As we're slaloming around stray dogs and chickens on a narrow mountain road in the middle of Puerto Rico, it occurs to us that this is a rather unusual place to experience the 2013 MINI Paceman.
But given that "Be Different" is MINI's mantra these days, we suppose a Puerto Rican press launch actually makes perfect sense.
After all, if MINI's latest model can navigate the patchy pavement, hairpin curves and diverse obstacles that define Puerto Rican back roads, its home turf in America should be a piece of cake.
A Different Kind of Countryman
Make no mistake: The Paceman is a decidedly American creation, inspired by our seemingly insatiable craving for crossover SUVs.
Oh, sure, MINI will talk your ear off about the Paceman's standard lowered sport suspension and coupe-like styling, but more than anything, the Paceman is a 2-door version of the MINI Countryman crossover.
Sharing the Countryman's front-end styling, optional ALL4 all-wheel-drive system and interior tweaks like conventional door-mounted window switches (other MINIs still use toggle switches on the center console), the Paceman is a crossover for folks who would rather skip the Countryman's relatively boxy shape and upright posture.
Think of it as a bargain-priced Land Rover Range Rover Evoque and you'll be on the right track.
The Inside Story
Predictably, the Paceman isn't as practical as its 4-door sibling, as it sacrifices rear passenger comfort on the altar of style. The backseat is nicely shaped -- a Lounge Atmosphere, Mini calls it -- but in truth it's merely adequate for average-sized adults and they'll need to be fairly limber to squeeze in and out.
Cargo capacity takes a hit as well, thanks largely to the Paceman's uniquely rakish roofline.
On the other hand, if you compare the Paceman to a standard MINI Cooper hardtop, it'll seem downright cavernous inside. This is one of those in-between vehicles that need a frame of reference, so it's up to you whether you consider the Paceman a slightly cramped crossover or a roomy 2-door hatchback.
Pretty Fly for a Tall Guy
The 2013 Paceman may demand some compromises relative to a full-fledged crossover, but you'll forget all about them when the tarmac turns twisty. To hustle a Paceman along a winding road is to marvel at its sure-footed poise and minimal body roll. Despite that lowered suspension, the Paceman retains a considerably higher center of gravity than a regular MINI, a point that's driven home by the crossover-style elevated driving position. But unlike the Countryman, which feels distinctly less athletic from behind the wheel than the rest of the MINI family, the Paceman does a dead-on impression of a MINI Cooper on stilts.
It's also a genuine MINI in its ability to avoid harm. Some of the Puerto Rican drivers we encountered were a tad inattentive, shall we say. Whenever a sudden swerve was required, the Paceman's quick, slop-free steering and taut chassis were more than up to the task.
In short, the Paceman is every bit as fun and responsive as a MINI should be, even while offering enough crossover accoutrements to attract a wider range of American drivers.
Room for Improvement
We took mild issue with the Paceman's mandatory firm suspension tuning, as it yields a less-than-premium ride on rough pavement. Granted, Puerto Rico's roads could use some work, but we detected more impact harshness over moderate bumps and ruts than American crossover fans might prefer. Keep this in mind if you're looking at a Paceman with larger wheels, because shorter sidewalls are only going to make the ride quality worse.
Also, although the model we spent most of our time in was the up-level Cooper S Paceman ALL4 with MINI's familiar 181-horsepower turbocharged engine, we wouldn't have minded a bit more get-up-and-go. This 1.6-liter overachiever is ordinarily one of our favorite motors, but the automatic-transmission Cooper S Paceman ALL4 weighs a hefty 3,260 pounds, so the turbo has to work harder than usual.
Yes, you could pay thousands more for the 208-hp John Cooper Works model, which achieves 60 miles per hour in a satisfying 6.5 seconds versus the automatic ALL4's 7.6 seconds, but ideally you wouldn't have to.
As for the base Paceman with its non-turbocharged, 121-hp engine, MINI didn't bring one to the event. But based on our experience with the base Countryman, we're guessing it's not exactly a standout in the passing-and-merging category.
Setting the Pace
Nonetheless, we're fans of any crossover that drives more like a high-performance hatchback and the Paceman is at the head of this class.
We're serious about that Evoque comparison, by the way: If you want a 2-door compact crossover with liberal doses of sport and style, the Paceman delivers the goods for many thousands less.
From the mountains of Puerto Rico to the malls of Peoria, the 2013 MINI Paceman is likely to please.