Let’s get small, as Steve Martin once said. And for those who don’t feel that every trip in the outside world should be made in a Chevy Suburban, there are a few choices in this new, previously unexplored world of premium small crossover vehicles — all strange in their own way, but exciting at the same time.
All new for me a couple of weeks back was the Mini Cooper Paceman S All4, indeed a bit of mouthful. The BMW-owned, mostly British-built Mini brand continues to expand — some say this is diluting the car’s iconic DNA — but if you now want a larger, more upright Mini with four-wheel drive but only two doors, they’ve built exactly what you want. It’s also nearly $40,000, when fully equipped.
Parked next to the new Fiat 500L, you start to see a few similarities in both cars’ expanded stature, with some serious price differences. Paceman is taller than the traditional Minis we know and love and has a more upright grille, squared off headlamps and stuck-out, chrome-edged brake lamps in the back. With the optional 19-inch wheels, the whole car is particularly unusual — then again, that’s the Mini mantra, so Paceman hits its target.
Inside, you get a little more room than the traditional Mini, though the cabin is still a psychedelic playground of swoops, swirls, oversized gauges and toggle switches: Even the new surfacing on the dash looks like some sort of alien football. Blessedly, window controls have been relocated to armrests on the doors, and there’s a new, tiller-styled e-brake in the center console.
Even that console itself is weird — aluminum-edged, like a roof rack, with a second console between the rear seats. You can add or remove cup and sunglasses holders or ashtrays, and then the whole thing lights up, as well. Why not?
Somewhat less giddy is the Paceman’s actual driving experience. My S model had a 1.6-liter four-cylinder upgraded to 181 horsepower, and while that extra boost was handy during freeway runs, it seemed a little more difficult to summon than what you’d find in a standard Mini.
Paceman’s size has, sadly, taken away a bit of the standard car’s go-kart appeal, and I have to admit I hated the car’s automatic transmission — putting it in sport mode revved it too much, and leaving it in standard mode left it constantly hunting for gears.
If you’re going to throw down that kind of coin for what is still a very small vehicle, you may be interested in getting one with actual off-road prowess — plus a design that’s absolutely one-of-a-kind.
The Range Rover Evoque, that brand’s relatively new, 2.0-liter-turbo-powered, luxurious and absolutely off-road capable machine, ain’t cheap — my five-door tester had a base price of $41,145, but was over $50K when you added the deluxe (and astounding-sounding) 825-watt, 17-speaker Meridian sound system, plus xenon headlamps.
But my goodness, is the Evoque a cool car, drawing lots of interest. To say that it’s hyper-stylistic is an understatement: The car is futuristic both inside and out, and with oversized, off-road-ready tires and a gigantic steering wheel, it’s a bit like a beach buggy from the 23rd Century.
That 240-horsepower turbo may be a far cry from the giant V8s of Range Rover yore, but it’s powerful enough to get the Evoque along, and capably yank it up steep and rocky slopes — yet still get as much as 28 mpg on the highway.
Visibility is still an issue, especially out of that slit of a rear window or beyond the oversized side mirrors, and it’s certainly not gigantic inside, but it’s one of the most interesting rides around.
For considerably less than the Rover, you can also make a bold automotive statement with the all-new Buick Encore, the Korean-built, micro-sized luxury CUV that GM has offered – which accomplishes the Houdini-like task of being very large and comfortable on the inside, but tiny on the outside.
Based on the skateboard-like Chevy Sonic, Encore will definitely be a test case to see if regular American buyers can feel comfortable in a very small vehicle. Check out http://tinyurl.com/kv8qvry for our full review of the Encore.