Chasing (Three) Volumes

Mini may be about to do the seemingly unthinkable by readying a three volume saloon. Heresy or sound commercial thinking we ask?

An Autocar render of what the proposed MINI sedan could look. Image:Autocar
Autocar helpfully supplied this not unattractive render of the proposed MINI saloon. I expect it will look nothing like this, for which rear seat occupants in particular should be grateful. Image: Autocar

Over a decade and a half since brand MINI was reinvented under BMW and you’d have thought by now the bulk of enthusiasts and commentators would have got over the fact that the Issigonis’ miracle hasn’t and quite obviously never will stage a rebirth. The bloated looking current MINI range is hardly easy on the eye, but they clearly appeal to an increasingly broad swathe of the market.

But despite impressive sales and a strong image, MINI has never been as profitable, nor sold in the numbers its Munich masters would like. To reverse this state of affairs, MINI-management wants to broaden the marque’s global appeal, particularly in markets such as China and the US. BMW have spoken of rationalising the core range into five ‘superheroes‘, based on the same modular front-wheel drive BMW platform and powertrains that will ultimately underpin the entire 1-Series range. Three of these have already reached the showrooms, the fourth most likely being the 2017 Countryman crossover. But it’s the fifth model that’s been subject to the most intense debate both internally, and within the media – the balance of opinion being that it would be a derivation of the well-received 2014 Superleggera roadster concept.

However, according to a recent Autocar report, a decision seems have been taken to produce a three-volume saloon – aimed primarily at China and the US – markets historically resistant to hatchbacks. Should this prove the case, it suggests that emotion has lost out to pragmatism in Cowley, but before we get too upset, it’s worth suggesting such a move may not be as heretical as appearances first suggest.

A typical piece of Issigonis non-styling. ADO16 prototype. Image:Curbsideclassic
Who says Issigonis couldn’t style a car? An ADO16 prototype before its sprinkling with Italian carrozzeria fairy dust. Image: Curbsideclassic

The Autocar piece points to the Riley Elf/Wolseley Hornet twins as (ahem) pathfinders; booted and tiaria-ed Mini’s that were produced alongside the 1960’s icon, going as far as suggesting the Riley name – (now owned by BMW by the way) – could be revived. You do have to wonder about Autocar sometimes, because given where the car is likely to be aimed, such a move would be a nonsense. But a more compelling antecedent is that of BMC’s 1962 ADO16 1100 – really a larger three volume Mini saloon, even if it didn’t much look it by the time Pininfarina replaced Alec’s sackcloth. Indeed, it could even be said that Carrozzeria Michelotti paved the way further still with their 1972 Austin Apache/Authi Victoria, a not unattractive amalgam of ADO16 and Triumph Innsbruck 2000 styling features that was sold for a time in South African and Spanish markets.

Austin Apache. Image:mginfo
1972 ADO16-based Austin Apache. Image: mginfo

Anyway, given just how far from Kansas brand MINI now finds itself, a four door, three volume derivative is as likely to be at least as plausible as anyone’s retro roadster. Not only that, it’s also likely to sell in far greater volumes. The market for 2-seaters is in terminal decline whereas the one for compact upmarket saloons remains strong, not only in the markets the car is intended for, but also in Europe. BMW themselves are readying a compact 1-Series Saloon to be sold (initially at least) exclusively in China. This car could conceivably form a direct basis for a MINI saloon and could easily be built in the same plant, giving BMW a compelling business case, if nothing else.

More heresy? Image:automobilemag
If they can get away with this…? Image:automobilemag

Frankly, I don’t see why not. In order to seriously earn its keep within the group, MINI needs to be approaching volumes of 500,000 cars a year, and with BMW’s core range now said to be approaching the limits to potential expansion, Cowley must step into the breach. With the forthcoming Countryman fulfilling the crossover role, perhaps the only other opening with potential for a decent return is a saloon. Because in the current environment, brand MINI can (and most likely will) embody anything – the abiding factor simply being that it sells – and they can sell it to us, which may of course prove the trickier part.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Chasing (Three) Volumes”

  1. Guess which model was BMW’s bestseller last month here in Germany, the country of de-restriced Autobahns and unerring driving enthusiasts? The 2 series ‘Active Tourer’, obviously.

    I’d actually consider a Mini saloon less of a sacrilege than that BMW van. If that saloon happens to be styled with a similar amount of care as the new Clubman (I kid you not: its rear lights, rear door gaps and surrounding fold are expertly handled – is that Anders Warming’s influence showing through?), rather than the utter disdain for basic proportions the three and, especially, five door variants are exhibit, than I’m fine with this kind of product.

    1. I assume that the Autocar drawing is speculative, but if they were thinking of pasting a generic saloon profile onto the MINI, that would be an awful waste. Anders Warming now has the chance to do something distinctive whilst not having to reference the original too closely. Boxy would be good, but I guess they’d be scared that the customer base wouldn’t get it, particularly if they have China in mind.

  2. Will this be a derivative of the 5 door hatch or the Clubman? If it’s the former it won’t look anything like Autocar’s drawing, but I suppose the latter is more likely.

    I was surprised to read in this month’s Car that Mini Oxford has a capacity of 400,000, with around 380,000 sold last year. Clearly, there is room for another variant, especially if the SUV version is built in the Netherlands. If Mini makes a competent fist of this than the the first generation Countryman, then it will surely be a hit.

    Strangely, though, the Clubman does nothing for me. The 3 and 5 door hatches might be fugly, but at least they are relatively compact and wieldy still. The Clubman really does strike me as a very conventional mid size hatchback (premium, natch) with Mini identifiers grafted onto it. Essentially, a Golf or A3 with added kitsch.

    1. According to the Autocar article(!) the saloon will be spun off the Countryman platform … in which case, unless they go to the expense of altering the hard points of the windscreen surround, it will look nothing like the “artists impression” provided by the magazine. The Countryman is ridiculously popular in my part of the world … you can make of that what you like.

      As to the new Clubman, I’m partly with Kris in that it is by far the most successful of the current generation of MINIs, but I miss the quirkiness of the “club-door” on its predecessor, and the rear lamps are not at all MINI, even if they are quite nicely done.

    2. Steven, the rear lamps are not Mini-like as we know it at all, which is also a reason why I applaud them. One of the main failures of current Minis is that they aren’t evolving stylistically in any significant way. If there’s supposed to be life in the Mini brand beyond reheated pastiches, then a lot of styling cues that are un-Mini-like will need to be created.

      The moderate willingness to leave some of Frank Stephenson’s R50 Mini’s legacy behind is why I find the Clubman surprisingly agreeable (in addition to the aforementioned fact that its detailing is a lot finer than its immediate predecessors’).

    3. I agree that MINI needs to evolve. However, I feel it’s a pity the Clubman has moved away from vertical lights, not because the alternative isn’t MINI-like, but just because there should be more vertical rear lamps.

      I suppose following its lacklustre sales, the next XJ will lose its vertical lenses – a pity. I was following one the other day and admiring it.

    4. But Sean, Gorden Wagener has already catered to your need: just look at those almond-shaped VERTICAL rear lights! They’re iconic already, just like an iPod or a Coke bottle!

      (In all seriousness: I’m with you regarding whatever will follow X351. Abandoning vertical rear lights hasn’t done Maserati’s Quattroporte an awful lot of good, either.)

  3. The profile of that ADO16 prototype does have a lot of the current 5-door about it (or vice versa), so maybe we should be a little less harsh on BMW’s latest effort … maybe not.

  4. I can’t say the idea of a Mini saloon worries me too much. The idea is far less abhorrent than a three door SUV Mini, or a Mini coupe without a floating roof. I just wish that Mini would grasp the nettle to comprehensively facelift the three and five door Mini. I saw a new Clubman yesterday and the revised front end treatment looked quite acceptable, if overlarge.

  5. Also, is the need for volume driven by the need to keep Oxford busy? Could UKL BMWs be made there too? Once the 1 series switches to this platform, BMW will be selling a lot of native FWD cars – perhaps more front drive than rear drive. But then they are probably too sensible to get sentimental about their RWD platform, with an inline engine.

    1. I found myself thinking along similar lines in the final years of the last century. Why did BMW Group develop the FWD Rover 75 platform, a thing of limited adaptability, rather than use the E46 3 Series as the basis for the Rover?

      It could have been conceived in the same manner as the mid-’90s A4 and Passat, but with the possible refinement of building RHD 3 Series at Cowley.

      With what we know now, the answer is probably not a lack of logic, but a plan to offload the Rover non-SUV operations without having to hand over core BMW IP as part of the process.

    2. Robertas, BMW developed the R75, Mini and Ranger Rover platforms for Rover… you can’t accuse them of a lack of investment! I don’t accuse them of a lack of good faith, either… for me, the project fell apart because Rover was, really, a basket case.

      Imagine if it had worked, though. Presumably, the new BMW 2GT and X1 would be Rovers (or Land Rovers?), and the mother brand would never have had to sully itself with this FWD, transverse-engined nonsense.

    3. Well, if BMW’s plan was to get Rover closed down by burdening it with uncompetitive product, than it must be said that it was both stupid and very, very expensive.

      I prefer to believe that Pischetsrieder was too misty-eyed about the grand British marques of yore and didn’t tighten the screws as early as he should have. I’m not claiming that German management is per se more capable than the British style, but Rover was desperately in need of help and streamlining. Just throwing money at the company (which is what BMW basically did before the entire situation became dramatic) didn’t do the trick.

      The price Ford paid for Land Rover appears like lose change from today’s perspective, by the way. And nice to have the Mini and its derivatives may be, but the big money is still earned selling the mother brand’s products. I bet if they could turn back time and avoid the entire Rover fiasco, the Quandt family would do so.

  6. I looked at that Autocar rendering and immediately thought Car Capers…

    For younger readers: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2414174/car-capers

    Front end of a MINI, centre section of a Citroen C5, and the back end of a second generation Dodge Neon.

    I seem to be in a minority in thinking that the new Clubman is a car that only Anders Warmng’s mother could love. It’s the width of the thing – 70mm more than the F56 hatchback. Seen front-on it looks freakish, but perhaps familarity will innure me to its oddness.

    I couldn’t resist checking how it compares with the ADO17 BMC 1800. The Clubman is the first MINI to beat the Landcrab in every dimension but wheelbase:

    Length: +18mm
    Width: +98mm
    Height+11mm
    Wheelbase: -22mm
    Front Track: +138mm
    Rear Track: +173mm
    Weight: +175kg

    1. Oh, that is a telling set of numbers, Robertas. The Landcrab had enough interior space to hide Neasden Cathedral. The new Minis haven’t enough space to lose a USB stick. The Mini needed to stay mini. Larger cars needed another brand.

  7. Neasden Cathedral? Do you mean the big Hindu one on Brentfield Road? That’s a big beast – I reckon you’d be better to bring along a 350EA. I’ve heard tell of a Wolseley 18/85 taking a Primitive Methodist Chapel and a Welsh Presbyterian Bethel, and still having enough room for a small Quaker Meeting House on the run back.

    Anyway, to UKL2 matters. From that compehensive repository of not wholly reliable information, Automobil Revue, I find out that the Clubman sits on a pretty much unadulterated 2 Series AT platform – wheelbase 2670mm, front track 1560-80mm, rear track 1520-60mm.

    The X1, meantime, has a wheelbase of 2760mm, front track 1500mm mm, rear track 1530mm. Approximately the 2 Series GT wheelbase and UKL1 MINI hatch widths.

    I’d contend that the X1 platform dimensions would have suited the Clubman better. Its other weakness is that it’s far too apologetic as an estate car. Some serious loadspace on Fiat 500XL lines would put some clear water between the Clubman and the 5 door MINI hatch. I’d also ditch the double doors, for no other reason than that Gert Volker Hildebrand did that bit of aperture engineering so much better.

    And I still can’t come to terms with those horizontal tail lights. They look as if they were meant for something else. Bristol hommage?

    1. They don’t sit very well with the surrounding car, do they? In themselves they’re tidy. In context they lack some connection to the metal around them.
      Do you think the Clubman should be bigger? It’s too big to be called Mini and a Polo estate has more carrying capacity.

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