By Andy Bannister
One movie forever associated with Mini is “The Italian Job“, whether in its 1969 original or its rather disappointing 2003 remake, both of which were virtually promotional videos for the little British car in its different incarnations. The film title itself now looks a little ironic in the light of recent news from Munich and Turin.
The two most obvious beneficiaries of the future close working relationship just unveiled between BMW and Fiat are Mini and Fiat’s Alfa Romeo sports brand. Whilst the parent companies at first glance look to be unlikely bedfellows, the seemingly bulletproof German maker and the sometimes-struggling Italian comeback kid clearly think they can each benefit from the alliance.
Fiat’s last Teutonic tie-up, with Opel , was most definitely not a success for the General Motors division, which beat a retreat after getting out of its depth when faced with seemingly intractable problems at Fiat. This time around the Italians are in better shape and there’s no shares changing hands, with both partners instead set on learn from each other’s strengths.
The Mini has been a global phenomenon for BMW, but is unusual in having its own unique platform, not shared with any other group product. This will change with the launch of a third-generation Mini, which will potentially share a platform with a number of Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia models.
The risk for BMW, of course, is that buyers who love the Mini for its one-of-a-kind status might not like the idea of a tie-up with the Italians which leaves the premium Mini with the same platform, potentially, as the next Grande Punto supermini.
However, Fiat’s success among fashion-conscious city car buyers with the retro-look new 500 – seriously touted as a Mini competitor, despite being smaller and cheaper – show the company has still got something.
Fiat is an acknowledged master of small cars, with a huge and diverse range of tiddlers which it must be particularly thankful for at the moment. Meanwhile, BMW needs to make more Minis at lower cost to help reduce the company’s overall CO2 emissions.
An interesting aside to this is how BMW might develop the basic Mini design, after two virtually-identical looking generations. The most recent new Mini derivative, the Clubman estate car, hasn’t been universally acclaimed, and buyers may eventually tire of the Mini hatchback’s looks. These have been largely unchanged since 2001 and have years to go yet before the next model is ready.
Component sharing seems to be proliferating across the industry at the moment, with most buyers either not knowing or not caring. The current Mini, for instance, already has Peugeot engines.
On top of the legacy of its GM tie-up, which means some current Fiats and Opels share engines and platforms, Fiat already has a number of successful co-operative agreements with other manufacturers and is clearly keeping its options open.
For example, Ford Europe’s new-generation Ka city car will be based on the 500 and be built in Fiat’s Polish plant. Suzuki’s SX4 has a near-identical twin in the Fiat Sedici, with both models made in low-cost Hungary for Europe.
And Fiat has for years successfully shared van designs with Peugeot, with the little Fiorino (also available as a mini MPV) its most recent joint model.
The Italian giant has been busy this year in other spheres, making a deal with Zastava in Serbia to build a new minicar there, and is hoping to significantly boost exports to the lucrative Russian market as a result.
In the USA, where Mini sales are unable to keep up with demand and supplies of the little car are running short, some Mini dealers are set to offer the Alfa Romeo line by 2010 as part of the much-heralded return of the Fiat Group to North America, a market it once did well in.
The replacement for the current 147 could be the first Alfa sold under this arrangement, although if, as reported, it is a five-door hatchback it might not be the ideal car to appeal to American enthusiasts. Based on Fiat’s Bravo, it will probably be called 149.
The model Alfa Romeo most needs to kick-start US sales is the 159 saloon – or more likely its replacement – which competes directly with the BMW 3-series although at much lower volumes.
To underline this renaissance, even before BMW comes on board, Alfa Romeo is launching its smallest car for years, the MiTo (pictured), ironically another obvious Mini rival.
Lancia, meanwhile, has an impressively-styled Delta already making waves in Italy and being launched across Europe soon as part of a push to revive the tarnished Fiat luxury brand.
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