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