Mystery has previously surrounded the fifth model line since BMW’s board member with responsibility for Mini, Peter Schwarzenbauer, first spoke of the five ‘superheroes’ plan in 2014.
But Autocar now understands it will be a saloon, targeted mainly at the North American and Chinese markets but available globally.
Speaking to Autocar at the recent New York motor show, vice-president of Mini product management Ralph Mahler didn’t confirm plans for a saloon directly but did reveal that Mini had undertaken all sorts of analysis on different market trends and segments.
He said: “For example, in Asia and the US, the sedan [saloon] segment is very big. This is very interesting to us, of course.”
He said heritage was important for Mini and noted the firm had a history of making saloons with Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet models, although he admitted most modern Mini buyers would not know this.
“The sedan concept is in our history,” he said. “So we have roots there. We have to look at it in a factual way. Customers may know of the strong heritage of the sedan concept, but it was never [sold in] big volumes. Most customers would hardly know that, so would they link to heritage?”
Mahler said history was very important to Mini as a whole. “Heritage is our core,” he said. “It will play a huge role and it’s a question our customers will always ask.”
In reference to saloon models being more popular in eastern Europe, China and North America than in western Europe, Mahler said it was “always more appealing if you can sell a model worldwide”.
But he added: “You can have 150,000 global sales or 200,000 in a region, so that’s an easy one to answer.”
This implies the saloon would be targeted at those named markets, but the desire to grow the brand globally should also mean the saloon will be offered in all markets, including the UK.
It also hints at the sales growth potential for Mini by entering completely new segments rather than making niche and often compromised derivatives of the same model, as it has done previously.
It sold a record 338,466 units worldwide in 2015 — an impressive number given that the more mainstream Clubman only went on sale in October.
With a similarly more mainstream Countryman arriving soon which should boost its appeal and a new saloon in the pipeline, Mini’s annual sales could eventually surpass 500,000, which will make the brand far more viable. As for the saloon’s name, the Riley connection to Mini is an intriguing one.
BMW still owns the trademarks to Riley and Triumph after the break-up and sale of the MG Rover group in 2000.
Naming the new saloon ‘Riley’ would be a nod to the history of a Mini saloon but, if used, the Riley name would be a model rather than a brand in its own right.
The new Clubman is likely to provide the basis for the Mini saloon, with the pair sharing a 2670mm wheelbase and bodywork from the B-pillars forward.
A unique rear-end design would accommodate the three-box saloon look. Expect a length of around 4300mm, which would still make it one of the smallest saloons on sale, because Mini’s desire is always to make the smallest car in a segment.
Mahler said the Mini brand’s relaunch had been successful and customers had responded well.
“We’ve repositioned the cars as bigger and more mature and not as playful as they used to be,” he said.
“As customers are growing up, the brand is growing as well. The brand develops, like everything else is developing.
“There has been a very positive reaction to it. When you first launch a car, you have people say Mini is not the same as it used to be — the early rejectors — but after 12 to 15 months, we don’t hear from them again.”
Mahler said the premium push would continue, most likely with the new Countryman and then the saloon. Interiors, in particular, are likely to get ever more premium.
“We will evolve,” he said. “We’re heading that way, the right way, and will continue that. It’s not exaggerated. It’s the right balance and that’s how I want the brand.”
In reference to the next Countryman, he said: “What you see with the Clubman [its push upmarket], we wouldn’t expect anything other than for this to continue [with the Countryman].”
The Countryman, as with all of the new Mini range, will be built on parent firm BMW’s UKL1 platform.
Sources have called it a “more authentic SUV”, with four-wheel drive offered along with a roomier cabin as part of an overall increase in the car’s size.
Mini would offer plug-in hybrid powertrains in the future, Mahler confirmed, hinting that the Countryman and Clubman were likely to usher in this technology.
Mahler also added that Mini would keep its extensive range of customisation options but these would in time be more premium, with higher-quality materials on offer, for example.
As part of the concentration on five core models, the Coupé, Roadster and Paceman will not be replaced.
Mahler said: “Since we’re a small car brand, selling 338,000 units last year, we have to remain focused and prioritise customers wanting different characters and concepts. We try to get it all very separate. The Paceman and Countryman are really close together and, in the future, we would rather split them apart.”