Opinion: An Early Take on the 2014 F56 MINI Interior

I’ve been reading a lot of criticism of the new MINI interior. These critiques range from smart, to blunt with no real rationale. So I wanted to weigh in not as MotoringFile, but just as Gabe Bridger, the person who founded this site and has (for good and bad) an intimate knowledge of the cars, the design team, and the technical realities surrounding this next generation MINI.

The problem many of you have pointed out is a lack of clear direction. A “square peg in a round hole” both figuratively and literally. First, let’s back up a bit and start at the beginning.

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At the highest level, the language of the MINI’s interior aesthetic form was grounded almost entirely in function. I’m not talking about the 2001 MINI. I’m referring to the original 1958 Mini design and its honest, functional aesthetic. Whether you thought it was attractive or not, there’s an undeniable beauty in any design that is purely based in a thoughtful interpretation of function. Like the Porsche 911, or a 1960’s Braun device, it must be respected for the purity the design it embodies.

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Fast forward to 2001 when the R50 MINI was released. The prevailing design critique was that the MINI design team (which Frank Stephanson was a part of) had bastardized the idea of Mini’s original functional aesthetic. However many of us (myself included) heralded it as a well-articulated interpretation of Mini’s functional aesthetic, layered with a retro-futuristic design theme. No, it wasn’t perfect. Fit and finish were poor early on and there were interface issues that confounded the general public. Yet as a design, it was loved for being fun, and winkingly self-aware of its history. It was, for lack of a better term, quirky.

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In 2006 MINI unveiled the R56, the follow-up to what was still being called the “new Mini” by many. The R56 took the basic architecture of the R50 platform and updated it with loads of BMW technology and a new BMW design drivetrain. Inside, however, were the biggest aesthetic changes. There was a new team in charge of design and they saw to it that the retro-futuristic theme was updated and modernized while dealing with the growing importance of a large screen needed in the middle of the dash. While the fundamental ingredients were the same (tach behind the steering wheel, big speedometer in the center) the update gave us a larger navigation screen and a narrower center stack that featured more space for people and their knees.

The changes weren’t warmly received by most of the MINI enthusiast community. Despite the fact that most were functionally-driven and born out of necessity. That doesn’t mean everything worked. The execution of the center controls for instance made for an overly confusing HVAC and radio interface.

removed What we’ve seen so far for the F56 is an interior that straddles two worlds. We have the classic Mini’s history of design led by functional requirements juxtaposed against the realities of a culture preoccupied with safety and connectivity. The result is an interior that has lost the center speedometer and placed it in its more conventional location behind the steering wheel, where we currently find the tach. This is hardly unprecedented in both Mini and MINI. We need only think back to the R50/R53 Chrono Pack and the later versions of the classic Mini. Perhaps the biggest departure of all in the pre-production F56 interior we’ve seen is actually the tachometer itself. It’s a sacred piece of driver feedback for many of us, and it’s been transformed into a half-dial placed to the left of the new speedometer. In my mind this more than anything is at odds with what MINI has become – especially in the US market.

Losing the center speedo is a huge move but the confusing thing for most is the continuation of the circular form. Confusing until you realize MINI will be using that form for some LED based theatrics that will learn more about soon. So my opinion on the matter will have to wait a bit longer to be formed.

Locations and proportions aside, on the other hand these photos show an interior with much higher-quality controls, in a layout that will be far easier for people to navigate. The climate control update alone is a huge improvement over the R56 in both usability and aesthetics.

However the problem is, as many commenters have pointed out, that the overall approach leaves this new MINI interior in the middle of two very divisive strategies that seem at odds with each other. The results? It’s easy to look at the photo above and have an off-the-cuff opinion. The more difficult and more reasonable thing to do is actually hold off until we see more. Yet that doesn’t stop us here at MotoringFile, and most of you, from making some assumptions. So now, with all that preamble, here are mine.

From this very early perspective, it would seem that MINI is caught in a no man’s land of trying to be true to the quirky character of the 2001 MINI, while being as functionally practical as they were in 1958. Naturally, the danger in that approach is a mix of form language that attempts both while not really achieving either.

Yet I look at these early photos of the F56 interior and I can see (especially with the larger screen installed) the makings of an approach coupling the needs of today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology with an evolution of MINI’s most recent design language. Simply put, MINI is taking what has worked in the R50 and R56, and combined it with something allowing for better usability and greater integration of technology.

Does it look good yet? It’s just too early to tell. Things like the combination of circular and rectangular vents don’t bother me because they’re pre-production. I simply don’t know the whole story yet. I also haven’t seen it in person. Likewise I’ve seen the final MINI steering wheel but not actually in the final interior so judging even that is difficult.

We have months to go until we see the final production version. With any luck, I’ll be in front of it (and driving it) later this summer – just in time to report back to many of you what I really think of it all. Then, of course, by next fall (in Europe) and winter (US) you’ll be able to walk into your local MINI dealer and figure out what to make of it yourself. But one thing that is clear, BMW has high hopes for this car. They expect it to sell better than any MINI before it due to its design, performance and efficiency. In fact, they’re banking on it in a big way by opening up an entirely new factory outside of the UK to handle the expected increased production.

So where does that leave us? “A square peg in a round hole” is where we started and I’m not sure if we’ve moved past that. Yet there’s clearly more going on here than just the main image above. The Mini of 1958 was a simple car with a simple design ethos. But we as a society were simplier. We had less connectivity and less demands on our time. And car designers had dramatically less safety regulation to solve for.

With the 2014 F56, the MINI design team is creating an entirely new car with enormous technology advances and a much more modern interior aesthetic. Love the interior or hate it, this car will be a big improvement over the current MINI in a great many ways. Yet all of us here at at MF will have to wait in forming our final opinions. As much information as we have, and as good as spy photos have become, there is no substitute to seeing the car in person.