Brand-MINI is facing its biggest adventure yet. This one however, may not end well…
It has been a fairly interesting week for BMW’s Oxfordshire outpost. MINI has been one of many UK-based carmakers predicting doom-laden scenarios should the British government’s hapless negotiating team fail to obtain a workable deal to exit the European Union early next year.
As part of its ongoing (and increasingly necessary) catastrophe-planning, BMW’s Cowley plant is set to shut down for a month in the immediate aftermath of the UK’s departure in order for annual maintenance (which would normally happen later in the year) to be carried out, lessening they hope, the supply-chain chaos that will likely ensue.
But as politicians on both sides of an increasingly polarised and intractable ‘Brexit’ argument foam incontinently at one another, another perhaps more momentous shift appears to be occurring. The great contraction is finally under way.
In a recent Autocar report, Hilton Holloway paints a decidedly gloomy picture for Brand-MINI, as its BMW masters grapple with a rapidly shifting landscape. According to his report, Petuelring management have postponed all upcoming model actions, with even the prospect of next year’s MINI facelift facing the axe.
A comprehensive review of the MINI business is to take place, with the next-generation range not only facing drastic rationalisation, but the likelihood of it forming part of a joint venture.
There are two key issues facing MINI. First is that with volumes of around 372,000 vehicles last year, they lack scale. The second is that while the current UKL platform which underpins both the MINI range and several BMW-branded models is numerically viable, it simply isn’t sufficiently flexible for upcoming needs.
Holloway points out that BMW is to shift entirely to new scalable, multiple-propulsion platforms, which will allow for combustion, hybrid or full electric powertrains. These platforms will not only be too large, but also too expensive to be viable at the sort of price points MINI sits within. Speculation is growing that BMW are in talks with China’s Great Wall for a joint venture platform.
The news gets worse. With Global demand for the core two-door MINI falling, there is an increasing likelihood that the next generation car will eschew its founding format entirely, with both two-door and convertible being dropped.
This raises a fundamental question. Ever since the model was very successfully reinvented in 2000 as a BMW-funded, ‘sport-premium’ product, arguments have raged over its authenticity and identity, given the ideological departure from the resolutely austere and diminutive original. Successive models have only compounded the sense that the ‘Issigonis spirit’ has been supressed.
Yet regardless of where one sat in the authenticity debate, at least the presence of a model which paid visual lip service to the ur-model lent some residual credibility. Because surely if future MINIs come exclusively as four-door offerings, the whole edifice crumbles?
Perhaps this matters more to a small subset of enthusiasts than it does to the broader market, but rather than jettisoning what is the very glue that holds brand-MINI together, surely a more sensible move would be to reposition the two-door as a halo model, which could then be sold at a premium. After all, one abandons one’s icons at one’s peril.
These decisions, should they come to pass, raise fundamental questions about the future viability of the MINI business. BMW is not a massive player in Global terms and to be blunt, MINI has not been much of a cash-generator for the Vierzylinder. If anything, it’s likely to be even less so as the wider industry shifts into a new paradigm – one where BMW’s relatively modest size makes them somewhat vulnerable.
Existential threats tend to focus minds. If Brexit doesn’t do for MINI, it’s parent’s survival just might. The MINI adventure (at least as we currently recognise it) just might be coming to an end.