“What is normal?” asks MINI USA Marketing Communications Manager Lee Nadler. He hits the next slide of his presentation, and the crowd chuckles as a group of Playmates waving from the back of MINI roadsters in New Orleans appears on screen, a memory from our epic Playboy party at the Super Bowl. This is MINI normal, or more aptly, "not normal."
As far as vehicle launch locations go, Puerto Rico has never been touched. Shipping logistics aside, the terrain makes sense, as our sea-to-jungle-to-mountain rally will showcase.
Arriving at our hotel, codenamed The Bulldog Inn, we’re treated to one of the coolest aspects of the MINI marque, You-ification, in the form of a completely rebranded hotel bearing the canine ambassador's likeness and name in lieu of the standardized Ramada nameplate. We’re not entirely surprised after our trip last spring to investigate the brand’s cultish fan following in Europe, which left us devoid of expectations regarding anything put on by the company. Playmate Pilar Lastra even took part in a MINI surfboarding-themed party as part of the L.A. Auto Show back in November.
The next morning we load up our Pacemans in Ponce’s central square, eager to crisscross the town and head north into the mountains. We take off in our copper-colored Cooper S into the labyrinth of one-way streets.
While rolling down our window to get some relief from the 85-degree weather, we're happy to notice MINI have finally moved the window controls from the center dash to the actual doors. Patrick McKenna, who leads the Product team here in the USA, later tells us that the hardcore loyalists were the reason this hasn’t been done sooner. The MY2013 Paceman and almost platform-mate four-door SUV Countryman will offer this improvement, but we’re apparently not going to be seeing this change come to the other lines anytime soon.
Rolling into the foothills of the Cayey mountain range, the jungle starts to become dense on one side of the beaten track while the drop gets just a little bit too close as the winding road starts to narrow. For you Top Gear fanatics, watch the Bolivia episode to get a better understanding of our fear of locals catapulting around corners on this route. Nevertheless, the Paceman handles like a pro due to the standard "go-kart handling" that defines the marque’s custom driving experience.
While on the exterior the Paceman retains the Countryman’s front fascia to the A-beam, the vehicle’s innards are much more geared to the relaxed consumer whose focus is more on being active and adventurous as opposed to the family aspect the Countryman targets. Essentially the coupe version of the four-door, Paceman passengers sit much lower in the cabin, with the three-seat back bench converted to a lounge-y space with two contoured seats and room to stretch out.
We got the opportunity to test out the 181-horse Cooper S ($27.5K) and ALL4 (all-wheel drive $29.2K) models; however, the Paceman lineup also includes the basic 121-HP Cooper ($23.9K) and the recently announced 208-HP John Cooper Works Paceman ($36.2K). The sports suspension handled exceptionally on the twisted roads, allowing us to easily keep our speed up on hairpin turns and last-minute lane changes to avoid a number of possible collisions.
On the freeway, the Paceman picked up a decent pace in just under seven seconds for 0-60, though it paled in comparison to the John Cooper Works GP, which we’ll talk about closer to its release this spring. Fuel economy is pretty much in line with the other models, despite the increase in size and weight, with a highway MPG of 32 for the Cooper S. Considering 42 percent of all consumers in America rate fuel economy as extremely important when choosing a vehicle (up from 13.5 percent in 2001), it makes sense that MINI has almost 20 percent of the small car market in the U.S. even though they only appeared stateside in the early 2000s.
Our journey ends amongst the clouds of the Hacienda Pomarrosa coffee plantation, and we can honestly say we're impressed by the versatility of this vehicle in comparison to similar models such as the Range Rover Evoque, which has similar characteristics in design and abilities but a much greater price (though, to be fair, the Evoque has off-roading capabilities that offset the difference in price).
While Puerto Rico may be mini, the potential for the Paceman remains large as the newly introduced Countryman has demonstrated, making up almost half of the 75 percent model lead it shares with the hardtop, compared to the remaining four models in the lineup. We’re confident that this model has the aptitude and style to drive your trailblazing adventures wherever they lead.
Available next month in dealers, check out www.miniusa.com for details.