x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Jumbo doubts

The entertaining new Mini comes with a not-so-tiny price tag, writes Kevin Hackett.

The four-wheel drive of Mini JCW Paceman helps to limit torque steer coming from the 2.0L, turbocharched engine. Ravindranath K / The National
The four-wheel drive of Mini JCW Paceman helps to limit torque steer coming from the 2.0L, turbocharched engine. Ravindranath K / The National

There’s an elephant in the room. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, it’s there and it refuses to go away. It can’t go away, it’s way too big for that. The mammal in question is the price tag for this Mini. Yes, it’s a John Cooper Works Paceman, to give it its proper name, but it costs a staggering Dh205,000. I could actually end this piece right here, because for that money, if you were to waltz into a Lexus showroom, you could possibly haggle your way into an IS350 F-Sport like the one that we tested last week.

When BMW started to enlarge the Mini “brand” with the Clubman estate in 2009, nobody could foresee what was to happen. Now, we have seven different body styles and the new Paceman is just the latest – a coupe version, if you will, of the Countryman, a four-wheel drive SUV-slash-crossover-slash-whatever term the industry will come up with next. BMW plugging gaps in the market nobody knew existed? Who’d have thought it?

When the original Mini was in production, its maker, Austin, also launched a model called the Maxi, which, as you might imagine, was the polar opposite when it came to dimensions. In comparison to a Mini, the Maxi looked so large that it seemed it would swallow the smaller car whole. The Maxi was 4,039mm long, 1,626mm wide, 1,384mm high and weighed 978kg. This Mini, then, should be called something else entirely, because it’s 4,115mm long, 1,786mm wide, 1,518mm high and weighs 1,330kg – bigger in every respect than the gigantic Maxi.

Be that as it may, these enormous Minis seem to be popular here, so perhaps the Paceman has a fighting chance in the UAE. Its maker claims that the JCW version offers “extreme sports performance” and “inimitable style” and I suppose that the latter is, at least, true. The charming purity of the base car has been lost, especially up front, where the round headlamps have been substituted for odd-looking square items, and the sheer height of the bonnet makes for some strange forms indeed. The rest looks pretty cool, actually, and that continues to the interior, where it’s standard Mini fare and none the worse for it.

In the dark, this thing looks like a nightclub on wheels when you’re inside it, with orange and blue neon lighting oozing out from every nook and cranny. It isn’t exactly cavernous, and in the rear, individually sculpted seats can make rear passengers feel hemmed in, but at least there’s plenty of headroom. The front seats are highly set, giving a strange driving position, and they’re not electrically adjustable, which is lunacy for a car costing what this one does.

On the road it’s not what you might term “quick”, with the extreme sports performance that BMW promised never materialising. BMW’s significantly more powerful M135i is ballistic in comparison (two seconds quicker to 100kph) and is similarly priced. I know where I’d rather spend my money. Other JCW models, with front- as opposed to four-wheel drive, suffer from torque steer, where the front wheels can’t cope with the amount of twist being generated by the turbocharged engine and they basically try to go in whatever direction they feel like. Not here, though, because the Paceman has a sophisticated power train that can send up to 100 per cent of the car’s oomph to the rear wheels, and this makes for much more assured handling.

But the ride height does rob you of some enjoyment behind the wheel. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Mini Cooper S and, if my wife hadn’t forbidden it on the grounds that it’s “a woman’s car” – something that I wholeheartedly disagree with – there’d be one outside my home right now, instead of a Scirocco. I adore it and it’s one of the most fun and finely balanced cars on the road, partly because it feels relatively small but still packs a powerful punch. The Paceman is, it would seem, just too big for its own good.

Having said all that, it’s still rapid and makes for an entertaining drive in almost any situation. Road noise is quite noticeable at speed, thanks to the 19-inch alloys and run-flat Pirellis, but the engine remains civilised and unstressed until you gun it, when it makes a satisfyingly grunty sound and, when in Sports mode, a cheeky-sounding “parp” from the exhausts when shifting between gears. Sports mode does, however, stiffen up the already quite heavy steering just a tad, making it a bit too twitchy.

Speaking of noises, my test car makes some alarming creaks from its roof while negotiating uneven surfaces and speed humps. But apart from that, it’s a fine example of how cars should be screwed together, with a wonderful feeling of inbuilt longevity.

Should you buy one? If the looks do it for you, and you really feel the need for four-wheel drive, and you’re not put off by the price, then sure, why not? But when a Scirocco R costs Dh40,000 less and offers better performance along with almost as much practicality and individuality, you’d be advised to think twice.

khackett@thenational.ae

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