Editor's note: This review was written in June 2013 about the 2013 Mini Paceman. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The new 2013 Mini Paceman is larger than it looks from afar, but it wasn't just my eye that was confused by this one: After a week in the Paceman, I don't really get the point.
It's another Mini trying to be an SUV, but you still get only four seats and two doors. It's generally roomier than the Mini Cooper, with all the same iconic Mini-ness about it. However, if it's room you're after, you may want to opt into the stretched Clubman or the Countryman on which the Paceman is based. That car's four doors improve backseat accessibility.
The Paceman is new for 2013. It comes in three basic trim levels: Cooper, Cooper S and John Cooper Works. The base model comes only with front-wheel drive; the high-performance John Cooper Works comes only with all-wheel drive, which Mini calls All4; and the Cooper S comes with either front-wheel drive or All4. See them side-by-side here. I tested an S version with all-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic transmission. Mini also offers a six-speed manual for all versions. If the Paceman's indescribability isn't enough for you, you can also check out other indescribable vehicles, like the Nissan Juke or the Subaru XV Crosstrek.
The Paceman is instantly recognizable as a Mini from a mile away. Although measurably larger than the original Mini Cooper (about 15 inches longer and 4 inches wider), the Paceman looks more like the smallest Mini than the stretched Clubman or larger Countryman, because it maintains the downward sloping roofline and general Mini 1.0 shape.
The large doors and, hence, large door openings helped with accessibility into the backseat for my youngsters (ages 10 and 12). However, they're quite heavy and swing out wide, resulting in a high probability that the kids will swing the door right into the car parked next to it.
A similar ergonomic problem arose when the kids tried to open and close the cargo door to get their backpacks out in the carpool lane each morning. They have to tilt the round Mini logo up on its hinge to unlatch the cargo door, then try to use this pivoting point to lift the heavy door. Closing the door wasn't any easier for them: At their heights, gaining enough leverage to pull it closed was equally challenging.
Once inside the Paceman, there's a roomy quality that you wouldn't expect from a Mini. The kids had to squeeze past the folded front passenger seat to get in, but once they did there was plenty of room for their legs as well as their American Girl doll carry cases (thankfully, I think we'll be outgrowing that stage any moment). There's plenty of headroom inside the Paceman for all members of the family, including my 6-foot-2 husband. Dual moonroofs in my test car contributed to the airy feeling.
The problem arose when the kids in the backseat tried to get out of the car unassisted. They were able to grab the lever on the back of the passenger seat and fold it forward pretty easily. However, it was quite difficult for them to then reach around the folded seat, snake their arm between the side of the seat and the door panel, and stretch all the way forward to the door handle at the front part of the door. Then they had to pull the handle with one hand to unlatch the door and reach across their body with the other hand to the back part of the door in a mister twister maneuver to get enough leverage to swing the large door open. Needless to say, the teachers weren't thrilled with us holding up the carpool lane each morning trying to get out of the car and get the kids' backpacks out of the cargo area.
The cargo area feels large enough for the day-to-day hauling my family and I do; backpacks, weekend sleepover bags, grocery shopping. At 11.6 cubic feet, it's smaller than the Countryman's 16.5 cubic feet. Folding rear seats are standard.
Up front, the Paceman looks nearly identical to the original Mini hardtops, which haven't changed much over the years. The large speedometer mounted in the center of the dashboard is supplemented by a digital display just in front of the steering wheel for those of us who like to look forward to monitor our speed. Other slightly modernized touches I appreciated were window buttons on the door next to the windows, as opposed to the type the smaller Minis hide in the center control panel, and power door lock buttons on the … wait for it … doors. A configurable center rail system runs through the Paceman to serve as a center console. Mini touts the system as one of its top features, but I found it gimmicky. The idea of vehicle customization is great; I am particular, after all. The idea of designing the center storage system in my car to my exact needs sounds fabulous. However, in reality, the clip-in accessories are chintzy and feel as if they'd break after a few redecorating sessions. Not to mention the fact that the rails in between the backseats are quite the crumb collectors if you have kids back there. The rail in front is tucked out of the way of crumbs or spills (and also out of the way of ultimate usability) under the center armrest.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Puny
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair-Ample
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Fair
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times
BEHIND THE WHEEL
The Paceman S All4 is fun to drive, with a slightly more refined quality than other, more go-cart-like versions of the Mini. However, it's probably more fun for the driver than the passengers. My daughter in the backseat said she couldn't practice her multiplication tables on the way to school because it was "way too bumpy and loud." (Take that for what it's worth.)
While the Paceman would do great in the rally race environment for which Minis were designed, it doesn't provide the plush comfort some might appreciate for daily-grind driving. The sporty-feeling suspension, coupled with very direct steering, made the car feel jumpy, particularly when hitting small blips in the road at speed and on curves. The Paceman seemed to skip out from under me a bit and required an extra strong grip on the steering wheel at times.
The 181-horsepower, turbocharged 1.6-liter Paceman S All4 gets an EPA-estimated 23/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined with an automatic transmission. The other combined ratings are 28 mpg for the same model with front-wheel drive, 27 mpg for the regular Paceman (even though it's less powerful, with 121 hp) and 26 mpg for the high-performance, 208-hp John Cooper Works Paceman, all with automatic transmissions.
The manual transmission adds 1 mpg combined to all versions except the base Paceman, where it adds 3 mpg, for a total of 30 mpg. All Pacemans require premium gasoline.
The Mini Paceman has not undergone crash tests. As has been required of all new vehicles since the 2012 model year, the Paceman has standard antilock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control. Seven airbags are standard in the Paceman, including dual frontal bags, side curtains, side torso protection for both front seats and a knee airbag for the front passenger.
Unlike other Mini models that have featured uncommonly accessible Latch child-seat anchors (which we've shouted about from the rooftops and even given awards to), the Paceman has taken a step back in this arena. The lower anchors are hidden deep within the seat bight, making it difficult to install child-safety seats with Latch hooks on nylon belts. Child-safety seats with rigid Latch connectors, like those on my daughter's Clek Olli seat, are much easier to install.
The two rear seats have seat belt buckles on stable bases that are easy for children in booster seats to buckle on their own, and the slightly bucketed rear seats cradle booster seats more effectively than a flat bench seat, adding a little extra stability.
See all the standard safety features listed here.
IN THE MARKET
Coming from an area of the country where we can have 60-degree weather in the morning, followed by a 30-degree drop in temperature and a blizzard in the afternoon, I appreciate the option of having all-wheel drive in the Mini Paceman. However, this alone isn't a distinguishing factor, as all-wheel drive was introduced to Mini in the roomier four-door Countryman. The Paceman isn't meant to be a family-hauler, as I was trying to use it, yet it remains to be seen to whom, exactly, the Paceman will appeal.