Opinion: Quality, Change and What Makes a MINI, a MINI

In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, the narrator takes the reader on a journey that explores the nature of “Quality” as a thing we all instinctually understand, but none of us can adequately define. His conclusion [SPOILER ALERT] is that what we perceive (if only peripherally) as quality is itself the source of all existence, and that quality is achieved when a person takes care to do, or build, or fix something well. That’s a rather inadequate summary of a book full of interesting ideas, but that concept of quality, and especially its definition, has me thinking about the word and its relationship to the next generation MINI, the F56. In fact it has me thinking about what the real secret sauce is when it comes to making a MINI a MINI. Hint – it’s not a central speedometer.

But lets get back to quality. Specifically I’m thinking about the J.D. Powers Initial Quality Survey. There’s that word again. Quality. The IQS, as it’s referred to in industry circles, is a survey conducted within the first 90 days of owning a new car. The trouble with the survey is that it does a poor job distinguishing between actual problems with an automobile’s design or manufacturing, and aspects of the car’s design that buyers simply don’t like or don’t understand.

“Why are the window switches in the middle?”
“Why is this the tune knob and not the volume knob?”
“Wait, I’m supposed to check my oil?”

MINI has consistently scored low on these surveys, despite later topping long-term owner satisfaction surveys. The perceived detriment to the MINI brand is that the IQS scores will make potential buyers feel like MINI makes a lousy car. Buyers who, by virtue of taking the IQS scores seriously, don’t understand JD Power’s questionable use of the word “quality” in the title.

Now all of you who’ve already started feverishly typing your comments about all of your MINI’s legitimate reliability issues, stay your hands a moment. That’s not what I want to talk about. In the entire “new” MINI lifespan, MINI and BMW have been continuously improving the car. Which means that like any manufactured good, it’s had issues that needed correction. MINIs built in 2003 and 2004 had significant quality control improvements and component upgrades over MINIs built in 2002. The 2005 refresh and subsequent 2006 cars were even better. We’ve seen significant updates to the R56 generation cars as well. Most significantly, the 2011 model year refresh saw a whole new top end for the engine which added Valvetronic variable valve timing as well as addressed the infamous “cold start” issue that plagued many earlier R56s. In addition to component and engineering changes, MINI has shortened its oil change intervals to account for both owner neglect (check your oil, people) and overly optimistic oil life estimates.

Those issues are widely known and have been widely covered here on MotoringFile, as well as discussed at length on White Roof Radio. Yet when I refer to MINI’s low IQS scores, it’s not these issues that ding the brand in the eyes of these survey-conscious mystery buyers. Instead, our sources within MINI USA and the dealer network have confirmed that most often, low IQS scores are due to some of the car’s less conventional details. Window and door lock switches on the center stack, for instance. The basic first-time usability problems of the earlier R56 HVAC and stereo controls, for another example. Yet to fully understand the nuance of these low scores, there’s another factor that must be accounted for, and that’s dealer delivery procedures. Sources within MINI USA and the dealer network have also confirmed that how dealers deliver new MINIs has been adjusted to better help new buyers understand how their new MINI actually works. That way, if JD Powers asks them about their new MINI 89 days later, there’s a better chance that “I don’t like the window switches” won’t be confused in the IQS score with “catastrophic engine failure.”

Granted this problem isn’t new. MINI USA has been handling education at the point of sale since 2002. Everything from self-effacing hang-tags to the often forgotten “Unauthorized Owners Manual” have helped new owners make sense of what is often a very different experience to anything else they’ve owned.

All that said, I must admit that I’ve buried the lead. My point here is not some scathing exposé on the flaws of the IQS methodology. That’s well understood in automotive circles and well reported here on MotoringFile. We explain it, well, about once a year when the IQS scores come out. All of this is actually preamble to what I think is a more pressing point for MINI and especially for MINI fans:

In 2012, MINI had its best sales year ever. Ever. This, despite yet another year near the bottom of the IQS.

When I was in Ponce, Puerto Rico this February for the North American launch of the Paceman and the JCW GP, the product team at MINI USA gave us a great presentation on the success of the MINI brand in North America and around the world. Since its launch in 2002, MINI has enjoyed an unheard of high demand for cars. Usually, when a new product comes along, there’s a bell curve spike in demand, then a lower demand long tail once the initial “newness” of that product trails off. This is especially true with new models in the automotive industry. The MINI, however, showed an initial peak, trailed off slightly, and then plateaued at a comparatively high, steady rate of demand.

Obviously lots of factors have contributed to MINI’s success in the market, especially the US market. It’s a performance car disguised as pragmatic transportation. It hits a sweet spot between value, refinement, performance, design and fuel economy. Then in simplest terms, it’s fun. It’s a fun, quirky car that’s truly unlike anything else on the road in America — especially when the car debuted more than ten years ago. I can’t help but think that MINI’s success is due at least in part to that uniqueness. It’s due to the fact that when you drive a MINI, there’s no mistaking it for some other car.

Herein lies the rub (and now I finally get to the point). There are three concepts here that seem greatly at odds with each other:

  1. MINI is insecure about its low IQS scores; fearful that those scores will negatively impact sales. This has led to changes even in the latest mid-cycle refresh to the cars. For example, the Paceman and Countryman now have window switches on their door panels. Why? For better IQS scores. The more conventional dash controls we’ve seen on the spy shots of the upcoming next-generation MINI interior are another step toward better IQS scores.

  2. As previously stated, MINI had its best sales year ever in 2012. Not after they moved the door switches and normalized the dash, but before.

  3. I contend that MINI’s sales success in 2012 and before is due, at least in part, to the car’s quirky character.

So what gives? One could make the case that MINI is “dumbing down” the quirks of the car chasing sales they don’t actually seem to need, all while removing an aspect of the car’s appeal that led to (at least part of) its success in the first place. As my mother is fond of saying, “Do they cut off their own nose just to spite their face?”

During the Paceman product launch, I asked this very question at the press conference, and to be frank, the response I received was so vague that I can’t even remember it. I don’t say that to beat up on the team at MINI USA. After all, these sorts of decisions aren’t really up to them. They’re tasked with keeping the brand successful in North America and in a room full of automotive press, a more direct answer on that topic probably wouldn’t have done them much good. I also wouldn’t even begin to doubt their enthusiasm for the brand or for the product, but I’m still unsatisfied on this topic and I know I’m not alone.

We see more and more comments from you, the enthusiast community, who are worried that MINI has lost touch with those aspects of the car that for many of us, are what root the MINI in its very MINI-ness. And while I share that sentiment at a certain visceral level, it also doesn’t quite hold up any real intellectual rigor on what I think has actually made the car special all these years. It hasn’t been any one detail. It’s not where the window switches are located. It’s not actually the center speedometer. It’s something more ephemeral. Something harder to describe yet somehow easy to understand if you’ve ever spent time behind the wheel of a growling MINI Cooper.

It brings me back to that idea of Pirsig’s indefinable notion of “quality” as something that we all sort of know in our bones. As I look at all the things we know and don’t know about the F56, I am definitely more hopeful than despondent. Primarily, this is because that despite changes to the details of the car, MINI really has done a great job to-date of keeping the MINI (at least the MINI hardtop and most of its small-frame variants) grounded in that holistic package — that experience of what it’s like to drive a MINI. In the end, that’s grounded not in door switches or center speedometers, but in the weight of the car and the way it delivers its power. It’s in the sharpness of the steering and chuckable balance of the car. Getting down to the core of it like that, I’m hopeful for what the F56 could be.

When we look at the R56 vs. the R53, the newer car got lighter. It got more powerful. It got more efficient, and it got more comfortable. We have well-sourced information that we’ll see that trend continue in the F56. Less weight, more power, better fuel economy, better suspension and more technological integration. Thanks to BMW Group platform sharing, the F56 MINI will, I believe, be a much better car in all the ways that matter. In those terms, it will be that much more MINI. At least, I hope so.

Where does that leave us? Are we on a collision course with mediocrity thanks to insecurity over poor IQS scores? Or is MINI simply tweaking a handful of things that don’t actually make the car a MINI in the end? That is, aside from their familiarity. ‘Cause if we’re honest, we only think of that center speedo and those toggle switch window controls as being quintessentially “MINI” because they’re what was given to us back in 2002. They just as easily could have been more conventional. Would I love driving my MINI any less if it never had a center speedo? Of course not. I wouldn’t have known the difference. Perhaps that’s cold comfort, but I also think it’s important perspective. Let’s not let our own discomfort with change inform all of what we think about the new car — especially before we’ve even seen it.

So in the end, when the F56 does arrive, it won’t actually be the end. It will be the beginning — the beginning of the next chapter of what makes a MINI a MINI. And we’ll know, even if we can’t exactly put our finger on it, whether or not they’ve succeeded at making a “quality” car by virtue of spending time behind the wheel. We’ll see, and actually, it won’t be long know. Summer is coming, and with it, our first look at the F56. Stay tuned.

  • Nice article Nathaniel. I think latter point about loving MINI less – won’t be so much about where the switches are, or where the speedo is, but more – is it innovative and funky enough to make me want one. I love my MINI for ALL the reasons that people say they don’t. I don’t think I’m the only one.

  • Stew

    I love the idea of slightly more power and better efficiency in the 3 cylinder engine and a lighter car but what make the car after the driving pleasure is all the wee quirky things that do make it MINI. Currently driving a five year old Cooper bought from six months old. Is the interior a factor in my next purchase well I’m sitting on the fence right now on that one. I’d be hugely disappointed if it lost character as some of us have been there from R50’s and we don’t want a One series with a MINI badge on it. Lets hope there is no build quality problems like Dash board rattles, Cold start rattles, Coking problems on this new F series MINI that were disappointing. Would love to actually get a picture of the real car so I can finally make a decision if to buy this new car or a late R56. I’ll say this now all the same that Centre Dash looks Horrendous and will lose customers especially those who like the Retro touches that hark back like myself to the Classic MINI we grew up with.

  • les

    As long as I have to pull the door handle twice, then I’m good.

  • Drew M.

    As someone that has owned 2 R53’s, an R56 MCS, an R56 Cooper, and has worked at a MINI dealer for 6 years, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of what the average owner and the enthusiast wants out of the MINI. The funny thing is, as much as the “quirky” things are the items we reflect on in these articles, they don’t matter nearly as much as we have all made it seem. Had MINI never placed the window switches in the center, or an enormous speedometer there, we would still love these cars just as much.

    As long as MINI continues to add a retro inspired design to their interiors, all while keeping the MINI fun to look at and drive, you’ve got another winner. Focusing on overall reliability, fuel efficiency, and fun-to-drive character are all at the highest level in my list of what MINI should consider to focus on. I want the simple look of the R53 interior, but I also want a much more functional and higher quality feel. The R56 is a bit too much about the look, and not enough about the function. The R53 didn’t offer nearly as much, and was lower quality and less comfortable. Now they’ve heard our views on each version, and we’re getting a first attempt at making something that does it all well. I have high expectations for the next generation, and I don’t think MINI will let us down.

  • rhawth99

    I agree that having a center speedometer doesn’t make a MINI a MINI, however, the interior dash should not be an eyesore and should be functional. The first pictures of the new dash showed an ugly monstrousity and I don’t feel that anyone should have to spend $1K or more for either the NAV or MINI connected (neither of which I want) to get a dashboard that doesn’t jar the senses. With the R56, it was already difficult to configure the car with what I deem the essential options without grossly exceeding $30K. I have owned five MINIs so far (’05 and ’06 MCS, ’10 and ’12 Clubman S, and ’11 MCS) so I thoroughly enjoy the brand. The cars are fantastic to drive and do hit a sweet spot for MPG, handling, and acceleration.

    I am anxious to see the final product for the F56 and hope that new MINIs will still be in my future.

    • I wonder if the BMW platform sharing and those economies of scale may help alleviate some of that MINI price creep. However, it’s important to understand that the MINI base price hasn’t simply gone up arbitrarily. If you look at the standard spec for MINI over the years, it isn’t that the car has gotten more expensive per say, it’s that more things that used to be optional are now standard. Mulit-function steering wheel with cruise and OBC, for example. Fog lights. Floor mats. The list goes on. All things that used to be optional extras got rolled into the standard car. In nearly every case, it was either the same price as their al a cart cost, or sometimes lower, but the net result has been a couple thousand dollars rise in base price. With all the platform sharing with BMW in place, it would be conceivable that the base price of the MINI could actually go down, but that’s highly unlikely. MINIs are selling well at their current price point, so if BMW were able to lower cost, they’d simply enjoy that margin. What is likely, however, is that the MINI base price could remain close to the same in the next generation, but the car could come more well-equipped because of how much it shares with FWD BMWs of the future. In fact, that’s more or less what we’ve been told to expect. Better standard equipment and more available advanced tech from the parent company making its way into MINIs.

  • AMS

    All I really want out of a MINI interior is for it to look cool, and slightly posh. that can be accomplished in the R56-family by paying extra for a leather dash topper (though with very limited color line options). Hopefully the F5X’s at the very least continue that level of up-scalability, if not improve upon it — like maybe by offering leather wrap for downtubes, door panels, etc.

    Putting the window controls on the door is a smart move, imo, if for no other reasons than a) your drinks don’t block them now and b) it frees up spots for DSC and Sport mode to be toggles, rather than hidden on the far side of the shifter.

  • Don Hopings

    “Would I love driving my MINI any less if it never had a center speedo? Of course not. I wouldn’t have known the difference.”

    Nathan, what you said is likely true, but the problem is this: You can’t unring a bell. Once the stake is in the ground, we just don’t forget about it. I don’t see how so many can expect difference and sameness simutaneously. Just doesn’t make sense to me.

    • Those are two different things though. The MINI can be different in a thousand different ways, and those ways don’t have to be the specific details we’re used to. The car is currently different in a handful of ways that are changing, but it won’t cease to retain many of its other one-of-a-kind details. And, it may actually get more unique in a myriad of other ways that aren’t just carryover from the last two generations.

      However, at the core of what you’re saying, I agree. Is MINI evolving toward mediocrity? At this point, I think most of the hardcore MINI fans need some reassurance on this front. Myself included.

  • Don Hopings

    Sorry, NATHANIEL, not to be confused with my SIL Nathan (Monday, Senior Moment, it happens…)

  • Gary

    Great write-up Nathaniel and I fully agree with you…well, almost. Certainly keeping the holistic package and maintaining the experience of “what it’s like to drive a MINI” is the biggest part of it all — but I’d argue that the complete, holistic package extends to the experience of “what it’s like to sit in a MINI” and even “what it’s like to be seen driving a MINI.” There are many other makes and models of automobiles in the neighborhood of the MINI’s class performance-wise; however, when you’re sitting in the cockpit of one there’s no mistaking where you are. The more MINI tries to converge to what is perceived to be design details closer to the mainstream to try and please the masses–both interior and exterior–the more these other aspects of the MINI experience will fade away.

    • Completely agree.

    • John McLauchlan

      Exactly, well said.

    • Aurel

      Very well said. I am also worried that MINI is losing is quirkiness and heading towards mediocrity in certain ways. My two favorite things about my Clubman are the 3rd door and rear barn doors. Those 2 simple little things that give easier accessibility to the interior and to this day are “wtf” headturners are what makes a MINI a MINI … A LARGE part of why I don’t “feel” anything towards the Countryman/Paceman and also the Coupe/Roadster is the loss of these type of unique features.

  • Evan

    I have to agree in that there is something inherihant in how the MINI drives that truly makes it a MINI. It’s the quality of the platform and how it takes a corner. I have said that I knew where the engineering money went on my R50- all to the chassis- and that I have been very happy with that choice for over nine years and 97k miles. It’s how a car that is that old still invites me to drive a little harder, take a corner a little faster and feels as happy cruising at 30mph as it does at 80mph. That’s the quality. That’s what was lost a little bit on the R50 to R56 handling wise and for anyone who flogs a stock Cooper from each generation back-to-back will tell you. EPAS is not great. But the essential chassis and handling is in there. The money still spent on those components. With the F56 on the UKL platform, I’m sure it’ll still be in there. Let’s just pray they have improved the EPAS for the F56….

    The exterior design is another issue. The R50/53 is perfectly proportioned. Looking good on even the lowly 15in wheels. The R56 had to conform to new pedestrian crash regulations and as a result, has always been a little off on small wheels and fits the longer Clubman better. The exterior will likely stay pretty similar in size and design for the F56 with more or less detail changes in the side-view mirrors and headlight surrounds with LEDs. And that’s fine.

    The interior is what is interesting. I love the absolute simplicity of the R50’s interior. The materials aren’t awesome, but my 2004 model has no dash squeaks/rattles and is clear and thoughtful. The window switches in the center aren’t a “MINI” thing, they are a cost saving move for a car that is popular in both LHD and RHD markets. The 3er didn’t see window controls move to the doors until the E90 in 2006. The quality of the interior in the R50 was consistent throughout where the R56 seemed to have some components improved and others worsened. I have always found there to be far too many pieces that make make up the R56 dash- complexity and cut lines make for a less coherent design and increases the chances for rattles. The F56 may adjust what we consider to be “MINI” essential items, but we have only seen pre-production dashboards. Here in the USA, I’m sure we’ll get a screen standard with the larger one optional. They are in every new car now. Even if some of us don’t love it, it’s there and it’s bound to better than the current gen’s.

    So, yes. It is about the quality, the not-quite-describable feeling a MINI gives you that makes you smile and want to go for a spirited drive. Change is inevitable. And I can’t wait to see the new F56.

  • John

    Excellent article, you hit the nail in the head. I think we all want that BMW “quality” in our MINIs but not at the expense of the brand’s individuality. I don’t ever wanna sit in a MINI ant think “this could well be a Mazda”. BMW will have a tough time trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator while maintaining what makes a MINI a MINI. But you’re right, i don’t know what that is but it’s definitely not a center speedometer. It’s a tough balanci g exercise but i’m sure BMW will pull it off as they have until now.


    I wondered a while back about this what makes a Mini a Mini. It came to me as I was driving down a motorway with the Cruise control set the Climate control set the rain sensing wippers running while listening to tunes from my iPod via the Harmon Kardon audio. I thought back to my 1978 Mini Clubman… It had no cruise control and no aircon the wipers hardly worked at motorway speeds and you certainly could not hear the radio clearly.

    The Mini has evolved and what makes it a Mini is the people who believe in the brand and the strong sense of community which is like no other in the car world.

  • Kevin Hadap

    Agreeing wholeheartedly here. We got our 2012 Countryman just before the cutoff (November of last year it arrived fresh from across the pond); we were adamant that we didn’t want some of the 2013 stylistic changes. The changes felt like they were pandering to the wrong people. My cousin got a 2013 off the lot not too soon after me, and I still think the wife and I made the right decision. 2013 feels less uniquely MINI, as far as the Countryman is concerned.