How Big Can a Mini Get?
By Andy Bannister
The inherent contradiction in the Mini brand is coming into sharper focus with the release of pictures of the firm’s latest Beachcomber concept car, which gives more clues to the future small SUV from the BMW-owned outfit.
Mini, by its very name, is meant to be a maker of small cars, but as the company’s portfolio expands, so does the size of its models.
BMW are masters of brand management and have so far done remarkably well with the Mini hatchback, the convertible, and the company’s slightly strange estate model, the Clubman. If sales are to continue to grow, though, Mini needs to add more bodystyles to broaden its appeal.
The claim of the current range to be spiritual successors to the original Sir Alec Issigonis-designed BMC Mini range dating from 1959 is already a pretty tenuous one, resting largely on a few vague styling similarities.
While it may seem small by American standards, today’s Mini hatchback is hugely bigger in all dimensions than the car which supposedly inspired it, and many feel it really doesn’t suit its tiny-car name anymore.
That gripe aside, the Beachcomber concept is effectively a preview of the new Mini Countryman, due to go on sale next September. It follows on from an earlier Crossover concept shown in Paris last year, but this time is presented in a leisure-car format which very loosely pays homage to the 1964 Mini Moke.
When the Countryman finally arrives it will be the biggest Mini ever and also be the first of the new Mini models to be built outside the UK. It will be manufactured under contract in Graz, Austria, by Magna.
Heritage is important to the company, and Countryman, like Clubman before it, is a revival of an old Mini name from the past, being the traditional badge appended to Austin estate cars (there was also a Morris equivalent, Traveller).
It wasn’t exclusively used on the Mini, and indeed was last dusted off in the 1990s for a best-forgotten luxury load-carrier version of the mid-size Austin Montego.
The Mini Countryman of the 1960s was notable for its cute “timber framed” body which seemed to hark back to an earlier age of coachbuilt station wagons. Although the wood was not a structural fitment, it suited the little car perfectly, and was particularly popular in export markets such as France.
The Mini SUV hardly seems set to have much in common with its rather twee predecessor. As well as being super-sized it will also be the first ever production car offered by the company with four doors.
It will also be bringing 4X4 technology to the Mini range for the first time, although – despite the rugged pictures of this latest concept – it is unlikely the new car’s off-road credentials will be played up.
When the Beachcomber goes on display at next March’s Geneva Motor Show, public reaction to the concept may influence the way future Countryman derivatives develop, Mini says.
Leaving aside its impracticality in most climates, the Moke-type pillarless body without solid doors would not be offered on a production model due to modern safety regulations.
There are some other interesting ideas being trialled in the concept car, however, including a series of fabric and composite panels that are designed to cover the door apertures and roof, to provide occupants with protection from the elements. A huge sunroof using this technology could therefore be one option on the production car.
The Beachcomber and future Countryman clearly carry forward the Mini styling DNA (in a new and rather bulbous-nosed form) but one obvious question is how long a car brand can continue to evolve using certain retro-inspired themes for all its future models.
For now it still works, but one day the Mini’s looks are bound to go out of fashion.
Competitors as diverse as Audi, Alfa Romeo and Citroën are also eyeing Mini’s sales success globally with covetous eyes. Pretenders to the crown of this not-so-small-car will be legion in the decade to come.
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