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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

BMW MINI Will Probably Never Make The One Car They Should

Three BMWs and a Mini.
My favourite comment about this image is that "it looks like someone keeps pulling back the loose skin on a dog's face."
Yes, I know the whole "Oh the new Mini is too big" moan has been moaned millions of times. No, I don't care if you're jaded by it. I have cause to moan about it again. Deal with it.

There are actually two reasons for this renewed urge to rant. The second is the above image, released as part of the full unveiling of the 2014 BMW MINI Hatch. It shows something you'll see in absolutely any lineup of cars through their generations: Model Bloat. This is not a new thing, of course, but to highlight it seems like a strange decision by BMW.

In fact, thinking about it, they haven't exactly done a good job to conceal the model bloat (aside from fitting huge tail lights to try to deceive you into thinking it's small, which is a sneaky trick I see right through!). When you park them all side by side, not only do you realise that the one you really want is sat on the right, but there are some things that actually make the new car look fatter. The number plate is higher up, and since it draws the eye, it makes the nose look higher. As does the main grille being mounted quite high and sat on top of a decent-sized lower grille. The waistline has been raised up (along with the headlights), and yet the roof has been lowered. This narrows the Daylight Opening and means that, when viewed in profile, more of the volume is metal, which makes the car look chunkier, almost reminiscent of the Range Rover Evoque in its basic proportions, but not really the same. Still, it would only take the same transformation one more time to have the same body-to-window proportions as an Evoque or *shudder* a new Chevrolet Camaro...

But to be honest I can make a certain amount of peace with the hatchback at this point in time. Sure, it only pays lip service to the original car and makes precisely zero effort to follow the values and USPs of the original car, aside from aping its design for fashion purposes and being (apparently) fun to drive. But once you zoom out and see the entire range of cars that has resulted, the hatchback and four-seat Cabriolet seems like an oasis of sanity and reason...

For an old rant about the Coupé, click here
The Paceman really gets me. Not only is the name of it just plain awful, and not only did a reviewer who wanted to be proved wrong about it find it disappointingly rubbish, but why the hell does it even exist?! It's a "Mini" that's the size of a Golf or Focus or Astra! In Mini terms, that's massive. Even the badge on the back is massive, as if to say "yeah we know, but fuck you anyway." It's also made in Austria, alongside the CoUNTryman, so they're not remotely British either. Even people who don't get all riled up about this sort of thing know that the two cars on the bottom are not real Minis. Even my mother said so, leveling the same criticism at the Fiat 500L that was on TV at the time. You can't just mess with something as iconic as the Mini and have it go unnoticed. Imagine if BL/Rover put the Mini badge on a car as big as a Ford Escort. Or to put it a more poignant way, as big as an Austin Maxi...

But that's the thing! BMW are getting away with it! So they just carry on ignoring the definition of the word 'Mini' and churning out new niche models because empty-headed fashionistas with money to burn think they're pretty and no other reason...

...And it's about to get even worse:


That, as you can tell from the round headlights and equally-round nose, is a Mini. And yet the person who took this and other spy shots of it reports that's about the same size as a new BMW 3-Series Touring [estate]. It may or may not be called the Mini Traveller, and there may or may not be a slightly longer version coming with two miniscule back seats which will be the only mini thing about the car. It may or may not be the dumbest thing I've yet seen actually happening out there in the real world... and I've seen "Best of Vine" compilations. Sure, it's nicely proportioned, unlike many MINIs, but again, why does it exist at all?! Why the hell wouldn't you just buy a family estate from the real BMW? It's not like it's going to be any cheaper, because they'll put a premium on the fact that it's a fashion statement and on all the personalisation options (seriously, you can add a crazy amount to the price of a MINI if you go through the options list). It didn't work with the Paceman JCW and it hopefully won't work now with this, which reportedly could either be called Traveller as an historical reference, or...... "Spacebox." Give me strength...

But look, I'm not an idiot. They're expanding the range like this because people are buying MINIs, based mostly on fashion (and some based on their apparent fun handling), meaning that more products from the same brand - particularly in fashionable market segments - generates more profit, which is useful if you're a business, which all car companies are. But they're doing it at the expense of brand values, diluting said brand purely for money. Therefore, I shall henceforth refer to BMW's retro fashion brand as "MUNI". Sporty products will be referred to as MUNI Capers.

But what the hell is with this trend emerging of every big car company making every type of car? Porsche now make SUVs and saloons and will soon make them in two sizes each (Cayenne & Macan, Panamera & "Pajun"). Lamborghini, Bentley, Maserati and Jaguar are about to make large SUVs, and BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi already do. Prestige brands are making smaller models to reach down into less prestigious market segments (see Rolls-Royce Ghost and Maserati Ghibli for two examples). Literally every mainstream car company is making a compact crossover. It goes on. It's going to get to the point where people stop and think: if there are so many brands making every type of car, why do we need so many of them? If none of them have any real individuality beyond their styling philosophies, why does it even matter which car I buy any more? Is there any real difference? Should we start narrowing them down until there are only about 10 different car brands in the world?

Except the vast majority of people won't, will they? These days the number of times people actually stop and think about anything other than themselves could be counted on one hand...

That's why we have this. That's why we have to put up with people saying "new cars all look pretty much the same these days." Because of this trend of car companies bending over backwards to fit in with fashion trends that give us cars that would've once been considered sacrilegious, back when car companies actually had their own proper identity, their own way of doing things, their own USPs (or at least ones that weren't just superficial or gimmicky).

But I digress, and must get back to the title.

As I've mentioned, MUNI makes hatchbacks, convertibles, a coupé and roadster, small crossovers, an estate and a van. Back in 2011, they unveiled a concept car called the Rocketman. It previewed a Mini-er MINI to sit under the current hatchback.

2011 MINI Rocketman Concept
The thing about a preview is that it suggests the thing is going to happen. Sadly though, this isn't. It was unlikely to reach production as-is, because the entire chassis is made of carbon fibre (although, BMW do make the i3 city car, which has a chassis made of... carbon fibre) and the boot isn't a hatchback but a weird drawer thing that would be far too limiting in the real world. In terms of size it was about half way between an original Mini and a current MINI (yes, BMW insist on capital letters...). BMW mumbled something about it not being viable and canned the project.

In 1997, when the new Mini was being worked on simultaneously by BMW and recent acquisition Rover, the British attempt to redefine the Mini was unveiled in two forms at the Geneva Motor Show. The twin concepts were called the Mini Spiritual and Spiritual Too. They looked like this:

1997 Mini Spiritual (foreground) and Spiritual Too (background) Concepts
Granted, they weren't the best-looking, although I like the stance and face of the three-door one. The five-door one looks inflated, and not in a good way. But the engineering underneath the questionable bodies was completely in the spirit of the Mini. There was an 800cc three-cylinder engine (an enlarged kei car engine) sitting in the floor of the boot, which allowed for a compact crumple zone up front and maximised interior space. This meant that even though it was laid out like the 1998 Mercedes-Smart, it was still a four-seater. Clever packaging and a steel frame chassis covered in an aluminium or plastic body meant an approximate weight figure of just 700kg, hardly more than Rover Minis of the time, and yet the new front crash structure meant it was up to modern safety standards. It represented a truer answer to the question "If the Mini was designed now, what would it be like?" with less nostalgia but still the same core values and goals.

OK, time to use your imagination. See if you can transfer the styling of the 2011 Rocketman onto the 1997 Spiritual. You can't make the front longer, but you can change the roof. Personally I'd lift the waistline up just a touch so it looks a bit more solid. Maybe just up to where the bottom of the window glass currently is, but then replacing the roof and side windows with the Rocketman ones.

It's not bad, right? Plus it would be an intelligent, value-for-money car for the masses like the proper Mini was. Unfortunately, it's now too late for the car you just imagined to exist. I doubt BMW would completely re-engineer... wait a minute, the i3! That's a city car with the powertrain (albeit an E-REV hybrid one) on the rear axle! Just shorten that and chuck out the electric motors. See? It is possible after all! But still unlikely. It would be completely different mechanically to everything else MUNI makes, which might put them off.

But even leaving the rear-drive Spiritual concepts behind, BMW don't seem to realise that there's a pretty big market for front-drive city cars. There are the following on sale right now:

Fiat 500 (kind of a big deal)
Volkswagen Up!/SEAT Mii/Škoda Citigo
Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 107/Citroën C1
Renault Twingo
Hyundai i10
Kia Picanto
Suzuki Alto/Nissan Pixo
Toyota iQ
Smart ForTwo
Ford Ka (a 500 underneath)
Opel Adam
Mitsubishi Colt
Mitsubishi i (a kei car) and the electric i-MiEV/Peugeot iOn/Citroën C-Zero
Hell, let's even throw in the MUNI-sized Dacia Sandero because it's so cheap.

If the market for very small cars is big enough to be inhabited by at least 20 different models already, then it's definitely an avenue worth pursuing if you're a) A CAR COMPANY CALLED MINI and b) looking to make a success of small cars. The VW Up! and its badge-engineered siblings are doing a fine job of bringing premium quality to the sector, while the Toyota Aygo was TopGear's 2005 joint COTY, tying with the Bugatti Veyron. It also makes a fine football player, exactly the kind of folly a Mini should be getting up to.

The car would be designed to be economical both for the end user and for BMW themselves, as shown by the Toyota/Peugeot/Citroën triplets eight years ago when they showed clever ways of cutting costs and shedding weight, neither of which can be said of the MUNI. What's more, those cars are still on sale now almost unchanged, and I certainly see a few of them around these days. Citroën recently updated the C1, and the most expensive version is £10,345 and has all the toys you have to pay extra for in the MUNI Caper. Imagine if a car like that with a name steeped in 50 years of almost unrivalled heritage entered the segment, priced at £7500-11,000 with a hot version to take on the Fiat 500 Abarth and Renaultsport Twingo 133. A much wider range of people would start their driving lives in a Mini. People could buy it as a cheap commuter car or as a second car for similar purposes, parked next to the family wagon. What's more, they could still rip people off with personalisation options all day long, as Fiat does with the 500 (and Opel/Vauxhall... would be with the Adam, although I don't think anyone's actually bought one of those yet), so there's still a decent profit margin to be made too. I am aware though that cars like this can be relatively expensive to engineer compared to the expected retail price. But that just invites intelligent solutions, the sort of thing that the original Mini was bristling with. What's more, people aren't as rich as they were. You know this, as you're people. Yet our aspirational consumerist culture means that we want new stuff, new phones, new TVs, new toys. New cars! Opening up the MINI range to people who want their first new car but can't stretch to the current hatch would invite a lot of new customers. As I don't need to explain, the badge will do a lot of that on its own, and if retro really is still in fashion then, well, they've got that bit nailed down already. In fact, that's the only bit they've got nailed down already. Apart from the (apparently) fun handling. But imagine that apparently-fun handling with a fizzy little 1.0 3-cylinder and much less weight and a shorter wheelbase! I daresay it would even drive like a front-drive go-kart. By which I mean 'like a Mini'.

This is the sort of car they could make today, sitting under the regular hatchback which can continue as normal, getting slightly chubbier with each passing generation, but offering something the modern world truly lacks: a real Mini.

If I had the power, I would make it happen.

2 comments:

  1. Nice! Can't argue with any of that, and the world definitely needs a bit more of the proper Mini experience.

    As long as the windows don't get steamed up quite as often as they used to, of course. :-)

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