Overall rating: 4/5
Love it or loathe it, the MINI Paceman has few direct rivals combining a personalisation programme that allows for truly striking looks and all-wheel drive ability. In John Cooper Works format, it's also pretty damn quick - if not the most entertaining nor relevant MINI you'll ever drive.
In the Metal:
Could someone pass us a can of worms to open, please? Call us unconventional, but we actually like the John Cooper Works Paceman quite a lot. Sure, it's a long, long way from being pretty, but it is purposeful and one of the many cars that falls into the catch-all 'better in the metal than in photos' category. Given the over-complicated styling of the third-generation MINI Hatch (F56), the Paceman's blunt but thankfully simple appearance is rather fetching. The changes amount to (on this model at least) a horizontal red bar in the grille that wasn't there before, Piano Black surrounds for the headlights and taillights, more Piano Black trim on the diagonal links incorporating the side indicators between the A-pillars and front wheel arches, and some new metallic paint colours - namely, Jungle Green and Midnight Grey. The JCW also gets 18-inch light alloy twin-spoke 'Black Burnished' alloys and you can opt for LEDs in your front fog lights and daytime driving lights.
The interior is obviously derived from the second-generation MINI cabin, rather than the new design seen in the F56 Hatch, but it doesn't feel dated. You get four seats as standard with the Centre Rail storage system and these are much more capacious than the current 'standard' three-door MINI, while the Paceman also has a usable boot. So it's more practical than the Hatch, if not quite as cavernous or versatile as its Countryman sibling. New anthracite dials for the speedo and rev counter are a visual change, but something in the bumf - described as 'further optimisation of acoustic comfort' - is worth noting at this point...
When we last drove the old JCW Paceman, it was on winter tyres and it didn't blow us away. Thankfully, the cars on this Scandinavian event were on conventional rubber and 18-inch wheels, giving us a more representative dynamic demonstration. And the news is that the JCW is very good, if predictable. That acoustic comfort we mentioned - the Paceman is more pleasant and refined than expected. Its ride remains composed over a variety of surfaces, there's a high level of body control (albeit with slightly more roll into corners than on the Hatch) and wind/engine noise are subdued at most civil road speeds. At higher velocity and on fractured surfaces, tyre roar starts to become evident but it's not appalling.
With 'ALL4' all-wheel drive and the perky 218hp 1.6-litre engine, there's no doubting the Paceman lives up to the performance side of its dual nature. It feels every bit as quick as the figures might suggest and it has an absolute ton of grip in dry conditions, resisting understeer until well into the 'idiot driver' zone. The steering is weighty but artificial in feel, either in normal or Sport settings; the brakes are competent; and the powerplant only becomes uncomfortably raucous beyond the 6,000rpm peak power point. Exciting burbles and pops from the exhaust on the overrun in Sport mode are a cheeky touch, and the sharp Sport throttle mapping is excellent. However, it is all about clean and tidy speed; there's little adjustability in the chassis, the Paceman instead playing it safe with a neutrality that doesn't entice you into learning more about its range of capabilities. It should be monstrously quick in the wet, though. And we had no opportunity to try it off-road, either, although we doubt it could go into the wilder terrain on Earth.
What you get for your Money:
We've marked it higher here than you might imagine for a near-fifty grand MINI, on the basis that - of the sort of cars that offer all-wheel drive and such an overt display of quality and style inside and out, the main rival is clearly the Land Rover Evoque Coupé... which is about the same price as the JCW Paceman in its most basic four-wheel drive format. And the Evoque comes with a 150hp diesel engine, so its performance (if that's what matters most to you) would be a long way shy of the MINI's speed.
Despite the fact the engine is unchanged, the MINI's stats have marginally improved over the old car's figures. It's now EU6 compliant, and although peak power and torque figures remain the same, at 218hp and 300Nm, 0-100km/h, 80-120km/h, top speed, combined economy and emissions are all superior for the 2014MY JCW. This is because MINI has improved underbody airflow, used wheel bearings with a lower friction coefficient and tyres with reduced rolling resistance. If you're interested, from the stats listed above the respective numbers compared to the old car are 6.8 seconds (-0.1s), 8.3 seconds (-0.2s), 229km/h (+3mph), 39.8mpg (+1.6mpg) and 165g/km (-7g/km). The latter of these means the JCW just squeaks into tax Band D and is therefore €570 to tax every year - making it €180 less than before.
The only Paceman to get an easier-to-spot spec upgrade is the Cooper S, which goes from 184- to 190hp to trim 0.1s off its 0-100km/h time, now at 7.4 seconds, and a whole 0.2s from the 80-120km/h increment, at 8.3 seconds.
Two things will stand in the way of you considering the MINI JCW Paceman - the first is the very concept of a three-door development of a jacked-up five-door version of what was a three-door car from the outset. Get past that hurdle and the unconventional looks of the all-wheel drive coupé MINI could deter potential customers. But if you like its unapologetic stance and the idea of something akin to a Range Rover Evoque that is cheaper, quicker and better handling, the Paceman makes sense. In fact, given the lacklustre drive of the F56 MINI Cooper S Hatch, as well as its fussy appearance and its continuing packaging issues, the limpet-like, spacious JCW Paceman actually becomes the better option if you're after a quick three-door MINI. It's just that you have to pay a lot for the privilege.