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Test Drive: 2013 MINI John Cooper Works Paceman All4

Not all MINIs live up to their name anymore.

The trend started a couple of years ago, with the introduction of the Countryman compact crossover, the company’s first five-door, all-wheel-drive vehicle, and a veritable monster truck by the standards of the brand.

Now there’s a three-door version of that behemoth, and, guess what, it’s even bigger.

At a couple of tenths of an inch longer than the Countryman, the Paceman sits atop the MINI lineup like a 1970’s Cadillac Eldorado coupe.

But it’s far from just a Countryman that lost two doors. Aft of the windshield the Paceman gets its own, very unique look.

Most notably, there’s the flat, sloping roofline that cuts into rear headroom a bit, but offers the flat-bill cap style of an extreme sports fanatic. Angled rear glass and wraparound horizontal taillights further add to the visual speed of the design.

As with most MINIs, there’s an abundance of chrome trim, and here an enormous brand logo and the name of the car plastered on the hatchback bring the swagger. Overall, I think it’s the best-looking car of the MINI bunch, and not at all a toy.

Base price for an entry level Paceman Cooper is $23,200 and rises to a whopping $36,200 for the high performance John Cooper Works model tested here.

While the Cooper gets by with a 121 hp four-cylinder, the JCW has a turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter motor good for 208 hp. A 181 hp Cooper S is also in the mix.

Along with the extra power, the JCW is fitted with all sorts of performance and appearance goodies, including a lowered, stiffened suspension with thicker anti-roll bars and a set of 18-inch wheels with many spokes and wrapped in sticky, low-profile rubber.

An extended roof-mounted spoiler, deep chin, rear splitter and new rocker panels give it the looks of a race car, according to my six and four year old kids. Contrasting roof and mirror caps and optional striping enhance this image, especially in JCW’s signature red and black motif.

A six-speed manual is standard, as is all-wheel-drive. For better or worse, my example was fitted with the $1,250 six-speed automatic.

Aside from the window layout, the interior is largely identical to the Countryman’s, but the Paceman is strictly a four-seat car. No rear bench is available, and the seats are a bit sportier all around, but still sit high and upright, and there’s ample room by compact standards.

Light up the engine and the performance exhaust spits out an appropriately growly noise. It’s not sweet, but definitely sounds the business. Plenty of grip and a host of traction and stability control systems means the Paceman pulls away with no fuss and just a breath or two of turbo lag.

Leave your foot in it, and there’s enough oomph to propel the JCW to 149 mph, but U.S. cars are fitted with a limiter set closer to 128 mph. That shouldn’t cause a problem except on the longest of racetrack straights.

Autocrosses are the natural environment for hotted-up MINIs, anyway, and I actually decided to skip one that I drove by, figuring all of its little brethren there would laugh and run circles around it. After a week with the car, I decided that was a bad call.

I spent the better part of a day on the closest thing to a paved rally stage I know of – bad pavement, switchbacks, humps – and had more fun than I’ve had in a car in a while.

The not-so-little guy was literally hopping with joy, its surprisingly compliant suspension at home on the undulating surface. Thicker tires would’ve been welcome on the sharper imperfections, but the composure and bite this thing has is something to be reckoned with.

Little, overpowered, front-engine, front-wheel-drive based cars like this typically exhibit a fair amount of understeer, but when I mentioned that, the car had to stop and consult a dictionary, because it didn’t know the meaning of the word.

Steering feel is excellent, despite the use of electric power assist, the rear end is more than happy to go where you’re pointing the front wheels, and there always seems to be plenty left if you need to crank it a little further. A brake-based torque vectoring system that directs power between the wheels to help push you around curves surely helps.

Ignoring the summer street tires, I ventured on to an equally twisty dirt and gravel road. Even with the stability control turned off, the car refused to complain. As long as I avoided the biggest rocks, so did I.

Granted, while lesser Pacemen compete with a variety of sporty compacts, the JCW fits into a very small niche. Its closest competitor is the similarly priced, more powerful, but less cheeky Volkswagen Golf R, and that’s about it in the three-door world.

Shovel on the options, many of them just for the sake of personalization, and it’s in a league of its own. My test car rang up at $44,900, and there is no objective way that I can tell you that’s a good deal on a compact car.

But this one is a good deal of fun.

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2013 MINI John Cooper Works Paceman ALL4

Base Price: $35,500

As Tested: $44,900

Type: 4-passenger, 3-door hatchback

Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 208 hp, 192 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 23 city/30 hwy