Sunday, October 6, 2013

MINI Paceman - Amazing but Be Careful With It

MINI has been a bit hit since its revival under the direction of owners BMW. The little retro hardtop, which arrived in the U.S. for the 2002 model year, pretty much created the premium small car segment here. Since then, the brand has expanded its range to a multiplicity of choices, the most recent being the Paceman.

This new three-door hatchback is based on the Countryman four-door small crossover SUV, which is a slightly larger-bodied car built in a different plant, in Graz, Austria, that supplements the regular MINI line. Other MINIs are built in England as they have been since the original microscopic hatchback that debuted in1959.

The Paceman drops two doors, and some practicality, as a sacrifice to style, although it does retain that handy hatchback. That rear door opens when you press and open up the MINI logo on the tailgate, in the same way the VW Beetle has done since its revival in 1998.

As a longtime MINI enthusiast, I've watched MINIs grow and proliferate, and have tested some of them along the way, including a plain hardtop last July. I hungered for my time in a Paceman, and finally got the opportunity for a week with a Starlight Blue example. I was very excited, and I snapped a photo of it as soon as the car arrived to use as my iPhone lock screen photo, to keep the beloved car near me (that's the photo I used here). However, my week with the car was not sheer bliss, as fine as the car is.

For one thing, despite its familiar MINI design cues, the car is significantly larger than the hardtop. It's 5.4 inches longer, 5.5 inches higher, and 4 inches wider, on a 5.1-inch larger wheelbase. Most telling, it weighs 400 pounds more, too. So, you can't expect as nimble handling as the original hatchback, and using the same engines, performance will not be as thrilling.

My tester had the turbocharged engine, as a Cooper S, so there were 181 horses on tap. My tester also had an automatic transmission, which, while working quickly and efficiently, was not the same as a clutch and manual, even with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. These paddles, by the way, allowed up and down shifting on each side, rather than splitting it left/right. I think the 121-horsepower standard engine might be a bit overworked in this 2,940-pound vehicle.

The EPA gives the Paceman with turbo engine and automatic a rating of 23 City, 30 Highway, or 26 mpg overall. I averaged 25.2 mpg, which is about as close as I've gotten to the EPA's numbers recently. The green scores are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas, or better than average, but not as good as the hardtop, which also boasts 6 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas, along with 29 City, 37 Highway, 32 Combined fuel economy with a manual.

I wasn't disappointed with the performance, certainly, as the flat cornering, quick steering and feeling of quickness and control were all there. I did find that there were a few annoyances, however, that surprised. me. For one thing, with its upright windshield, the normal sunvisor would cover just a fraction of the side window, so MINI supplies a special left side visor, which replaces the grab handle. However, the visor folds down and covers only about an extra inch or two of window. My face got baked on my morning and  afternoon commutes, and there was nothing I could do about it. I designed an extendible visor in my mind, and if I owned the car, would look into something like that.

Also bothersome is that I was unable to get the rear seats to fold flat. I used the car to take my bass to rehearsal, and it fit in there just fine, but if I were sliding boxes in it would be disappointing. I didn't see any way to make them fold flat, even consulting the owner's manual.

The MINI interiors are fanciful, fun to look at, seemingly well made, but sometimes frustrating to use. I do enjoy using the toggle buttons for things like the lights and sunroof, but in noticed that this car actually had door-mounted window switches--the first MINI I recall with them. However, the playful, Disney-inspired cockpit puts lots of tiny buttons low on the center panel, which makes you take your eyes off the road to use them.

There's a little joy stick controller in the floor-mounted center console for operating the dash-mounted information panel, and with some practice, I was able to do things like select radio stations or make climate control adjustments without looking. Funny that the huge 8-inch-diameter center-mounted speedometer, to accommodate this info panel, floats it awkwardly in the center of the gauge, making me think of "round peg, square hole." This may be addressed in the next generation cars.

I wished every road was a curving back road when I had this car. My time out there was bliss, and the car really shone. In commute traffic, being taller and bigger than a MINI hardtop gave the Paceman more comfort and road presence, so that was good, too. Flip the Sport button and the steering tightens up, the shifts are delayed, and you feel even more like you're piloting a sports car.

Another issue: I slammed my hand in the door one night, mysteriously. I later figured out that the door fools you. The window and interior panels are one size, but the door cut from the outside arcs around several inches, with a wide swath of two metal panels only. It tricked me. While entirely unnecessary and kind of phony, this door cut gives the right roundy, friendly MINI look -- but beware.

MINI's philosophy includes being "different" and it certainly is in so many ways. One feature is the ability to customize your car more widely than most other vehicles. Not only can you add things, but you can choose between options at no additional cost. So, besides picking between engines, transmissions, two- or all-wheel Drive and interior and exterior colors, you can choose different seat fabrics, order contrasting or body-color mirrors and roof, put the Union Jack on your mirrors, add chrome trim inside and/or outside, and even change the color of your turn signal lenses (see below).

My test car is a great example of what happens when you check a lot of boxes on the order sheet, and it's reflected in what would become my final complaint -- the price. As equipped, my MINI Paceman came to $39,800. How did it get to that astounding figure?

The base price of a Paceman is $24,000, including shipping. That seems pretty reasonable, especially with the smaller hardtop starting at $20,400. If you want the turbo S model, make that $27,800. Adding all-wheel drive pushes it to $29,300.

Yes, that leaves another $10,500, and here's how it adds up:
  • Starlight Blue paint                       $   500
  • Leather interior                               1,500
  • Cold Weather Package                      750
  • Navigation system/Bluetooth        1,500
  • Premium Package 2 (sunroof)      1,250
  • 19" alloy wheels                             1,750
  • Keyless entry                                     500
  • Xenon headlamps                               500
  • Satellite Radio/1 year sub.                250
  • Harmon/Kardon premium sound      750
  • White turn signal lenses                    100

There it is -- the $40,000 MINI Paceman.

My feelings about the car varied over the test week. It's so fun to drive, interesting to look at (with the latest MINI design cues, sure to proliferate into the new 2015 hardtop), and filled with interconnectivity and information. I really like the big P A C E M A N letters across the tail. I enjoy the feeling of being in a MINI on the road. But for $40,000, can't you buy a real BMW?

My Paceman (I'd still consider buying one, despite my affection for the smaller Clubman) would include the turbo engine (S level), Satellite Radio (a virtual necessity for commuters) and possibly the Navigation/Bluetooth. I'd skip the all-wheel drive. With those features only, I might be looking at a $30,000 MINI, which is much more like it. I really liked my tester's Starlight Blue paint, too, but Chili Red and Light White come without the $500 premium.

MINI is successful, and growing, and there's much fun to be had, but try to restrain yourself when you peruse the option list, and be careful when you close the door.

1 comment:

paul said...

enjoyed this review

thanks very much