Geneva Preview: Mini Rocketman Concept
By Charles Krome
It may be lonely out in space—that’s my one Elton John reference—but it’s starting to get awfully crowded in the MINI lineup. BMW’s small-car brand is set to debut its Rocketman concept at the coming Geneva Motor Show, and when that car is readied for production, it will join the Hardtop, Convertible, Clubman and Countryman, in both regular and “S” flavors, as well the AWD Countryman, John Cooper Works and MINI E models, with further new products already in the pipeline. And I’m relatively confident the Rocketman will be offered for retail sale in the near-term future. The company’s concepts have a tendency to come alive in some fashion or another, with MINI even exploring ways to bring the Beachcomber to the market—although that idea came a cropper when its doorless design bumped up against safety regulations.
As far as the Rocketman goes, MINI explicitly states in its press materials that the concept marks a bit of a return to the brand’s roots, at least in terms of size. The automaker managed to slice nearly a foot off the length of the standard MINI Hardtop to develop the Rocketman, with the former measuring a bit under 12.25 feet and the latter coming in right around 11.25 feet. That’s still 12 inches longer than the original, but about four inches shorter than a modern-day Fiat 500. It’s also wrapped in a very familiar-looking skin—the Rocketman’s silhouette is nearly indistinguishable from that of the production MINI.
But in addition to the expected show-car touches—dig those “stirrup” rear lights—the Rocketman also highlights some innovative production-friendly features that would help drivers truly maximize the usability of a car this small out in the real world.
For one thing, the Rocketman sports “carbon spaceframe construction” that reduces the mass of what would already be a lightweight vehicle just based on its dimensions. And designers did a nice job leaving that spaceframe exposed in certain areas, both outside and inside of the car, for an added visual design element. With carbon fiber becoming de rigueur in the premium sports car segments, seeing it on the Rocketman would be right in line with the brand’s positioning; in addition, the weight savings contributes significantly to the car’s claimed fuel economy of roughly 78 mpg.
Also very notable are the Rocketman’s dual-hinged front doors with integrated door sills. It’s a functional design that greatly enhances ingress/egress while maintaining the car’s small proportions and nicely complementing the exposed carbon pieces elsewhere on the vehicle. I’ve never seen anything quite like these on a production vehicle, but I’m not aware of anything that would prevent them from debuting on a retail Rocketman.
Innovative as well is the Rocketman’s approach to people- and cargo-hauling solutions. The top of its horizontally split hatch is roof mounted and opens upward, while the bottom enables a sort of drawer-like cargo tray to slide out of the car. Then, in the cabin proper, there’s versatile 3+1 seating that looks to be excellent for two adults up front, can squeeze in one more in the back, and, if absolutely necessary, create “an exceptionally efficient division of space accommodating four seats.”
The concept of “+” seating is headed for the mainstream in the Ford C-MAX, which offers a “5+2” setup, and it’s an ideal compromise for drivers who feel they absolutely have to have that additional passenger space, but recognize they’ll only actually use it on rare occasions.
The Rocketman leverages two other important innovations that are particularly worth noting. First is the use of a trackball-style controller as part of its steering-wheel-mounted switchgear, making it easier to work with the car’s computerized vehicle-system menus. It gives you the benefits of touchscreen control but without having to literally touch any screens. You just roll the ball to select an icon and then press the ball to activate the system.
Finally, there is an integrated yet removable “control unit” for the Rocketman’s comfort and convenience functions. MINI says the idea here is to allow drivers to be able to configure audio files and playlists, as well as nav destinations and the like, from the comfort of their own personal computers. I’ve already seen aftermarket kits that let people mount iPads in their vehicles to serve a similar purpose, and this is MINI coming at the situation from the other side of the spectrum. I’m thinking this is a precursor to the time when MINI—or some other automaker—develops its own digital device that’s specifically designed to serve as both a take-along smartphone competitor and an in-car systems controller.
The Rocketman naturally showcases plenty of concept-only goodies, too, but to keep this from getting too long, I’ll just mention the roof. That’s a full-surface glass roof with bracing positioned so that it looks like the Union Jack when seen from above. Illuminated bracing, of course. MINI says it’s “an extraordinary light show,” and even when the lights are off, the braces “glow a bright Porcelain White.”
Now, there’s still a lot missing from the Rocketman’s spec sheet—for example, despite the expected fuel-efficiency numbers, all MINI says about the powertrain is that the vehicle was “designed to allow the integration of a drive system which combines further enhanced sprinting ability with average fuel consumption of just three liters per 100 kilometers.” (Which I converted to get the aforementioned 78 mpg in the U.S. figure.)
But as a preview of some innovative new features that would make living with a vehicle of this size a less onerous task, I’ve seen enough to be impressed.