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First drive: the Mini Paceman
Mini buyers, more than most, know that practical car-buying rationale is a sham. The odd-doored Clubman a sensible four-seater? Don’t make me laugh. The Roadster a proper sports car? No way. The Countryman a working off-roader? Tee and indeed hee. People buy most of the Mini spin-offs because they want them. So they won’t be bothered a bit that a three-doored high-set tapered-roofed crossover is a contradiction in all sorts of terms.
The Paceman is the coupe version of the Countryman. It’s the same from the front seats forward, but the front doors are longer, and they lead back into an upper body that wanes narrow and shallow. It’s neatly done.
A pair of separated chairs accommodate the two back-seat passengers. There’s no five-seat option because there isn’t enough width. It’s the usual cheery Mini cabin and dash design, but like all Minis the plastics could use an upgrade. They’re at Ford levels, but at £22,355 you’re paying Audi prices.
You have to look hard for technical differences between this and the Countryman. They tell me the standard suspension is a bit firmer than the Countryman’s, and that’s the spec I drove, on regular 17-inch wheels. There’s a lowered sports option too.
So it doesn’t feel much different from the Countryman. You can’t expect a small crossover to have finely pitched dynamics. And it doesn’t, not quite.
Being as it’s a Mini, the engineers wanted to make it feel agile and sharp and (their stuck-in-the-groove phrase) kart-like. Sure enough, it dives into a corner with the first sniff of the steering wheel. But at that point its height catches up with it, and a short interruption occurs as it takes on a roll angle and the back wheels get themselves in sync with the front. Wait for all that to stabilise, or build up some more lock, and it actually corners quite doggedly, if with inevitable sogginess because of all the roll.
Anyway, the upside of the comparatively soft chassis is a decent ride over big disturbances. Small high-pitched corrugations cause things to shudder a bit, which is why I’d be cautious of the stiffer chassis option or bigger wheels. This is a crossover, remember, and it’d be good to keep up your sleeve the option of fitting winter tyres and feeling smug when it snows.
A picture emerges of a style-led town car: compact, able to swallow potholes and speed-bumps, with decently refined and nippy engines. And of course it was developed in the land of the Autobahn so there’s little wrong with its cruising.
They’ll hate me for saying this, but it’s ideal for grandparents. The high seats make it easy to get in and out when you’re feeling the stiffness of age, and a pair of grandchildren will be agile enough to wriggle into the back, and will be delighted by the separate seats when they get there.
It’s easy to get hung up on the notion that every ‘true’ Mini has to be a functional, space-efficient yet charming roller-skate of a car just because that’s what the 1959 one was. If that’s still your definition, then the Paceman - and the Countryman come to that - looks wilfully fraudulent. No, Mini is something else now. It means small for its kind, rather than small. It means individual and customisable, hence seven separate body-styles. It means friendly, because Mini isn’t visibly part of BMW so it’s freed of any association with the businesslike hauteur of a 5-series.
Most important in the case of the Paceman, being small and friendly means its unshackled from the the thudding up-yours aggression of BMW’s equivalent, the X6. And since Minis are no longer about functionalism, it’s perfectly OK to make something as frivolously contradictory as a crossover coupe.