Mini Provides a Blueprint on How Not to Turn a Niche Product into a Line
No car manufacturer on Earth suffers from such a severe case of mistaken identity as Mini. The BMW-backed revival of the classic British coupe exploded back onto the international scene in 2001, and has undergone few changes since. A revised edition was introduced in 2007, and one year later, the first Mini Cooper variant debuted as the Clubman. The car is little more than a stretched Cooper with a small second door on the passenger side and a split hatch that opens horizontally. It was born to breathe new life into the brand, and helped Mini achieve greater economies of scale by riding on the same platform as the Cooper and offering the same engine and transmission choices. While it did revitalize Mini, it also set off a chain of events that led to the potentially brand-damaging critical failures of the Countryman, Coupe, Roadster, and Paceman.
The Mini Countryman, shown here in its natural habitat
The Countryman is the biggest offender, both literally and figuratively, of Mini’s shift to non-mini cars. The car is a mega-Mini, a small crossover SUV that fails to translate the classic Hardtop’s design to a larger package. The egregious Leno chin is only one of the unfortunate elements on the front end that differs from other Minis, and the back end is similarly bulbous and misshapen. The interior of the car is also plagued by the same unintuitive, messy center stack that accompanies every Mini in the lineup. The engine choices are all the same, which means the base Countryman that begins at $22,000 (not counting the inevitable $1,250 automatic transmission option) is powered by a woefully inadequate 121hp 4-cylinder. The same motor that does decent work in the Cooper Hardtop is saddled with an extra 500lbs, adding about 3 seconds to the Hardtop’s 0-60 time. The double digit sprint to 60 means that the Countryman base is slower than a Prius with the manual transmission, and the performance is even worse with the automatic transmission added.
It’s difficult to see why Mini ever produced such a car other than a flagrant attempt at reaching more people, but plenty of manufacturers have done the same while still producing a decent car. Take the Range Rover Evoque, for example. It is a car whose design was clearly weighed in the “form” rather than “function” side, as opposed to every other Land Rover that has ever been made. The Evoque’s strength is in its beautiful bodywork and the modicum of offroad functionality that it retains from its parent company. In a relatively recent episode of Top Gear, James May delighted in seeing that the Evoque, while made for cruising boulevards, was still able to traverse rocky paths that most modern SUVs simply cannot.
While the Countryman is a sales success, although not a critical one, the other three cars that complete the Mini circle are not. The Coupe and Roadster are two-seater versions of the standard Hardtop, which should make them all-around better driver’s cars. However, the disparity between idea and execution is massive. Sales of the Coupe peaked in the first month the car went on sale, and Mini hasn’t sold more than 250 per month in 2013. The terrible exterior styling and limited functionality are the most likely culprits. The roof spoiler effectively cuts rearward visibility by 1/3, and makes the side and rear profiles look ridiculous. The rear glass also stops several inches short of the vertical surface of the rear, giving the Coupe a rear decklid that juts out from the rest of the car. The Roadster shares the same awkward deck with the Coupe, although as a folding convertible this is at least justifiable. Roadster sales are likewise low, although it has been outselling its fixed roof brother since late last year.
The newest car in Mini’s lineup is also its most pointless. It is a two-door version of the Countryman, and the market seems to echo the confusion of the motoring press. There seems to be no advantage to owning the Paceman over the Countryman, as rear visibility is cut due to the downward-sloping roofline even though the car is designed to fit more people in the back row than the Clubman or Hardtop. It, too, suffers from the poor performance of the Countryman yet unbelievably carries a higher price tag.
The Mini Paceman is hilariously unnecessary, especially in JCW trim
Product missteps are just one of Mini’s problems, which also include a high price tag compared to alternative models at competing brands, reliability issues, and harsh driving dynamics even in the least sporty of its offerings. Mini needs to downsize not only its scope, but also the cars themselves, if the brand wants to survive. Mini owner BMW has also made more than a few missteps as of late, including the 5 Series GT and M versions of its X5 and X6 SUVs. Although BMW enjoys high sales regardless of poor niche products, Mini is floundering and doesn’t seem to be able to deliver on what its name promises.
All photos courtesy of Mini
Thanks to North American Motoring for providing Mini sales figures