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Car reviews - Mini - Paceman - JCW

Our Opinion

We like
Funky looks, novel cabin, punchy turbo engine, grip, gearbox, razor-sharp steering
Room for improvement
Expensive when optioned up (and yes, you’ll want the options), road noise


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19 Jul 2013

YOU can’t accuse BMW-owned Mini of lacking imagination.

The Oxford-based brand has taken to the niche-filling strategy of its Teutonic steward with rare gusto, having now expanded its range of offerings to seven – all of which now call Australia home.

The latest – and perhaps strangest – member of this oddball consortium is the Paceman, essentially a coupe version of the high-riding, five-door Countryman off-roader.

Aside from the Range Rover Evoque two-door, it’s difficult to think of a rival, and we suspect that’s just how Mini likes it.

This fundamental oddness is more endemic in its hotted-up, strapped-down John Cooper Works guise, which we test here.

We drove the JCW as part of a range-wide relaunch an event where Mini sat the motoring fraternity down and reminded us just how well the hot range does in Australia compared with anywhere else.

Indeed, JCW cars make up one in 10 Mini sales here, something no other global market can touch. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Much of this success comes from the fundamental coolness of the regular Mini hatch, and the fact that the stiffer, firmer and punchier John Cooper Works version leverages both the famous name and the inherent driveability of the regular car to great success.

But the Paceman, with its extra 120mm of height, greater ground clearance and loftier seating position, seems handicapped from the get-go.

Approaching the car, you can’t deny the thing has some presence about it. The vaguely frowning grille, the bulbous rear haunches, raked windowline and snubby proportions will be the subject of either lust or derision, and precious little in between.

We won’t weigh in, save to say the rear tailgate, with its oversized badge sitting over ‘Paceman’ lettering and silver-ringed tail-lights, is a rather dashing bit of design.

The cabin is familiar Mini, meaning a comically oversized and useless central speedo, inset with a small but pretty sat-nav screen (well, it is provided you shell out $1495 for the option).

The chunky wheel and gear-shifter, rounded dials and retro gauges at the base of the fascia are lovely, as are the cherry red plastic inserts scattered about with seeming abandon and the squishy soft-touch plastics on the dashtop.

Those chunky front seats (an extra $1950 for top-notch leather) are comfortable and grip with gusto, and front head- and legroom are fine even for the lanky, and even with the $2587 electric sunroof fitted.

You may notice a trend developing here: it’s quite clear that few of us will pay just the $58,600 list price for this car, such is the array of options.

Beyond those mentioned, our test bunny also had $2340 alloy wheels, $260 black headlights, a $975 radio boost and $1040 metallic paint. Paying close to $70,000 for a Mini? Eep.

Moving away from the front and into the rear, you’re confronted with two rear buckets, as opposed to a traditional three-person bench. It’s more than a token effort, with acceptable legroom for the short-statured.

But that steep roofline cuts headroom off at the pass, and the narrow rear window impedes vision. Cargo space is 330 litres – smaller than a Volkswagen Golf – but grows to an IKEA-friendly 1080L with the rear pews folded flat on their faces.

But, you ask, how does it drive? Well, for an SUV, it’s superbly nimble. For a coupe, it’s above average. For a love child of the two, it’s about what you’d expect it to be.

The 1.6-litre twin-scroll turbo engine produces 160kW of power and 300Nm of torque between 2100-4500 rpm (at least in sports mode under heavy throttle). It is a bolter with a penchant for pops and crackles, but requires energetic shifting.

Luckily, the short-shift six-speed manual gearbox is a mechanical marvel, with a lovely firm action and a light but not springy clutch (unlike the almost ludicrous Mini GP hatch). If you plan on shelling out $3000 for the six-speed auto, you’ll be happy to know it’s a fine unit, albeit in possession of an infuriating ‘push for down, pull for up’ paddle-shifter layout.

As with all Minis, the Paceman possesses a razor-sharp electric power steering system (2.4 turns lock-to-lock), and a stiff chassis to keep all in balance.

Point, shoot and lift-off the loud pedal to kill any early understeer – simple.

But that extra ride height doesn’t lie. The front MacPherson and rear multi-link suspension, firmer dampers and stronger anti-roll bar conspire to keep the car as flat as any ‘SUV’ has a right to, but it still rolls minutely more than the hatch, and thus turns in with less gusto.

One area where it matches the hatch – inconveniently, the one area where we hoped it wouldn’t – is NVH. The noise conveyed from the road to the cabin via those 225/45 tyres and 19-inch rims is irritating, and runs up the decibel counter like few other cars we can think of.

Our time behind the wheel, we’re sorry to say, was more brief than we would have liked. For a full nuts and bolts run-down, best to wait for our week-long road test which we hope to get to you soon.

In the meantime, we came away from our tenure at the wheel still completely unsure of what purpose the JCW Paceman serves, but somewhat safer in the knowledge that someone out there will love it unconditionally.

For us, it’s a little pricey and noisy, but we don’t question its relative agility and its standout design.

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