In 2001 when MINI was relaunched by BMW there were plans for a number of different vehicles. The hatch, the convertible, the clubman and even the yet to be released speedster where on the drawing board with eventual plans for production. However the one variation not on anyone’s mind was a crossover. And here we are, just weeks away from the MINI crossover making its debut.
What created this shift in thinking? The answer isn’t as simple as you might think. Yes BMW wants the crossover to reach new MINI buyers and an entirely new demographic. Yet some of the larger reasons for the crossover is a story of corporate agreements and solving production scale issues rather than solving a consumer problem.
In 2006 BMW decided to move production of its underwhelming X3 crossover from a 3rd party (Magna Steyr) in Austria to it’s own plant in South Carolina USA. The thought was that it made sense for all crossover (SAV in BMW speak) production to be in a more cost efficient country that was also the main market for such vehicles. However there was an issue with this plan, BMW’s contract with Magna Steyr promised two generations of X3 production to be built at the Austrian plant. Somehow BMW had to either move production of a product or create something entirely new to fulfill the contract.
In parallel to these developments was the creation of the BMW X1. Around the time that the BMW 1 Series was launched BMW had decided that the X3 and X5 had to grow in size to better accommodate the US market – by far the largest for the vehicles in the world. However in doing so BMW was concerned that it would be forsaking the European market where smaller more fuel efficient crossovers were in greater demand. So a plan was devised to create a crossover based on the 1 Series that would essentially take the place of the X3 on a slightly smaller scale in both size and price.
As this decision was finalized BMW realized they finally had a solution that would allow them to move X3 production to the US while creating bigger economies of scale for the X1. The idea was simple, build a MINI SAV loosely based on the upcoming X1 in Austria in place of the X3 that would slot under the X1 in terms of price and size.
Nevermind that the concept of the crossover was against much of what the MINI brand stood for. BMW had a two-pronged plan to get around that issue. First off they were going to create a crossover (by then code-named R60 or the Colorado) that looked and drove like a MINI. Take styling cues from the MINI world and amplifying them in a way that gave the car a bit more attitude than any previous MINI. Secondly MINI would answer critics that say the brand had gone to far with lifestyle cars such as a speedster and coupe that would be based on the R56/7 and thus cost effective to create.
So the the task of creating a MINI crossover that retained the MINI look and feel fell to the design department. By all accounts it was something that many within the MINI division of BMW were initially against. Yet when we spoke with the head of MINI Design Gert Hildebrand recently at MINI United, it was clear that there is great enthusiasm for the R60 internally. Additionally there seems to be an expectation (from those who have seen the car) that the R60 will sell very well – especially in the important US market.
However when you look at the R60 closer you start to question how cost effective it has been to build. First off there are few common parts shared with the BMW X1 outside the rear substructure. In fact much of the structure is either loosely based off of the R55 Clubman or was created from scratch. We had more than one internal source confide in us that they had no idea how BMW planned to make money on the R60 given costs to build and currency fluctuations.
Under the hood the Countryman (as it will likely be called) will share very little with the X1. Instead it will feature the current higher output range of engines found in the current MINI. The only BMW based engine we’ve heard that will show up in the R60 will be the exceptional 2.0L diesel found in the 123d (an engine that may be the basis of any future MINI diesel product in North America). Eventually this may change as BMW’s new range of high output efficient four cylinders will likely slowly make their way over to the MINI line in the next 5-7 years.
One little known fact; MINI had big plans for the R60 in the form of fuel efficiency beyond a new diesel engine. One of the more interesting concepts was fitting solar panels on the roof that would help power the car’s electronics and thus reduce fuel consumption. However the concept was shelved due to cost of development and production.
MINI had another issue on their hands with trying to name the car. With Crossman (the preferred name of BMW execs) being trademarked by a European trucking company, MINI decided to look back at historical MINI models. The “Moke” didn’t make the cut because of the way it sounded. The “Traveller” name was considered but BMW couldn’t obtain the rights to it. Even the internal codename Colorado was being used by GM for their mid-size truck. For a time BMW seriously considered going with (wait for it…) “the Clifton” for the R60 as a nod to the MINI’s English eccentricity. Luckily for everyone involved BMW settled on “Countryman”, a name used for the long wheelbase Mini in the 60’s and 70’s.
In some ways the story of the R60’s development has us reminded of the original R50 program. A car put together from pieces of other projects and built with serious concerns about profitability. However as we all know the R50 was a watershed car and ultimately made the new MINI brand what it is today. At the very least it was the right car for the time. Can the R60 have a similar impact while being a very different product? That may be too much to ask but we are starting to think MINI may have a huge hit ready to be unleashed. With oil prices leveled off and owners of larger cars and crossovers looking to downsize, MINI may have unknowingly be in the right place at just the right time. Now we have to see if it actually drives like a MINI.
MINI Crossover Concept Gallery
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For more information on the MINI crossover see our R60 section.