Mini Traveller
David Cooper  /  Toronto Star via NewsCom file
The Mine Traveller is displayed Jan. 14 at the International Auto Show in Detroit.
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updated 1/27/2006 12:47:47 PM ET 2006-01-27T17:47:47

For a small carmaker, Mini USA has had oversized success in the U.S. auto market. The outfit overshot its original sales targets by almost 100 percent since launching in the U.S. in 2002, selling nearly over 40,000 units last year. But even with all that success, the company was hearing comments from its customers that sounded like Oliver Twist asking for a bit more food — "Please Sir, can we have more ... room?"

The answer is yes. By the end of 2008, the subsidiary of BMW will introduce a longer version of the popular Mini Cooper. The new vehicle is loosely based on a derivative of the original British Mini, called the Traveller, which was sold throughout Europe in the 1960s. BMW will launch a new platform for the Mini Cooper next year to accommodate derivative vehicles, something the company didn't plan for when it designed the original Mini Cooper. That vehicle was developed by BMW during a very stressful and erratic time after its acquisition of British carmaker Rover, the previous owner of Mini.

Mini USA has been showing different versions of a Traveller concept car at auto shows to measure consumer interest. The reaction has been "over the top from both journalists and the public," says Mini USA chief Jim McDowell. Car critics applauded the decision to build the car. "The Mini is one of the most significant cars, from a design standpoint, to come out in the last 20 years, but it needs a real backseat to reach more people," says Automobile Magazine Senior Editor Mark Gilles.

Community development
The Mini Cooper has changed the way auto companies think about the small-car segment. Prior to the launch of the reborn Mini, there was no market for small cars priced above $20,000, unless they were roadsters. "Mini showed what the power of good design can do, and how profitable it can be," says Nissan North America sales & marketing chief Jed Connelly.

Before the Mini came along, the entire U.S. auto industry was preoccupied with SUVs. U.S. auto makers only thought about small cars as cheap econo-boxes. Audi has launched a small premium-priced car, the A3, while BMW has followed with a small 1 Series under its flagship brand. Meanwhile, Volvo is planning a small-car entry as well. Other companies such as Ford, Nissan, and Honda have launched newly styled small cars priced well below Mini, which are clearly influenced by the British car's success. "Mini made small fashionable and fun," says BMW AG's top designer, Chris Bangle (see "Suddenly Revved about Small Cars").

The Mini also has shown carmakers in the U.S. the power of creating user communities and developing additional products that allow buyers to customize their vehicles. Besides selling the vehicles, Mini has been offering a highly profitable line of accessories, from wheel covers and cargo carriers to flag logos painted on the roofs and clocks.

And Mini has become a model for other car companies in how to nurture customer communities. Besides meeting at car rallies, Mini owners are known for faithfully tracking the progress of their cars from the time of the order to the moment they arrive in the U.S via an online site.

Retro revamp
Mini seems to have hit a hot trend: the revival of retro designs with a definite modern bent. The Mini brand, says independent marketing and design consultant Peter Anthony, has a lot of attractive retro imagery and feel, but the designs are thoroughly modern and progressive. "If it was some faithful copy of the old Mini, I don't think it would be nearly as successful, and that goes for the Traveller too," says Anthony. Mini enthusiasts are mostly glad the modern Mini isn't a faithful update of the classic, since driving even the most up-to-date old Mini, built in 2000, is akin to driving a shopping cart with an engine mounted in front, and about as comfortable.

The new Mini Traveller increases the backseat space, so two adults can sit in reasonable comfort. Behind the rear seat is a 20-inch space for groceries and the like. And there's a storage bin beneath the floor of the storage area. By the rear side window, a flat, water-tight storage bin about the size of an ironing board is clamped onto the car to hold items such as gloves and small tools. But this accessory needs additional development to make it practical.

Mini officials won't speculate about the potential market for a new car. Mini Cooper is still oversold even three years after launch, meaning it can sell all every unit it builds without incentives. An initial production run of 20,000 Travellers for the U.S. alone isn't outside the realm of possibility, though, according to BMW executives. And most of those sales, BMW executives think, would be on top of a 40,000 a year annual sales rate for Mini Cooper.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.

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