Mini is unrelenting in its quest to produce mutations of the original Cooper coupe. Besides the original two-door hatch, there's the eccentric Clubman wagon with its vestigial third door, a van version of the same, the two-seat coupe and roadster and the XL-size Countryman four-door.
And now we have the 2013 Mini Paceman, sampled here in prototype form 10 months before it reaches American showrooms. Previewed as a concept at the 2011 Detroit show, this two-door version of the Countryman has been extensively restyled to produce a sportier version of its bigger, four-door brother.
Its tailgate is more raked, its rear-quarter panels swell to lend its rear haunches some muscle, its new rear wraparound lamps are decidedly more shapely and its roof dips decisively as it travels rearward. Imagine a shrunken two-door Range Rover Evoque and you'll capture much of the visual character of this car, although the bluffer nose of the Countryman remains up front. Given the extent of this restyle, it's a surprise that Mini has decided not to give the Paceman a face of its own.
Lower Riding, Sportier Chassis The result of Mini's tinkering is pretty appealing, both inside and out, as the cabin features individual bucket seats providing usefully more room than the smaller Mini hatch manages, and a dashboard identical to the Countryman's.
The 2013 Mini Paceman also sits on the same structure as the bigger five-door and shares the same wheelbase and track, but its roof is 1.7 inches lower while depriving occupants of only 0.5 inch of headroom. This packaging feat is partly achieved because it rides 0.4 inch closer to the ground. This lower stance is consistent with the large-scale three-door Mini's role, which is to deliver a more dynamic drive than the Countryman while providing more space than the standard hatch. The Paceman is also 44 pounds lighter than the Countryman, too.
Its new chassis package is no surprise. In addition to the reduced center of gravity stemming from its lower stance, the Paceman features springs, shock absorbers and power steering that have been retuned to suit its racier role.
A Better Drive? We drove the top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive 181-horsepower Paceman Cooper S All4. It was in near-production form, as the pictures of this part-camouflaged car suggest. There's also a front-drive version of the same car and a 119-hp normally aspirated Cooper. A new six-speed automatic option replaces the previous CVT (continuously variable transmission).
In terms of the driving experience, this development car is pretty close to the finished thing, not least because it isn't all that different from a Countryman. But it is different, and in ways that for the most part will please the keen driver, as we discovered in back-to-back comparisons with a two-wheel-drive Countryman Cooper S.
The Paceman immediately feels better tied down, as you'd expect of a car that rolls closer to the road. It's more firmly sprung and as a consequence feels more agile. The chassis changes also reduce the appearance of one of the Countryman's less endearing dynamic quirks: that is, an odd loss of steering resistance over midcorner bumps that causes it to suddenly spear deeper into a bend than intended. The flaw is still there, but it surfaces less often.
Occasionally in Need of Attention The Countryman's wayward progress along roads of varying camber remains undiminished in the Paceman despite its all-wheel drive. The Paceman still needs the occasional direction-correcting nudge, a characteristic that has you feeling slightly less confident in its directional stability. The three-door car also presents a firmer ride than the Countryman, and given how unyielding the five-door can feel in Cooper S form, we would resist ordering the Paceman with big wheels, good as they look.
There's more turbulence along uneven roads, and that could well turn to crash and clatter on scarred tarmac. As mentioned, its electric steering is less prone to sudden fade-outs, but this isn't the most responsive setup despite the recalibration. You'll also sense the tightening writhe of torque steer under hard acceleration, although the All4 generates less of this than the front-drive Countryman we also sampled.
That steering squirm can be a while coming if you floor the throttle at 1,500 rpm or less, as the turbo's initial indolence often forces you to drop down a gear more frequently than you'd like to spur the 1.6-liter motor into action. But once pumping, the little turbo motor can haul this Cooper to 62 mph in a tidy 7.5 seconds according to Mini.
One Mini Too Many? On a more practical front, it's reasonably easy to get into the Paceman's rear seats, a little less so to escape, which taller passengers may want to do after a while because headroom is a little tight. Trunk space is limited as well when compared to, say, a Volkswagen Golf, although there's a biggish well beneath the false floor.
Otherwise, the 2013 Mini Paceman will be familiar to a Countryman driver save for the relocation of the electric window switches to the doors, a change that will find its way into the four-door next year. And much like in the Countryman, excess wind noise, the odd dash rattle and the general sense that this car is not as refined as it should be, remain. All of which will be a little harder to swallow given that Mini says it will be charging a premium of around $650 over the Countryman for this more dashing coupe.
There will be plenty who find this more decisively stylish, bigger Mini hard to resist, though, especially as its enlarged packaging is undoubtedly more practical than the standard Cooper coupe. Those who still value a precise, tossable package above all else will be better served by a standard Cooper S, though, as it's still the quintessential Mini.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.