Image: Mini Countryman
Stan Honda  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Release of the Countryman — shown here at the New York auto show in April — is a tacit acknowledgment that many in the automaker's customer base simply need a bigger car.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/23/2010 2:05:16 PM ET 2010-08-23T18:05:16

Mini, battling waning sales of its distinctive small cars, is taking it to the max.

Well, sort of.

The new Countryman crossover SUV is just four inches wider and six inches taller than the British maker's classic Mini Cooper.

Yet by adding some extra room for kids and cargo, including 16 inches of length, the carmaker could well revive sales for a nameplate that has faded a bit from its peak years.

When the British brand made its entry into the U.S. market nearly a decade ago, it directly challenged the maxim that bigger is better. Not only that, it introduced the idea that one of the smallest cars available could carry the sort of premium normally reserved for larger, more upmarket models.

Almost immediately, Mini was a hit.

It helped to have a hip, modern take on a classic design that provided buyers with an unexpected amount of space despite the Cooper’s diminutive footprint. The automaker’s creative personalization program — which included a British Union Jack roof decal — clicked with young buyers. So did the decidedly fun-to-drive nature of the new model, developed with a helping hand from Mini’s new German parent, BMW AG.

Like virtually everyone else in the industry, Mini took a king-size blow from last year’s global economic downturn which, in the U.S., sent the car market into one of the biggest downturns since the Great Depression.

But there were other factors at work, suggests George Peterson, president of automotive research at consulting firm AutoPacific. After a big run-up in 2008, declining fuel prices got American motorists thinking big again. And Mini simply hadn’t done much to update the Cooper beyond the addition of a convertible.

“Cars like this normally peak in about 18 to 24 months, so Mini actually lasted longer than most,” says Peterson.

U.S. sales fell from a 2008 peak of 54,000 to just 47,000 in the States last year. And some skeptics started to wonder whether the British brand would suffer the same ignominious collapse experienced by that other pint-sized maker, Daimler AG’s Smart. Its two-seat fortwo had the serendipitous good fortune of making its American debut in 2008, just as gas prices went soaring. Sales have continued to sink this year.

Related: Sales stalling, Smart takes to the street

So, Mini went looking for a way to not just keep its product fresh but acknowledge American market realities by bulking up a bit.

“We’ve gone from astonishingly small to small,” says Jim McDowell, Mini’s top American executive.

The new Countryman, expected to go on sale in January, delivers an assortment of firsts: Not only is it the largest vehicle ever delivered by the BMW subsidiary, but it’s the first crossover/SUV, the first four-door model and Mini’s first product to offer optional all-wheel-drive.

The crossover is also the first Mini not to be built in Oxford, England. Instead, it is rolling down an assembly line in Graz, Austria, operated by Magna Steyr, a facility that has handled a variety of niche and specialty products over the years. The switch underscores what are subtle but still unmistakably Teutonic touches that appear on the new Countryman.

The updated infotainment Countryman is an only slightly disguised version of the BMW iDrive system. Indeed, German engineers played a much more significant — and visible — role in the development of the new model, underscored by the Countryman’s global launch in Hamburg, where the media presentation was handled in German. In years past, Mini’s language of choice was English, even at press events at the biennial Frankfurt Motor Show.

As McDowell suggests, the 2011 Mini Countryman is only a wee bit bigger than the classic Mini Cooper, four inches wider and six inches taller. Even with the added rear space, it’s still a fair bit smaller than one of its key competitors, the Volkswagen Golf. And, inside and out, it’s managed to maintain a distinctly Mini appearance.

“They needed something that keeps the quirky appeal but has the room for kids and cargo,” says Aaron Bragman, analyst with IHS Global Insight. As with any other small car, he adds, Mini had to acknowledge that many of its original buyers were simply growing older and starting families.

While he current market for small cars is going soft, Bragman, Peterson and other analysts agree that Mini is among the makes best positioned to rebuild demand, even before the renewed run-up in fuel prices likely to accompany a global economic revival.

IIHS projects that the new model could yield U.S. sales of up to 17,000 units next year alone. That could help push the brand’s volume back into overdrive, to a projected 70,000 vehicles overall, says Bragman. It helps that the Countryman will be accompanied by two other new entries from Mini, a roadster and a coupe.

Mini is also pushing into alternative powertrain technology. Its initial field-test of an early version of the MiniE battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, proved so popular that it decided to extend the initial short-term lease for avid customers who complained about having to hand back their keys.

Electric power “is very consistent with the brand imagery,” contends McDowell.

If Mini has any serious problem it’s the brand’s consistently mediocre performance in so-called “Things-Gone-Wrong” studies, like J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Survey, where it has typically ranked well below industry average. But the brand, argues McDowell, often gets dinged by customers who have problems with some of the very features that appeal to other buyers, like the speedometer, which is mounted in the center of the instrument panel, rather than behind the steering wheel.

On “Things-Gone-Right” surveys, which highlight brands with a strong emotional connection to buyers, Mini scores substantially better.

Will the Brits and their partners in Germany keep moving Mini into bigger market niches? Company officials suggest they are looking for other opportunities, but the likelihood of a midsize or even full compact Mini rolling off the assembly line soon seems decidedly unlikely.

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