2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman review: Mini trades its soul for cabin comfort

I like that the system includes traffic, and gives detour options for bad traffic conditions. But the route guidance is also subpar. Although it shows turn graphics for surface streets, it didn't give me anything for freeway junctions beyond voice prompts saying, "Bear right," or "Bear left." It didn't even read out street names for its voice prompts.

Antarctica online
Mini Connected includes a few music options, even showing its Web Radio and Dynamic Music features in the Paceman's radio and media source menus, respectively. Web Radio, which joins HD Radio and satellite among the Paceman's broadcast sources, let me browse through a fantastic selection of online radio stations from around the world. I could listen to folk music from a station in Antarctica or Top 40 being played out of Estonia. The interface made it easy to save stations in a favorites list.

2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman
You can save favorite radio stations from around the world with the Web Radio feature. Josh Miller/CNET

Dynamic Music is another fascinating option, playing instrumental tracks that changed based on how I was driving. When I stopped at a traffic light, the music went into a down-tempo mode, and accelerating caused the beat to pick up. Turn signals added a snare or other percussion effect, while cornering affected the stereo balance, throwing the music to the outside of a turn.

The Paceman included other typical music sources, such as its USB port for thumbdrives, the Y-cable adapter for iPods, and Bluetooth streaming audio. However, I found that I couldn't switch my iPhone between the cabled connection and Bluetooth streaming without digging into the settings menus. There was also an oddity in which answering an incoming phone call through the Bluetooth hands-free phone system interrupted the car's connection to the Mini Connected app, and I had to pick up the phone and unlock it to get the app running again.

Using an iOS device or USB drive, the Paceman exhibited the same music library interface I've complained about in BMW models, BMW being Mini's parent company. Instead of simply loading a list of albums or artists, this interface worked like a database filter, letting me set the artist, genre, and album, then press play. It is far too complex for an interface you're going to use while barreling down the freeway at 65 mph.

The little controller joystick, however, works remarkably well for digging through the various menus offered on the screen. With its directional controls, dial action, and push button, I found it easy to quickly go through the car's various features, although alphanumeric entries were tedious.

The Paceman included voice command, but it only covered the basics. I could place phone calls by name and enter addresses for navigation. However, it could only take addresses one part at a time, such as street, then city.

A robust Harman Kardon audio system, with 10 speakers, came as part of the Technology package. It didn't have the clarity that I would expect from so many speakers in a small car, but it provided a pleasant listening experience.

Fuel economy hit
As a convenient info-byte, the Mini Connected app showed the Paceman's fuel level from when it was last connected to the car. That feature would come in handy when figuring out if you need to make a stop at the gas station before even getting into the car.

2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman
With the Mini Connected app, you can check the fuel level from when you last parked the car. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Paceman's weight and its all-wheel-drive system drag fuel economy down. It comes in at 23 mpg city and 30 mph highway in EPA estimates, so expect mid-20s. Not terrible, but the standard Mini Cooper S does 26 city and 35 highway.

A toggle switch at the bottom of the center stack put the Paceman into Sport mode, sharpening the throttle response. I tended to keep it in this mode, as it made driving more enjoyable. In stop-and-go traffic, Sport mode could be a little too sensitive, requiring a careful touch on the gas pedal lest the Paceman bound right into the bumper of the car ahead

In the default, normal drive mode, the accelerator has a big soft spot before much of anything happens.

I didn't feel a lot of turbo lag when driving around the city, as the small engine wound up pretty fast. However, when I earned my Catapult badge making a zero-to-60-mph run, I noted an initial dead spot in the acceleration before the Paceman got up and went. From there on, it kept up a nice, steady pace to 60 mph, without a lot of power dips.

Having the six-speed automatic transmission, a $1,250 option, was a disappointment. I would have much preferred the standard six-speed manual. In past Minis I've driven, that manual has an excellent shifting character, slotting into each gear very nicely.

The automatic ostensibly had a Sport mode, but it seemed to make little difference in the gear changes. In Drive, the transmission shifted well, downshifting reasonably quickly when I got on the gas pedal. In Sport, I would have expected it to aggressively downshift when I hit the brakes, but it exhibited no such behavior.

Manual mode delivered surprisingly swift gear changes, not often the case with an automatic transmission. Mini fits the steering wheel with paddles for shifting, in BMW-style using a push down for a downshift, or a pull for an upshift. I like that logic.

In second gear, the engine sounded tortured when the engine speed got above 5,000rpm, but shifting to third didn't cause much of a power dip, making either gear good for a series of tight turns.

2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman
The All4 badge means this Paceman comes with all-wheel drive. Josh Miller/CNET

I mentioned above how the Paceman's cornering didn't quite uphold the Mini legacy. I suppose the all-wheel-drive system was helping out in the turns, but I couldn't really feel it. As the system lacks torque vectoring across the rear axle, there's only so much it could do to improve handling.

The sport-tuned suspension, another standard feature of the Cooper S Paceman, didn't help a whole lot, either. Instead, it just hampered ride quality. The Paceman was fine on smooth roads, but I heard, and felt, some awfully hard jolts when hitting bumps or potholes. The standard Pirelli P Zero run-flat tires probably contributed to that roughness.

Not for enthusiasts
The 2013 Mini Cooper S Paceman retains the funky looks of the brand while offering a decent amount of cabin space, working well as an everyday car for people who like Mini style. It's an easy driver when negotiating traffic, although is going to feel harsh over the bumps. Through the Mini Connected app, the Paceman offers a lot of toys to make the daily commute more fun.

But if you're eyeing the Paceman with an enthusiast intent, thinking it might be fun to participate in local autocross events, skip the Paceman model and go for the standard hatchback. The Paceman lacks the handling character that made its predecessor so much fun. Fortunately, the cabin tech is the same across the line, so you can hook up the Mini Connected app and earn your badges in the standard Mini Cooper S.

All of the cabin tech can be found in one option, conveniently called the Technology package. Combining the center LCD and the Harman Kardon audio system, the navigation system is the one feature that lets it down. However, without built-in navigation, some of the Mini Connected capabilities will not be available.

At almost 40 grand, our fully loaded Paceman was a pricey car. Consider instead the Cooper S Paceman without all-wheel drive or the automatic transmission for a base price of $26,800. Any color other than white would add $500, the Technology package with navigation is another $2,500, and destination would bring the total cost to $30,595.

Tech specs
Model 2012 Mini Cooper Paceman
Trim S All4 (AWD)
Power train Turbocharged direct-injection 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 24.7 mpg
Navigation Optional flash memory-based with real-time traffic
Bluetooth phone support Optional
Digital audio sources Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system Harman Kardon 480-watt, 10-speaker system
Driver aids None
Base price $29,200
Price as tested $39,800

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About The Author

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET. Prior to the Car Tech beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine. He's also the author of "Vaporware," a novel that's available as a Nook e-book.