Puerto Rico is a peculiar place. It’s not an American state but is under U.S. law. It’s only 100 miles by 35 miles but has a thriving car culture. Though it feels a world away, it’s only three and a half hours from JFK. This land of contradiction was the perfect place to experience the new Mini Paceman ($24,000 Base), which at first glance appears to be a small version of Mini’s largest offering.
Since 1959, Mini Cooper has stood for classic styling, small size and exciting handling. In 2001 they came to the U.S. market under new owner BMW and in 2010 launched a new model: the Countryman. Some said it was too cartoonish to be taken seriously and too pricey to be casual, and though it looked like a mix of crossover SUV and four-door compact, it was neither.
The Paceman is essentially an adaptation of the Countryman: a performance version comes as a 1.6-liter hardtop with 121 hp, the turbo “S” version brings 181 hp, and of course the full-force John Cooper Works raises it to 208 hp. It’s slightly longer and lower with sport seats (2+2 seating) and standard sport suspension, as well as a sloping roofline and rising belt line — which Mini calls “design with bite” — and gives a wedge look not dissimilar to the Nissan Juke or the Evoque, which Mini sees as competitors in this class. Admittedly, the Evoque comparison is a bit of a stretch, but the truth is that there is nothing quite like the Paceman on the market. It’s almost an answer to a question that nobody asked. But in a good way.
The first thing you notice upon entering the Paceman — other than the leather and cloth “hot cross” patterned seats bringing 80s music video swag to the table — is the crisp 6.5-inch display integrated into the speedometer in the center stack. This houses the infotainment system, which offers everything from nav to twitter feeds and album artwork via the Mini Connected app; it’s controlled by a convenient joystick near the shifter. There is a ton of room in the front, and the rear seats are comfortable with their 2+2 set up providing ample leg and head room. This, however, steals desired cargo room from the trunk.
The best place to test this kind of car, logically, is on the rainforest backroads of Puerto Rico. So after landing in San Juan, then puddle jumping to Ponce on the south side of the island, we hopped in our optioned-out $35,000 Mini Paceman S All4 and headed to Hacienda Pomarrosa, a local coffee plantation. I say “we tested”, but truly, the roads did all the testing for us. Potholes the size of paint buckets, steep corners so tight that semi-trucks just honked the whole way to warn us they were taking both lanes, and road hazards including chickens, dogs (we yelled “mas perros” every time) and wild horses made this quite a course in agile driving.
After two hours on roads that made the Tail of the Dragon seem tame, in a car with rally racing in its past, we could attest that the characteristic go-kart handling and balance are still present in this new Mini. Acceleration was strong, with the 181 hp taking us to 60 in about 7 seconds (we could only experience this upon leaving the twisties and hitting the highway en route to the airport in San Juan). The steering felt classically tight; the 1.6-liter turbo gave a muffled but noticeable note with hard acceleration; the (standard) sport suspension was excellent at keeping tire to road in the rainforest twists and turns, though it did become annoying on bad pavement at speed.
The presence of this car in Mini’s lineup is a statement about their consumer: They’re willing to pay a little (a lot) more than the average two-door hatch costs in order to maintain driving enjoyment and have a well-made vehicle with decent fuel economy (31 mpg) that is more fashion than practicality. Hey, it works for runways. Why not roadways?