Mini gets crossover clout
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Mark Scott has a pedal in the next machine to join the Mini range
'Intelligence without ambition is like a bird without wings."
When a new car model is introduced with a quote like that - from canny old surrealist showman Salvador Dali - you know marketing has been working overtime. And the Mini Paceman, a bit like the quote, takes some puzzling.
Ambition? Sure, the rate at which Mini's German owners are cloning new models from the Mini Petri dish is nothing short of ambitious. The latest iteration due to shortly arrive in New Zealand is a two-door four-seater coupe version of the Countryman. And seeing half a dozen Pacemen lined up in the rain at the Brisbane launch this week there was clearly a good degree of intelligence applied not just to the marketing.
The Paceman's front end might remain unmistakable Countryman with the Star Wars storm trooper clenched jaw but, giving the car a much lighter mood, the roofline rakes back toward raised hindquarters - like the Range Rover Evoque. This insouciant stroke of the designer's pen works brilliantly to deflate the bloated feel of the donor Countryman. It looks a much better car.
And that's before we get to the paint. Mini, right across the range, has done an astounding job with colour. The Paceman range is no exception. More than most cars, Minis are acutely responsive to colour design so it pays to take some time to connect with each option because the choice so fundamentally alters the character of the car.
Peering down through driving summer rain from the Brisbane hotel veranda at the row of test cars, I felt like a kid about to reach into a toy box - make that a lolly jar full of liquorice allsorts. The bright red and black was tempting but a faintly metallic shade halfway between spearmint and British racing green seemed to project just the right mix of sporty and subtle.
Our destination for the day was a gum-clad playground near Mt Glorious - about as close to Brisbane as the Waitaks are to Auckland, but wetter. Whipping the Cooper S along the debris-strewn clay-slick switchbacks revealed the Paceman retains that signature Mini mix of go-kart responsive handling mated to just the right amount of shunt. Sure, with the Paceman carrying a Countryman's worth of heft it will never match the lightweight Minis but there are compensations, like plenty of room in the rear seat and trunk. Think of it as a Mini with love handles.
The twin-scroll turbocharged Cooper S - pushing out 135kW and a solid flatline of 240Nms of torque from 1600 - 5000rpm - is the first version that will land in New Zealand in late May. Since the less powerful offerings came across a little thrashy when pushed, that is a fortunate choice. Pricing hasn't been fixed yet but is expected to start in the mid $50k.
Mini says it's aiming this car at creative high earners, the kind attracted to a self-expressive distinctive emotional car, and the Paceman certainly does provide a flavour nicely different to the usual sports hatch. The launch even featured a photo-sort of likely purchasers - George Clooney and Johnny Depp dopplegangers - uber- urbanites swathed in tattoos with sharply focussed little faces, designer stubble and wavy hair.
So far so good. But there are some annoyances. You might imagine for example that for this crowd sunglasses and water bottles are essential kit, but there's nowhere sensible to put them. That's because the Paceman retains the Countryman's utterly idiotic ergonomics.
Some of the random scattering of switchgear is located thoughtfully behind the cupholders. Insert a water bottle and you can't operate the switches. To reach the sunglass case you first have to raise an armrest, then lower the handbrake, then fossick around trying to prise the damn case open. Very cool.
Worse in its way is the huge central speedo nacelle - the size of those old coin-fed Avery weight scales at the chemist - that is supposedly a nod toward the original dead-centre speedo of the Mini.
But it's ugly, unreadable and unnecessary. Try as you might to ignore the damn thing you can't help returning to the irritation - like a tongue that licks a damaged tooth.
Speaking of creativity, I understand how all of this happened. Most car company design teams do concept cars with little heed of practicality - some don't even provide for engine space. Sensible people - like engineers - are then supposed to step in and take over.
Somehow, the Countryman interior missed this step. Seldom has a concept made it through with less interference. The result is like living in an award-winning show home. So long as you can feel the vision, what does it matter that you have to walk half a mile to reach the fridge?
Not before time, it appears, Mini is about to do something about it.
With the Paceman they've already relocated the window switches from behind the water bottles to the armrests so you can actually reach them.
The Paceman features another departure for new Mini. The rear lights are now horizontal where before, like the original Mini, they were all vertical. The lights themselves feature wonderful Flash Gordon internals that wouldn't be out of place on a 58 Ford Galaxy but the horizontal positioning renders the Paceman indistinguishable from any other similar hatchback.
Therein lies the danger. Purists have long claimed Mini is suffering the curse of the Chinese takeaway menu, dishing up Mini models like so much chow mein to the point where the Mini DNA will disappear. Of course the anoraks should know better. The original Mini was produced in any number of body styles - vans, utes, half-timbered station wagons - through to the truly hideous Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet.
These last two had bread-bin shaped boots cantilevered off their rears while palpably absurd "ye olde" grilles were bolted to the stubby bonnets. With a strip of ply glued to the parcel shelf, these two were the low-rent epitome of failed empire.
Speaking of empire. Turns out BMW and the Mini - first named the Austin 7 - go back a long way. The first BMW was an Austin 7 built under licence after World War I. This after the victorious Brits cut back BMW's aeroplane business. Appears BMW learned something. There's probably a long German word for it.