BMW’s MINI Misadventure (Part Two)

Concluding our retrospective on the difficult birth and growing pains of BMW’s precocious but troubled child.

(c) Miniofwestchester

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.

MINI F56 Cooper S prototype. Source: (c) Ausmotive.com

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.

MINI Electric : (c) Autocar.co.uk

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.

The Future? I think it’s gonna be a long, long time… (c) ausmotive

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

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

18 thoughts on “BMW’s MINI Misadventure (Part Two)”

  1. An interesting thought experiment is to consider what might have happened had BMW’s ownership of the Rover group played out as intended.

    Perhaps the BMW brand would never have expanded into transverse FWD formats, and the entire UK1 output would have been covered by the ‘British’ brands… MINI, Rover, maybe MG and Triumph too, with a baby Land Rover or Range Rover Evoque based on a tougher, 4WD version of the platform.

    So… no Countryman, and no X1 or 2 series Active Tourer either, with MINI remaining as small hatchbacks (and derivatives) only.

    The MINI ‘brand stretch’ has always been uncomfortable, with both versions of the Countryman and the second gen Clubman striking me as entirely pointless and ugly.

    1. Good morning, Jacomo. That’s a favourite thought experiment of mine, imagining how Rover and the other legacy BL brands might have evolved. Of course, if BMW had also retained ownership of Land-Rover, there would be no X7 either…

      The small photo in the piece actually flatters the five-door MINI Hatch. Here’s the reality of the clunky DLO:

      My thanks to Huw for finding the second photo above.

      Incidentally, I think the caption on the last photo in the piece is genius! Unfortunately, it’s not my genius, but that of our esteemed editor.

    2. The five door hatch is indeed an ugly thing… folk with a better design background than me will no doubt be able to explain why the top of the window frames and roof look so wrong, almost as if they are bent out of shape.

      One of the things BMW got wrong, of course, was to pigeon hole Rover into a weird, imagined version of ‘wood and leather’ British luxury. It took the Phoenix four to bring MG back into the mainstream (entirely appropriate, as there was a long history of MG-badged saloons alongside the sports cars). The execution was quite cheap but the idea was sound.

      Would BMW have realised their mistake had they stayed the course? Maybe, maybe not.

    3. The ‘wrong’ impression of the window frames is there probably because they don’t follow the curvature of the roof. So it’s a bent line and a very straight line put together in a very unfortunate way. On the three-door cars it doesn’t look wrong, I think the continuity of the line helps here. In the five door variant the line is interrupted many times, making very uncomfortable corners that seem to stick upwards, making the door tops look almost sagging.

    4. It’s always tempting to imagine the counterfactual as being an island of reason. I’m not however altogether sure that it would have been. Even if BMW had got to grips with Rover and retained Land Rover there would have been strongly argued voices within the Veirzylinder in favour of leveraging the power of the BMW roundel – if not into smaller cars (and there’s no reason why that argument wouldn’t have been made), certainly into utility vehicles, especially given the potential for profit – a matter which always outweighs brand integrity. In my view, BMW’s X-Series would have happened regardless. The Active Tourer and its ilk? Probably not. I suppose that’s reason enough to rail against the stars…

      On the subject of the 5-door MINI, it’s not only the door frames that jar, but also the glaring disproportion between the size and shapes of the door apertures. It looks as though the whole thing was a workaround on the cheap after the event. It probably was.

      Daniel, pleased you enjoyed the caption. It did somewhat suggest itself.

    5. Hi Simon. I think you’ve nailed the problem with the DLO: looking at the picture of the grey car, the upward curvature of the roof, highest over the B-pillar, makes the top rails of the door window frames look like they are not in a straight line, but each falling slightly towards the B-pillar. This is exacerbated by the angles of the upright rails in the rear door window frame. The whole frame looks to have been rotated a few degrees clockwise from its natural position, so the top rail of the rear door window frame looks to be kicking up towards the rear of the car. It’s a horrible mess, and extraordinary that it ever made production.

      The Clubman suffers, albeit to a much lesser degree, from the same issue:

      The three-door with frameless windows is so much better resolved than either:

    6. The Clubman is much better indeed. One aspect was mentioned by Eóin: the door sizes and shapes. Much more harmonious in the Clubman, whereas the standard rear door is ridiculously short and has strange shutlines.
      Another point are the frames and pillars: The glossy pillars that belong to the door apertures in the Clubman create the impression of a continuous glazed area, as intended in the original New Mini design. In the 5-door, this area is interrupted brutally by the fixed B-pillar. And to add insult to injury, this also forces the leading edge of the rear window frame in an angle that’s completely at odds with the shutline between the doors – the latter has a backwards bend at the top, but the window frame almost seems to lean forward.
      The more I look at it, the less I can believe what I see…

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I quite like the original new Mini. I think it was well executed, looking at one of the pictures in part one I thought for the first time that the R45 is something of a design classic itself now. A lot of people moaned about the fact that it got bigger and was nothing like the original but to me this was missing the point of BMW’s intentions: I don’t think they set out to recapture the original Mini’s essence or reinvent the wheel (is it just me or too many people expect so many cars to be as revolutionary as their ancestors even though there’s not much to improve on except perhaps in the technology department) but just wanted to used the iconic name and styling to sell a car that a vast majority of people, even non-customers, would find cute.

  3. the 5p is really clumsy, nothing to do, the countryman is not bad (but the 500x is better) the clubman passable.
    One thing I don´t understand about BMW is why we didn´t launch a fully electric (but also not)two-seater, they already have the technology i3, and an iconic name too, “isetta”.

  4. The three door is better looking than the five door for the reasons mentioned in the article. But quite frankly I can’t think of a five door that’s better looking than their three door siblings in this segment. More practical, maybe, but does it really matter with average the average vehicle being occupied by less than 1,5 person (figures based on Dutch Bureau of Statics)

    Interesting that you mention the the Renault Zoe. In my country EV’s are heavily subsidized as a result the Tesla model 3 was the best sold car in 2019. It was so successful this single model sold in bigger numbers than all BMW-models combined, and it’s not exactly rare to see a BMW. Yet I almost never see a Zoe. Could this be because of the styling?

    Indeed the Zoe outranges the electric Mini substantially. What I find even more interesting is that the Mini and the Honda E have about similar performance in speed, acceleration and range and have roughly the same price. Yet the Honda was developed as an EV from the get-go while the Mini is an electrified ICE car. Granted the Honda is a little bigger and heavier, but still. And literally nobody cares as everyone is all over the Honda. Again one has to ask: could this be because of the styling?

    Interesting point brought up in the comments. I agree with Eóin the X-series BMW would have happened regardless. Not to sure about the FWD 1 and 2 series. Car production is all about economies of scale. Without the Mini BMW probably wouldn’t have much of a business case developing an FWD platform for their smaller models.

    I’m not really a fan of stretching a brand just to cover a market niche. Especially the Countryman, but I think the Fiat 500X is worse still.

    1. Freerk: if a five door looks better than a three door is very often a matter of taste. Three-ers are often viewed as more ‘sporty’, and favoured therefore, but for my taste they can also tend towards the bland, and doors or windows can look too long. It’s not always as obvious as in the Mini’s case, where the five-door is obviously flawed and ill-resolved.

  5. I disagree Simon. A lot of it is down to the proportions of the front and backdoor relative to each other. It’s quite easy to get that wrong, apparently.

    Three doors means less shutlines and a much cleaner look as a result. I confess being a little obsessive over shutlines, but the less the better for me. Dark colors can help a bit though.

    Also the B-pillar is further back which not only improves the overall look of the car, but over-the-shoulder visibility by a huge margin.

    As a bonus you avoid the window-salad.

    1. Looking at the profile shots again, a thought occurred. Without having dimensions to hand and relying purely upon approximate guesswork, I’d posit the view that the front doors of both Clubman and five door are shared for cost reasons. This, given the former’s longer wheelbase, would perhaps have dictated the placement of the centre pillar on the five-door and would therefore explain the otherwise needlessly small rear door opening (and shape) for that model. Explain, I might add, but not justify. Either way, it’s still an abomination.

    2. Good example, Marco! You can really see here that this model was originally designed with the correct number of doors, and the 3-door was only added afterwards. Yes, there is one more shutline, but it’s spot-on, gives a nice shape from wheelarch to C-pillar and reinforces the impression of solidity. Window-salad? Not at all, since there is no C-pillar window at all.

    3. ‘Window-salad’…brilliant!

      Nice one, Freerk, I wish I’d thought of that. Nothing wrong with being obsessed with shut-lines either. My partner is endlessly patient with me when we’re out for a walk and I spot a good or bad example and spend ages poring over it.

    4. Window-salad is something I know from the German Citroën forum: The XM is called “Scheibensalat auf Sicke” there. (window salad on crease)

  6. As an ex-R50 owner I had no problems whatsoever with the reliability over 5 years, and still miss it nearly 15 years on. I’m obviously biased but I still think it the best looking iteration too. What I don’t understand about the F55 five door is why they changed the angle of the rear screen, when it would have looked so much better (well, it couldn’t have looked worse) with the same angle, but with the extra six-inches of wheelbase.

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