Concluding our retrospective on the difficult birth and growing pains of BMW’s precocious but troubled child.
In Part One we covered the evolution of MINI from its birth in 2000 to 2013. Today we continue the story, examine the company’s current state and imagine its future in the years ahead.
Late 2013 saw the launch of the F56 generation Hatch. Unlike its predecessors, this one was all BMW’s own work, hence the BMW, rather than Rover, model code. It is based on the BMW UKL1 platform, a larger derivative of which, the UKL2, now underpins MINI’s Clubman and Countryman as well as all BMW’s own smaller front and four-wheel drive models. The F56 MINI grew significantly in an effort to improve rear passenger and boot space. It was 98mm longer and 44mm wider than the R56.
The F56 Hatch suffered something of a premature birth after infamous spy pictures of an undisguised prototype were circulated on the Internet in July 2013. The high-angle, long-lens photos significantly distorted the car’s proportions and gave it a rounded and boss-eyed look, exacerbated by the black bonnet stripes. MINI was sufficiently concerned about the adverse reaction to the photos to release some official spy photos of its own soon after, but the damage had been done and the stage was set for those antipathetic towards the marque to have a field day.
‘Should have called it MAXI’ and ‘Issigonis will be turning in his grave’ were just two of the verdicts offered by the below-the-line commentariat in the UK, together with some others that are unrepeatable. It was a great shame because I would argue that the F56 is MINI’s best work to date and a radical improvement over its charming but compromised predecessors. I have to declare skin in the game, as joint-owner and occasional driver of an F56, which I will review fully at a later date.
A five-door version of the F56 followed in 2014. This was 150mm longer than the three-door, again to address rear passenger and boot space issues. Unfortunately, MINI ruined the design by abandoning the three-door’s frameless door windows, which were essential to the integrity of the unbroken DLO and floating roof design. Instead, the five-door got thick and clunky frames that, inexplicably, were finished in satin rather than high-gloss black, so they stood out uncomfortably against the glazing and high-gloss black pillar finishers.
There followed a new cabriolet in 2015, then replacements for the Clubman and Countryman in 2015 and 2017 respectively. The former played it straight this time, with four conventional passenger doors, but it retained the unique twin rear doors. The latter was, supposedly, improved over its predecessor but looked little different, although the range included MINI’s first plug-in hybrid.
Both second-generation models received a middling 3½ stars from the UK motoring weekly, Autocar, which cited refinement issues similar to those I experienced with the first-generation Countryman and Paceman. The three and five-door Hatch models remain the most highly rated in MINI’s range, receiving 4 and 4½ stars respectively from the magazine.
The most recent addition to the MINI range is the MINI Electric, the marque’s first EV. Based on the F56 three-door hatch, it is a relatively late entrant to the field, and an underwhelming one too, with a battery energy capacity of 38.5kWh, a WLTP range of just 146 miles and a hefty UK list price of £24.4k after the government grant.
For just over £1k more, the latest Renault Zoe offers a battery energy capacity of 52kWh and a WLTP range of 245 miles. The MINI Electric is said to be compromised by a platform not originally designed for EV application. The Bosch technology it employs, allegedly identical to that used in the 2018 e-Golf, looks already to be superseded, notwithstanding the fact that UK deliveries of the MINI Electric do not begin until March 2020.
As I write, BMW has announced that the F56 replacement, scheduled for 2022 or 2023, will be delayed. No future launch date has been indicated. The reasons cited for the delay are a need to cut costs and uncertainty arising from the forthcoming UK/EU trade negotiations. This means that the current model will have to soldier on for more than a decade from launch, hardly an ideal situation for the lynchpin of the MINI range.
What of MINI’s global sales numbers? Annual sales* climbed quite steadily up to around 300k in 2010 and plateaued around that level until 2014, when they were boosted by the launch of the F56 and related models. They climbed to around 350k in 2015, but have plateaued again at around this level, falling 4.1% to 346k in 2019. This level of sales is precariously small for a company that has to support an independent dealer network and falls considerably short of BMW’s earlier ambitions for MINI.
Of course, ‘we are where we are‘, to use that hackneyed statement of the obvious, but I cannot help wondering if the company missed a huge opportunity by not branding the i3, launched in 2013, as a MINI rather than a BMW. Anecdotally and from observation, MINI’s customer base seems to comprise mainly young urbanites and not-so-young empty-nesters and retirees, neither group requiring cars that will regularly cover long distances.
An EV like the i3 would likely suit their needs well and would have given MINI the opportunity to break out of the design straitjacket forced upon the company by a car that is now over sixty years old. Even if BMW wanted to launch the showpiece of its EV technology first under its own brand, it could easily and at relatively low cost have subsequently restyled the carbon-fibre reinforced plastic body of the i3 to market as a MINI.
So, what of MINI’s future? The current three and five-door Hatch models, the mainstays of MINI’s range, will have to remain in production indefinitely. The company has only a niche and marginally competitive EV offering. There’s nothing in the pipeline apart from the mooted Rocketman ultra-compact EV. This is to be built in China by a BMW/Great Wall joint venture using the Chinese partner’s technology and may not be exported to Europe.
In these circumstances, it is very difficult to see MINI’s sales rising in the foreseeable future. Global economic headwinds and an ageing model range will make the task of maintaining (never mind increasing) sales very challenging. Uncertainties surrounding the outcome of UK/EU trade talks will make the short-term even more difficult for MINI’s UK manufacturing base.
One wonders if, in a decade’s time, MINI will no longer have an independent dealer network but will be sold and serviced by BMW, with the range trimmed back to just small ICE and EV models. Other views are, of course, available and welcome, whether they support or challenge this rather downbeat outlook.
Over to you…
*Sales data from statista.com