Could Mini have survived to a third-generation model without the involvement of BMW?

There are cold-eyed City analysts who will tell you that although Mini made a profit on every car it sold — often quite a healthy profit — it probably did not fully pay back the big industrial investment. 

Indeed, until the launch of the Countryman, Mini was only selling just over 200,000 cars a year across five model lines. Could BMW have sensibly invested in a new platform, new tooling and a range of five models on sales of 200k? Probably not. The Countryman helped the case for Mini by adding 100,000 sales a year.

About four years ago, BMW decided to start building front-drive cars under its own badge. By building two ranges of front-wheel-drive (and all-wheel-drive) cars, BMW can dramatically improve the profitability of the Mini range.

So now it’s time for Mini to get serious. Design is under the control of Anders Warming, who will have overseen all of the new Mini designs that will come after the new three-door hatch. Mini plans to add at least three new body styles. The saloon will be primarily aimed at booming Asian cities. Mini will also get a proper baby MPV, and in turn the Countryman will become more of a true compact SUV and less of an oddly proportioned supermini.

Perhaps the model that will do most to drive Mini sales up will be the new five-door hatchback. It is not much longer than the three-door, but BMW has squeezed in a pair of conventionally hinged rear doors primarily designed to accommodate children. 
Three-door superminis are slowly being dropped because of tiny sales, so it shows the potential for a five-door Mini.

Later this month Mini will reveal its new marketing line ‘Not Normal’ on a series of three posters. This campaign is understood to push the idea that Mini owners are strongly individual and creative. 

There’s also a more radical decision to be made by Mini in the near future: will it piggyback the BMW electric scooter project and build a two-wheeled Mini to exploit the massive Asian market for such city transport?

UKL1: BMW’s massive investment

THE UKL1 platform is a massive investment for BMW, but it is one that could, according to analysts, eventually allow BMW to produce more than 900,000 cars per year. So far, the company has remained tight-lipped about the amount it has invested, but an all-new platform and the equipment needed for four different production sites won’t have been cheap.

UKL1 is a typically modern modular architecture that is expected to come in three wheelbases and at least two different seat heights. As these future product plans show, UKL1 will underpin a very wide range of compact vehicles, from 3.8m to about 4.4m in length. 

While the Mini has used a mix of engines over the past 12 years (BMW, Chrysler, Toyota and PSA), BMW has ensured that its new corporate engine range can be mounted both longitudinally and transversely. There will also be a plug-in hybrid drivetrain for the UKL1 cars, but while BMW has built 3-series prototypes with three-cylinder engines, it says it has no production plans for the cars.

UKL1 Minis will be produced at Oxford alongside models from the current Mini range. That will require considerable logistics expertise because the factory will be producing two entirely different model lines. BMW has already said it will also be building the Mini Mk3 at the Nedcar factory in the Netherlands, because sources expect ìa big leap in demandî. BMW will produce the 1-series in Germany and China.

BMW’s plunge

The move into 
front-wheel-drive production is a huge move for a company long convinced that it was defined by its rear-wheel-drive cars. BMW first thought about building a front-wheel-drive 
car at the beginning of the 1990s. A small number of 
front-wheel-drive prototypes based on the E36 3-series 
were evaluated. 

After the eco panic at the beginning of the 1990s, BMW was convinced that it should be building smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. But the management of the time was equally convinced that the BMW badge could not be attached to either a frugal front-drive car or an SUV — markets that were identified for expansion two decades ago.

It was this view that directly led in 1994 to BMW buying the Rover Group, known for both front-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles. We all know what happened over the next six years, but BMW decided in 2000 to keep the new Mini project, which was then less than two years from launch.

The Mini brand became a hit for BMW, a combination of impressive driving dynamics and styling that caught the trend for modern retro design. But BMW was so sure that it would not build a small car that it badged its smallest model 1-series to prove the point. Now these new front-drive cars will get the 1-series badge.

But BMW’s decision to invest heavily in a brand-new front-drive platform and a range of bespoke transverse engines was driven by two issues. First, Mini, with 300,000 sales, was still relatively small as a stand-alone operation. Secondly, BMW needed to follow downsizing trends and reduce its corporate average fuel economy.

The BMW board pressed the button on the front-drive project when research about 1-series buyers revealed that 80 per cent of owners did not know whether their car was front or rear drive. Most of the remaining 20 per cent drove the 1-series coupÈ. This time, BMW has not hesitated. It has 12 models on the drawing board, from an MPV and high-roofed five-door hatch to a baby roadster.