YOUD BE hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that Mini doesnt know what its doing when it comes to niche marketing. Its John Cooper Works sub-brand has been a sales blockbuster, so its no surprise that a JCW flagship has followed so soon after the Paceman arrived.
The question is: is this a shameless dilution of the brand or a worthy expansion of JCW performance potential? The Paceman doesnt, perhaps, occupy the most obvious niche Mini has yet entered, with a raised compact SUV-like driving position, a sloping, coupe-like roof line and three doors, so there are some who have already dismissed the JCW Paceman as a marketing exercise.
But theyre wrong. Theres real talent under the Pacemans skin to match its beefy and aggressive looks; you just have to dig a little to find it. But more of that after a closer look at the cars raw ingredients.
Under the bonnet youll find a 215bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol, much the same as in any other John Cooper Works model. But in the Paceman, which shares the five-door Countrymans chassis, its linked to four-wheel drive which gives its own advantages and drawbacks.
Thanks to massive traction and advanced electronic back-up systems its almost impossible to spin any of the wheels away from a standstill for more than an instant, even on snow. Of course the system does bring a weight penalty but its worth the trade-off for the improvement in driveability.
It helps to provide seriously stable handling, and with the test carried out in near-freezing conditions on cold weather tyres the JCW Paceman could really strut its stuff and show off the delightful compliancy in its chassis when its being pushed hard. If youre lacking commitment along a country road the car can actually feel quite awkward with a bouncy ride and boomy engine between 2,000 and 3,000rpm, and its only when you up the ante and go all out that the JCW Paceman shows you what it can do.
The ride becomes astonishingly composed, with the suspension absorbing all kinds of hits in its stride and seldom nudging the car off its line at all. Theres some initial body roll in corners which is to be expected with a car of this height and weight, but all in all its a great setup for fast road use.
Revved hard the engine has a rorty zing. At higher speeds the initially slightly artificial-feeling steering gives way to impressive feedback and accuracy and the front end becomes nicely active mid-corner, pulling towards or pushing away from the apex depending on your throttle inputs.
Through corners a natural tendency towards slight understeer is countered with a squeeze of the go-pedal, which turns it into neutrality and rapid forward motion in a heartbeat. With a relatively soft power delivery, though, its done so in a very forgiving way. The JCW Paceman isnt about to catch you out or spit you into a tree, and in fact its almost impossible within the limits of sane driving to get the rear end to move much at all.
But it still feels lighter than its 1,475kg. It feels agile and eager to attack bends in the same way as the smaller JCW hatchback.
Theres some turbo lag and there are faster-responding turbocharged engines out there, but this is a user-friendly choice and is as happy trundling along at urban speeds as it is howling along mountain passes. Either way the gearbox is on the firmer side when youre sliding the lever between the six ratios, but its set up well with just enough notchy feeling to let you know each gear is properly located. Its only flaw is that its a little too easy to find reverse instead of first.
But of course the driving experience isnt the real reason people will buy this car. Its the other factors that the driving experience is balanced with, like the raised driving position which, with the amount of headroom still on offer, reminds you how big the Paceman really is and the dual-layer boot floor for extra practicality. Its no family car but it does have useful luggage space. Getting in and out is easy aside from a notable rearward stretch to grab the seat belt.
The Paceman cuts out some of the light for rear passengers compared to the Countryman so its less suited to carrying four people, but the perches are there should they be needed.
There are a number of reasons why the JCW Paceman shouldnt make sense and its certainly not a cheap choice, but its completely unique in its blend of looks and talents, and like it or not its a blast to drive. On that basis its going to win fans.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Mini John Cooper Works Paceman, £29,535 on the road.
Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol producing 215bhp and 207lb.ft.
Transmission: Six-speed manual gearbox driving all four wheels.
Performance: Top speed 140mph, 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds.
Fuel economy: 38.2mpg.
CO2 rating: 172g/km.