifully.
Permit me some words about aesthetics. The Paceman is similar to the Countryman, with obvious and important exception that it has two doors instead of four. There are also round headlights, a hexagonal grill, a “thicker chrome strip” along the front, and a sloping, more horizontal roofline. It’s a sleek, cool look that owes as much to the Range Rover Evoque — another successful, much-derided CUV — as it does to Mini’s design history. Mini claims that the interior has a “lounge atmosphere,” though that’s stretching the definition of lounge atmosphere to include lots of dashboard circles, sport-mode toggle switches, and rear bucket seats with a “sport design.” It doesn’t really resemble any lounge I’ve ever been inside.
Also, did I mention that they’ve moved the electric window controls from the center console to the interior door handles?
The Paceman will get in the low-30 mpg range in terms of gas mileage. Prices start at $23,900 for a low-frills package with a Cooper 121-hp engine to a fully tricked out John Cooper Works model with a 208-hp engine, which will top at $36,200. That number falls into the premium corner of the SUV market, and thus we arrive at the core problem with the Paceman, and with all Minis.
It’s not fair to say the Paceman is “cheap,” because there’s obviously been plenty of attention put into the design and engineering. The Paceman handled one of the more challenging road drives I’ve ever experienced with aplomb. But it also felt a little ephemeral, as though the bolts would start coming loose around 40,000 miles or so. Like a colorful tropical fish, it’s fun to look at, but you’ll probably end up flushing it sooner than you want. Even for what’s essentially a low-volume party car for enthusiasts, that matters.
We made it up to 3,000 feet, almost but not quite as high as you can go on the big island. There, at a small, privately owned coffee plantation, they handed us a front-wheel drive Paceman that had canvas seats and a brown paint job with white racing stripes, which made it look like a briefcase. We drove that back down the mountain, a trip that it handled slightly less well than the AWD version. After that, it was a basic run of four-lane highways all the way to the San Juan airport. In that setting, the Paceman drove more or less the same as any car.
It felt pretty normal.