BMW Has Maxi Expectations for Its Next, Slightly Larger Mini Cooper

Big Daddy

Senior Member
PNW (Left) Coast
As reported by the New York Times

"OXFORD, England — At first glance down the assembly line at BMW’s plant here, it’s almost impossible to tell the new Minis from the newer Minis.

Parts are delivered as they are needed to BMW workers who assemble special-order convertibles and sedans along the Mini Cooper assembly line in Oxford, England. About two-thirds of buyers customize their cars.
Even the workers have to glance at television screens, which show each car in every color. On a recent Saturday, a black Mini Cooper S was followed by a red convertible and finally by a bright ochre Mini that was the latest version for 2007. Only its headlights and its slightly bigger size set it off from its siblings.

All of which raises an obvious question: Is this version of the Mini different enough to keep its outsize buzz going for a second generation?

It is no mean feat — the industry abounds with cars of the moment whose moment has passed, most notably Volkswagen’s New Beetle, to which the Mini is most frequently compared.

Like Mini, the New Beetle got off to a fast start, only to lose steam several years later — something Mini has avoided so far. One sign of its success is that at a time when many car companies routinely offer $3,000 or more in rebates and other deals, there have never been such discounts, only some lease deals, on Minis, which typically sell for $18,000 to $25,000.

That is why much of the auto industry is watching the new Mini’s introduction as an important marketing case study.

So far, the Mini has helped create an entirely new category of “personality” small cars like the Scion models sold by Toyota. These cars are bought not for their size or fuel economy but for their styling and overall cachet, said Karl Bauer, the editor in chief of, a Web site that offers car-buying advice.

A key reason both cars are so popular is that owners can customize them with almost every imaginable option, making Mini a challenge to build even if it does not appear to be that different from the next Mini on the line.

The modern incarnation of the swinging 1960’s car, originally designed in 1959 by Sir Alex Issigonis (as an homage to John Cooper, the famed race designer), became an industry darling in Japan, Europe and especially the United States, where Mini barely made an impression in its early years. Although it remained on the market for more than 30 years in its native Britain, only 20,000 Minis were sold over more than three decades in the United States.

All that changed with the latest Mini, introduced in 2002 in an unprecedented marketing blitz that followed a similar effort in Europe the year before. All told, 875,000 Minis have been sold worldwide in 70 countries since then.

When it was introduced, Mini meant almost nothing in the United States, save to people who remembered that the Beatles each owned one. So to build demand, the company used a sales strategy that mirrored the car’s less-is-more size.

BMW allowed just 70 dealers to sell the car. They were deluged with orders from the start, remarkable given that only 2 percent of Americans had ever heard of the original car in 1999, according to surveys by BMW, which builds the Mini.

There was no national television advertising and the car was promoted primarily on the Internet, in ads painted on city buildings and on cards handed out at auto shows.

BMW put Minis on top of sport utilities and drove them around 24 cities, including New York. Because of all that, Mini has sold five times as many cars — more than 100,000 — as it ever sold in the United States during the earlier incarnation.

“They did that by having it be very cool-looking, with fun driving dynamics and all kinds of options,” said Mr. Brauer.

Not everyone was ready for the Mini. It proved too small for some owners who did not feel comfortable driving it amid tractor-trailers on the highway.

Moreover, BMW recommends that owners use premium unleaded gasoline, which shot above $4 a gallon in parts of the country this summer.

But many owners get around those discomforts by adding a Mini to their household fleet, not relying on it for their sole transportation.

That was the case for Chris Tuveson, a 41-year-old urologist in Fond du Lac, Wis.

He still owns a Mitsubishi Montero S.U.V. but prefers driving his silver 2006 Mini Cooper S, even though it is too small to hold his children or much more than a doctor’s satchel.

The Mini “has become my fun and my workhorse car,” he said. “My S.U.V. just sits unless I need it for something big.”

With buyers like that, everyone at BMW, from chief executive Norbert Reithofer on down, say they believe it could sell far more Minis. “It will be a success story in the future, definitely,” he said.

Yet it has deliberately limited American sales to about 25,000 annually, out of the 200,000 that this plant produces each year.

Through September, just 21,400 Minis were sold in the United States, essentially the same as in 2005, according to statistics from Autodata. By comparison, that is about half the number of Camry sedans that Toyota sold in September alone.

One of the many options: wide racing stripes from bonnet to boot.
But BMW has big plans, relatively speaking, for Mini.

First up is the new version, designed at BMW’s headquarters in Munich (BMW consulted Rover on the previous model but entered development late in the game). The latest Mini goes on sale in Europe next month and in the United States next year as a 2008 model.

Along with a slightly bigger body, its most important new features are six airbags, instead of four, and new engines — gasoline and diesel, the latter sold outside the United States — that get 20 percent better fuel economy.

The only similar personality cars are the three Scion models sold by Toyota dealers, deliberately aimed at the industry’s youngest buyers (in theory, anyway, since plenty of their parents are taking them home). Their strongest selling feature aside from their funky styling is the fact that buyers can pick out just about everything, from the color of the dashboard to the power of the stereo system.

Mini buyers have free rein, too. They can select from 372 different interior options, from fabric or leather seats to the steering wheel cover, and 319 exterior options, like wide racing stripes on the hood. That makes Mini the closest thing to a custom-built car in its size and price.

About two-thirds of customers choose all the features they want on their cars, while the rest take home something that a dealer brought in, said Anton Heiss, general manager of BMW’s Oxford operations. That puts heavy pressure on the Oxford plant to make sure cars are built on schedule and shipped promptly. “If it is not perfect, it can be a nightmare,” Mr. Heiss said.

At one spot on the assembly line, a blue cloth bag containing the car’s electrical wiring is tossed inside the empty car body, which is swarmed by eight workers at the next station.

One worker seizes the bag, pulling out the cables and aiming the empty bag at a nearby bin. Others stretch out the wiring from front to back, some workers hopping inside to attach it to connectors, others securing it inside the hood.

The infinite choices mean that parts for Minis are sorted in advance, then brought to the assembly line in plastic bins, instead of having workers take time to search for them.

Big components, like seats and the dashboard, are delivered by suppliers just before they are installed.

The determination of the Mini workers in part reflects the relief that they have jobs at all. There has been a factory on this site, about two hours from London, since the 1920’s. But as the British auto industry deteriorated, so did employment here, where BMW built Rover cars until it sold the brand in 2000.

These workers are about to get much more to do. Late next year, along with building the new version of Mini, the plant will add a wagonlike Mini, called the Traveller, with a longer body and more space. The year after will bring a new version of the convertible. Beyond that, BMW will not say what its plans are for the brand.

But no matter what, executives are determined to protect it, said Michael Ganal, the BMW board member in charge of Mini. “It is all about the brand,” Mr. Ganal said in an interview at the Paris Motor Show. Mr. Ganal said BMW was determined to avoid the boom and bust phenomenon that afflicted the New Beetle. Its sales peaked at 83,000 in 1999, its first full year on the market, but VW is on track to sell fewer than half that number this year.

If BMW can attract more buyers as loyal as Dr. Tuveson, it may not have to worry. He plans to keep his Mini no matter what else his family is driving. “I’ll hold onto that car until it dies,” he said.