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Frank Stephenson: MINI Has Lost it

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Frank Stephenson, exterior designer of the R50 and R53 MINI was interviewed earlier this year on the occasion of his latest creation debuting – the McLaren P1. Frank, a long time reader and friend of MF created the R50 during a time of intense turmoil and competition amongst BMW and Rover designers and engineers. The resulting car is often looked at as the most pure of not best looking modern MINI to date. Even if a lack of pedestrian safety standards certainly gave the design team much more freedom, it’s hard to argue the R50 isn’t design success.

It’s with that success that Frank moved onto Ferrari and Fiat where he oversaw everything from the F430 Scuderia to the Fiat 500 to the Maserati MC12. From there Frank moved north and to McLaren where he cleaned up an already in progress MC12 and designed the already mythical P1. So to say he has some credibility around MotoringFile and the general automotive world is an understatement. And that begs the question, what are his thoughts on the modern state of MINI design? Yahoo Automotive’s Jamie Kitman caught up with Frank earlier this year and talked specifically about that amongst other automotive topics. Keep in mind that this interview happened earlier this year and thus doesn’t include reactions to the new F56. However the full interview is well worth a read but the MINI specifics portions (which you can see after the break) are particularly interesting.

To say Frank dislikes the R5X MINI range would be an understatement. We can’t say we agree with him but it’s easy to understand his perspective. While he didn’t have to deal with the raft of new crash standards with his R50, he is clearly qualified to have an opinion.

Check it out after the break.

countryman accessories

Jamie Kitman: So what do you think of the Countryman?

Frank Stephenson: Oh, my gosh, I don’t like it. I mean I don’t like the whole new trend at all. I think they just wildly abused the brand. And they’ve gone away from their roots in such a way that now the buyers are not the same buyers.

JK: When the next Mini has got three rows of seats and a V-8, I’ll know that they’ve really lost it.

FS: They’ve lost it. [When] they chose to change the design, [c. 2007] perhaps that would have been the best moment to break away and really innovate like the original Mini did. With all the new technology today, how would you reinterpret a small car with the technology that BMW’s capable of using for that type of car?

You can imagine a very small car like a Mini with the innovative packaging again, putting maximum amount of space around the very limited four occupants, for example, how to carry luggage and all that. So I was hoping for a breakthrough, creative look to the new Mini to the new, new [second-generation] Mini.

r56 vs r50

JK: It seemed like what they did was, they mostly concentrated on cutting costs.

FS: They did. The original wasn’t cheap to build that way, I think that’s one of the things that happens when you do get a bit risky. … And it was expensive, of course, to build. Had it not been, then it probably wouldn’t have looked like it did. It probably wouldn’t have been as successful.

JK: No, it felt very special in a way.

FS: Yeah, it was a small BMW, basically. So you were getting the quality and the technology of the BMW on a small platform. And, of course, companies are always in the business of trying to make money, so how to make it just as desirable with maybe a higher-volume share in technology for platforms and engines with other companies. So it suffered maybe a little bit from that. But yet the car still sells very well.

There’s a whole new segment of buyers for the car. Maybe the older ones are still linked to the original 2000 Mini. The newer buyers are coming in because they like the reputation of ?? the spirit of the Mini. Yet it can accommodate family or, you know, going out to the mountains like a small SUV or something. So it’s a bit of everything for everybody. But, of course, the Mini was ?? it is more of a niche car. I think its original intention was put families on wheels in a small, limited amount of space.

Now, of course, volume means that they just get bigger and bigger…

Read the entire interview at Yahoo Automotive.

Some of this is quite interesting to read and some of it is expected. The one thing that I think Frank misses is the amount of BMW technology and engineering in the R56 and F56 has increased dramatically as compared to what was in the R50. Gone our the Rover parts or the donor engines made in Brazil for instance. The car is now basically 100% BMW in regards to supplier components and engineering. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is of course up to all of us to decide.

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Written By: Gabe

  • scamper

    I won’t belabor the point, but it have to say that I agree with Stephenson on every point. My 2003 may be somewhat (?) dated internally, but I’d put it up against any MINI as far as looks go. Remember Multiplicity, that Michael Keaton movie where each of his iterated clones was dumber and more degraded than the original? Yeah. Anyway, just my 2¢.

  • lawrothegreat

    I get really fed up when people complain about what the modern MINI is. The classic mini was a clever design for the time. Then it became fashionable afterwards. This is what made the mini brand what it is. We’re much more demanding nowadays as consumers: fun, looks, comfort, security, safety, performance, economy, emissions, practicality, quality. We want it all. The classic mini didn’t do all of this, in fact it hardly met any. The R50 generation didn’t do all of this either and neither did the R56. The R50/R53 family is definitely a design classic but customer expectations move on. I loved my R50 Cooper, but I would be bored of it if I still owned it and I would be irritated by its faults. I also loved my R56 Cooper S, but for the same reasons I don’t drive it anymore. I look forward to the delivery of my F56.

    • Vincent S

      i don’t disagree with what you wrote, but i think what mini enthusiasts complain about is that there is no longer a platform that reflects the car they originally fell in love with and each generation and new model seems to get farther away.

      personally, i have zero interest in buying a bigger mini. if i decide to replace my R56S with something with more comfort, security, safety, practicality, etc.; i’d just buy a bmw.

      • Frank Granados

        And that is what I did.

      • lawrothegreat

        Can we confidently say this yet? I think we need to forget the fact that the F56 is a few centimetres longer, I’m not convinced that it really matters. It is supposed to be the same weight as the R56.

    • ulrichd

      I don’t think anyone is arguing against innovation but the new car seems to be such a compromise in design, size and “normalized”interior that it’s difficult to not be disappointed.

    • Kurtster

      I think going larger with the Countryman and Paceman was counter to the MINI brand, but who can argue with the sales numbers? The Countryman sells extremely well and they are in the business of selling cars. the Countryman has also brought many new people into the brand that otherwise wouldn’t have experienced it.

      Now, with that said I think they should be making the Rocketman as well. They seem to be expanding the line laterally instead of vertically to reach both ends of the spectrum. Making the hardtop larger with the F56 and adding rear doors to the Clubman also seems to be going the wrong way to me. There really isn’t a MINI that is as compact as they could be, and although it won’t ever outsell the Countryman, producing the Rocketman would certainly appease those of us who want an even smaller car and love the brand for making the most of its large-car ability in a small-car package.

      • Nick Dawson

        At the price BMW would have to charge for a Rocketman, to recoup its development and production costs, hardly anyone would buy one. The original MIni never made any serious money, at best only enough to pay the overheads, but no profit. It cost too much to build, but being such a small car, the market would not tolerate a higher price. Ultimately, it bankrupted the parent company. Which is precisely why the concept Rocketman will never be given the green light for production. Sorry!

        • Kurtster

          Well, they managed to get $42k out of me for a FWD Coupe so I am probably one of those “hardly anyone” people.

  • ulrichd

    They key in his answer is, and I agree completely, that the R50/53 was a niche car aimed a specific target audience. BMW could not make a business model for keeping MINI a niche product so they developed into something that appeals to a wider audience (SUVs, larger sizes all around, dumbed down interior) and in the end something has gotten lost. The R50/53 was a moment in time that won’t come again, sadly. I am moving on as the new car, and MINI’s direction in general, does not appeal to me at all.

    • BimmerFile_Michael

      Spot on- niche brands fail for many reasons- most of which is price point and dealer networks. BMW’s original plan for MINI was by the second generation it to be a mass market item and sell in droves (Much like the original Mini- the masses came after a few changes). That never happened so in order to keep the lights on the lineup needed to be expanded and the car dialed in to more consumers.

      BMW had to do the same thing internally to avoid being taken over- If you look at how many BMW models there were before the Rover acquisition and how many there are now it is staggering- same goes for MINI. It is true that one company can’t be everything to everyone but when you drive an BMW or a MINI (even the latest “toned down” versions) they still drive laps around the competition- drive an Audi and you’ll understand what I mean. If you are a driver interested in driving BMW/MINI are still the best of the lot- with Jaguar making HUGE gains.

      Fiat is in the same boat as MINI was before it expanded the lineup- they are essentially following the MINI recipe at a break neck pace in hopes of under cutting MINI and taking the market, the cheap build and lack of performance outside the Abarth models make it no contest.

      If MINI does not appeal- what does? Funny part is the interior has been the turn off for most would be customers- and having lived with an R53, and our current R55 I agree. The new interior alone will get more product out the door and hopefully keep MINI in business because niche cars like the coupe and roadster, paceman more than likely will never recoup the R&D budget.

      The F55 and F54 should sell in serious numbers and more than likely surpass the Countryman as top sellers. I drove by an F54 the other day and just love the silhouette; and with it more than likely being a plug in hybrid it is going to bridge a gap in the market that currently is not available- a sporty sports wagon that is a fun fuel miser….

      • racekarl

        Your sentiments may have been true re: BMW as recently as the mid ’90s, but they have totally given up on being a “driver’s car.” As proof: you can essentially no longer buy a BMW with a manual transmission. They have been unabashed in saying that manuals have no future at BMW. Ultimate Driving Machine, indeed. It saddens me to say so since my e30 325iX was the best car I’ve ever driven.

        • BimmerFile_Michael

          Really? I must have missed them doing away with manuals- or that manuals have no future at BMW. Last time I checked the1,2,3,4,5,6 series all had a manual transmission as available- not all variants but each series does offer a manual.

          The reason there is no place for manuals in the future is not because BMW doesn’t want to offer them- it is because the take rate is less than 10% and there is now a MPG penalty for the manuals. In 2015 it will be a penalty for driving a manual as it will bring the fleet average down. This is essentially why manuals became a no cost option with autos as standard last year.

        • racekarl

          Upon further review I did overstate things re: current line-up. I have been shopping AWD as I live in the snow belt – manual is not an option with XDrive. Ironic to me, since my ’88 iX was ONLY offered as a manual since BMW could not initially figure out how to fit their automatic in with the transfer case (they eventually did get it in there).

          I understand all the reasons for automatics taking over, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it! (Get off my lawn!) Especially the MPG rationale, since that’s just straight up gaming the system (every manufacturer programs their transmissions around the MPG test to optimize results as opposed to real-world efficiency).

        • lawrothegreat

          The F56 offers auto-blipping on downshifts with the manual transmission.

        • ulrichd

          If you are buying from a dealer’s lot it is difficult to find a manual, but most BMW models are still available with three pedals for order.

        • racekarl

          Your definition of “most” must be different from mine, or maybe you are not in the US? Here only the 1 series, RWD 3 series sedan, 4 series coupe, Z4, and some M cars can be had with a manual.

  • JonPD

    A great article all in all and I cannot say that I could agree with him more. A lot of what made MINI special in the early years is gone. MINI is broadly just another car these days. With the F56 going with more BMW design queues (flat bevel over the arches and dished sides). The car broadly feels like another one of the ever present boring BMWs that are around every corner yawn. Sad to say the new F56 makes I want to wear a polo with the collar flipped up and Ray Ban aviator glasses so I could look like yet another BMW tool.

    Long live the R50

  • ulrichd

    I would love to know if at any point during the F56 design process more radical design concepts were considered or if the evolution of the current car was always the goal. At some point did they look at what the new pedestrian impact standards were doing to the front end and say “this isn’t working, this isn’t MINI. Let’s start over fresh.”

  • John

    So the F56 is to preppies as the R50-53 was to hipster trend following wannabe’s? Sounds about right.

  • John

    I appreciate FS and respect his talents but let’s remember he was instrumental in the design of the Fiat 500 as well. There are many cars he’s designed I find ugly and his design of the MP4-12C is about as boring a supercar there ever was unless it’s in GT form (which he didn’t create). He’s reframed himself with the P1 thank God.

    • http://www.about.me/sohrabosati Sohrab O.

      Yea, has he seen the Fiat 500 or the interior of that car? #ThrowsUp

      • Frank Granados

        Have you ever seen the original Fiat 500s? They were very aesthetically challenged cars. There was nothing pretty about them. Cute perhaps, but none else. So when you have to design a modern rendition based on the original ugly predecesor, you’ll simply get a more visually acceptable vehicle but still saddled with the ugliness of the original..

        • ulrichd

          So the original 500 was cute and ugly at the same time?

        • Frank Granados

          Yeah, you could say that.

    • scamper

      In my opinion, the Fiat 500 definitely captures something that the MINI has lost – and that’s before I knew about the Frank Stephenson link. I like the 500, at least conceptually.

      • lawrothegreat

        The Fiat 500 is still in its first generation and the 500L is less attractive than the countryman. The interior is attractive (I enjoyed driving a twin-air two cylinder version a couple of years ago for a day) but the interior is cramped and the car doesn’t offer the same handling in base trim that the MINI always has.

        • scamper

          While I agree that the 500 exhibits many of the marks of a first generational product, it gets a lot of things right. Namely: the size is correct, making the MINI look MAXI by comparison. And the electric option is something MINI should have released with the F56 update.

          Of course it’s BMW’s prerogative to bloat out their cars and isolate their electric trial to a car with all the elegance of Sloth from the Goonies. But we already see how that tactic is changing their userbase.

          All that being said, the day BMW sees the light and releases a pocket-sized Rocketman, I’m back (whether they want me or not).

      • ulrichd

        Agreed, it’s a very cohesive and original design that has won many international design awards. Too bad the re-introduction of Fiat was so badly fumbled. Where is Alfa?

  • Nick Dawson

    Personally, I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on Frank Stephenson’s comments. Car designers are notoriously egocentric, none less so than Alec Issigonis, the designer of the original Mini. Alec died in 1988, so he never saw the R50 MINI. However, at the official launch of R50, Alex Moulton, who worked closely with Issigonis on suspension design and probably knew him better than anyone, was one of the VIP guests. When he was asked by a motoring journalist, “What would Mr Issigonis have thought of this new MINI?”, Alex Moulton reportedly replied, “Oh, Alec would have hated it!”.

  • Gary

    I’m guessing David Duncan is just thrilled to see the MF headline during his transition in period…

  • Bob Hayhurst

    I was a bit surprised at Mr. Stephenson’s candor with respect to the MINI brand. His opinions are his of course, but they do offer insight to what his thoughts are re; MINI design post ’06. I would have expected less criticism of MINI but on the other hand, FS apparently has no problem burning the occasional bridge. I suspect it would be hard to accept a renovation of an original (R50/53) design but as Mr. Stephenson said, the R50/53 replacement needed to be truly innovative, something R56 was never accused of by anyone. Mr. Stephenson’s admission that his design was expensive to manufacture goes towards what I can imagine is a constant challenge between designers/engineers/accountants. Each needs the other to survive but finds the others contribution secondary to their own.

    I loved the design of R50/53. Mr. Stephenson’s innovative interpretation of the original Mini design changed the automotive industry with many other vehicles retro designed. When I see a R50/53 today, I see it for what it is; a truly innovative, forward thinking design that is 14 years old.

    • The Big Newt

      The F56 isn’t THAT much bigger than the older cars (4″ longer 1.5″ wider, .5″ taller). Safety standards mandated half of the 4″ length increase. Sure, BMW got into more of the car’s parts, why not? He can’t say that’s a bad thing because he hasn’t seen the car nor driven the car. I respect his opinion, but it’s just that: an opinion. I think the F56 will be great. The Countryman I agree with him on, hate it.

      • lawrothegreat

        I think the potential is there for the F56 to be great too. Revised suspension, revised steering, auto-blipping with the manual, variable damper control etc. And it’s the same weight. I’m expecting test reviews of the Cooper, Cooper S and eventually the JCW to be very complimentary.

        • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

          I’m expecting good reviews too, especially considering that the interior isn’t as “quirky” anymore. That was a constant complaint in the automotive press, especially with the R56.

  • one9deuce

    I know this isn’t the popular opinion around here, but I really didn’t care for the R50/53. It had a cuteness about it that I just didn’t like. I never considered purchasing a MINI until I saw the R56. I like the aggressive bulldog stance and muscular look of the R56 that I don’t feel the R50/53 has at all. And I might just like the F56 best. I don’t feel the induction vent area under the bumper is designed as well as it could be, but since I want midnight black metallic I’m sure it won’t be nearly as noticeable as it is on the volcanic orange we’ve seen so much of. I can understand that Frank Stephenson doesn’t like the newer designs as much as his own, but that’s kind of to be expected.

    • ulrichd

      I am one of the many people who will disagree with you on that. If you look at the side by side pic in up in the story it was the R 50 that had the bulldog stance. This was completely lost with the bulbous nose of the R56. Also the higher beltline and reduced greenhouse just made the whole car look more portly and less dynamic.

      • one9deuce

        When I look at the picture your referring to I see a little commuter car on the right and a sports car on the left. I think the slightly longer, more parallel with the belt line hood and big grill opening make a huge positive difference. Just my opinion. I really can’t wait to see the F56 in person, pictures aren’t enough sometimes. When I saw the new 1994 Mustang on the cover of Car and Driver I didn’t really like it, but after seeing it in person I loved it and ended up getting a ’96 Cobra. I think that will be the case for the F56 for a lot of people after seeing it (and certainly driving it) in person. We’ll find out soon enough.

        • ulrichd

          Fair enough, but who asked for the MINI to be turned into a sports car? It’s a spunky small car that punches way above its weight in terms of performance and handling.

        • one9deuce

          I think of the original Mini from the 20th century as a sports car. It has great proportions, and was actually considered a sports car by many. I do agree with your assessment of MINI being a “small car that punches way above its weight in terms of performance and handling”, I just think the R56 and F56 are closer to the spirit and look of the original than the R50/53. Again, just my opinion.

    • lawrothegreat

      I loved the R50 at the time, but now that my eyes are getting used to the F56, the R50/R53 feels very upright and tall. The F56 has got a squat cheekiness at the back which is more reflective of the classic, than either the R50/R53 or R56. I think the F56 will surprise in the flesh.

    • Kevin Stephenson

      I feel the same. My first MINI was an R56. After owning it a few years and seeing all the posts on here and by others that it was an abomination and the 1st gen was the best, I went back and now own a first gen. However, I must say I preferred the R56. It rode better, handled better, more reliable, just more well built and funner to drive. I do love the Supercharger whine but if I had it to do over again, I would stay with the 2nd gen even though I don’t dislike my 1st gen. I think most people here just started out with a 1st gen so there is a sense of nostalgia with it. For me, my nostalgia will always be with the R56 so I take some offence to people saying the R50/53 is the best and my memories of my favorite MINI is worthless.

  • oldsbear

    Having just looked at photos of the P1, I’d say Stephenson is the one who has lost it.

  • Dave

    So much hate for the r60. The r50 is a classic design plan and simple. I think that design is what brought a lot of us to mini. The designs have to evolve and change over time. For me I liked the r56 design but was too small of a car to fit my needs. Once I saw the r60 it was the not so mini mini. Crazy love at first site. Thank god I never had the same reaction for the Aztec, I enjoy the car and enjoy the brand. What I like most about the brand at least I feel I’m not driving the same cookie cutter Honda /Toyota. I respect the guys opinion but probably wouldn’t be a mini owner if it hadn’t evolved the way it did. I’m excited with the new r56 so I guess motor on!

  • LondonCynic

    The brand name is mini yet there are no mini cars in the range. The innovation stops at electrical connectivity and LED mood lighting but the engineering is shared with the big car brand. The cleverest aspect of the brand seems to be how the configurator ratchets up the price as options I don’t want get bundled in with options I’d choose.

    • Kurtster

      Um, by today’s car size standards, my Coupe is pretty “MINI”. You should see how many pictures I’ve taken of mammoth vehicles parked next to mine.

      • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

        Even the Countryman is still one of the smallest cars you can buy.

  • racekarl

    Here is the key line for me, when Stephenson is discussing the R50: “And it was expensive, of course, to build.”

    To me, that exposes Stephenson’s weakness as a designer. Look at his subsequent jobs: Ferrari and McLaren. This is a designer who pens a pretty car, but either does not care about or does not understand how his designs actually get built. It’s one thing to draw a nice looking car on paper, we all did that as school children, but it’s another thing entirely to design a car so that it looks good AND can be assembled and used practically.

    So I take his criticisms with a big grain of salt: MINI would not be here today if they paid as little attention to market realities as Stephenson seems to.

    • b-

      Perhaps the R50 was expensive to build because of the fact that it was one car for the first 4 years. Platform sharing has made it cheaper and possible to offer the R55, R57 and R58 cars because they all share the same base. The way I see it is that if they were designing the R50 on a shared platform then it would have been less expensive.

      • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

        Being more expensive to build isn’t a bad thing within reason. I think that MINI owners have proven they’re willing to pay for something unique. Many of the things that made the R50 expensive to build, such as the clamshell bonnet, are details that make the car really unique. It’s not as though it’s hurt sales. I’m really tired of the “I want everything for nothing” attitude so prevalent in our Walmart culture where cheaper is lauded as some sort of virtue that quality or simply being interesting must always bow to. That’s no case for $1,000 hand bag luxury where things are expensive simply to make them more exclusive, but a car built with unconventional details is going to be a little more expensive than the run-of-the-mill appliance cars. Personally, I’m okay with that.

        • b-

          Nathaniel, That is why I said less expensive, I like the details that make the price higher, the clamshell hood and the tail lights away from the hatch opening, these are details that yes were expensive to produce made the car that much more unique. One of my favorite details of my R52 is the cowl area. I LOVE that the wipers come right through the bodywork and not have some plastic bits there like on the R56 cars.

        • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

          I wasn’t actually trying to disagree with you. What I said was simply what your comment made me think of. There’s definitely a key difference between something being less expensive and something being overtly cheap. In any production car, the balance between expense and special is always tough to manage.

        • http://bridger.us/ Gabriel Bridger

          The wipers had to move into the cowl to pass pedestrian safety requirements that came online after the R50 launched.

    • Frank Granados

      Disagree 100%.

    • ulrichd

      Disagree 150%. He designed, it was priced and BMW signed off on it. Had they said “cut 15%” out of it he would have done it. BMW made the final decision. For once the designer, not the engineers and the bean counters won. The result was an instant classic.

      • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

        If you disagree 150%, does that mean that you agree by half?

  • Evan

    I agree with Mr Stephenson for the most part. The R50/53 was a delicate, elegant design of an original classic. It was panned for being SOOO much bigger than the original Mini, but it had to be in order to meet any modern crash standards. And here we are again with each successive generation.

    Designers have to work with a budget and that’s why every concept drawing ends up a bit more drab in production trim. It’s where the budget-people allow a little splurge that matters. The clearest example of that from R50 to R56 is in the rear-side windows going from one curved piece to one flat piece of glass with a black plastic curved piece. Yes, there’s a little aero outpouching on it, but it is far less elegant than one curved piece of glass. Then there’s the chassis- every time you drive an R50 you know that all the money went to a beautiful design and a thrilling chassis.

    My R50 drives like it’s brand new and makes me smile and long to take it for a drive as often as I can; that’s after 10 years this January and about 105k miles. Is it a bit tight for my family? Yes, that’s why I had to get an E91 wagon. Is the engine a little gruff and transmission a little iffy with some changes? Yes, but that’s all character. My dad’s R56 is a great car- fabulous engine and gearbox. But the R56 served as an update to the R50 and was not meant to move the brand on. Frank Stephenson once said that the new MINI was what the original Mini would have looked like if it had been continually evolved, like the Porsche 911. And that’s really what we have.

    I am saddened that the nose on the F56 has to be so large. It’s too bad you need 17″ rims to have the wheel to body proportions start to look alright. But I know the BMW engineering is in there. I also wonder how much smaller it could possibly get and meet all of the current and future crash standards. People have demanded them and now our cars are the victims. Do I wish it were smaller? Yes. Do I pray it drives better than the R56 and am expecting it to not quite meet the feedback of the R50? Absolutely.

    Great piece. Now when does March come around……

  • Frank Granados

    I agree 100% with Mr. Stephenson. And as a side note, those Brazilian made “donor” engines were pretty much bulletproof, something that the PSA Prince engines are not really known for.

  • http://twitter.com/matthewwanderer matthew

    @The Big Newt Wrote: “Safety standards mandated half”

    Right. That’s been the BMW/MNI company line. Supporters of “smaller” get the message. But what about the “other half” of the F56’s expansion?

    At the LA car show, MINI boasted about the larger boot. More cubic inches, a standard roller now fits, and all that. The F56’s increased shoulder room was also praised.

    MINI can no longer write off the expansion to regulations entirely. These increases in length and width (and height, btw) were elective. The question is, why is a bigger MINI better?

    The answer probably springs from the same reason BMW/MINI’s playing to the critics of MINI’s interior design. Don’t understand our center speedometer? No problem, consider that charming idiosyncrasy dead. It takes you a few weeks to habituate to the MINI’s central switch locations? Presto! Those switches have been relocated to positions that mirror the majority.

    You also “need” a [cough] bigger MINI? You’re in luck…We’ve got one right over here! What further wrongs can we right to get you in a new MINI today?

    “Now, of course, volume means that they just get bigger and bigger…”

    That observation by Stephenson is simply true. He’s stating the obvious. Not a single iteration or new model has been smaller than his interpretation of the MINI. Why? Bigger is clearly better…for selling more MINIs.

    Despite my cynical tone here (Cue the Lorax.), I get it. I understand the drum Motoringfile beats with regularity when pesky commenters like me whine about MINI’s direction: these design changes are being made for the greater good. Bigger and less-quirky MINIs are better than no MINI at all.

    The business case for “niche” is nearly impossible to maintain in the context of mass-produced vehicles. Rare cars like the R50/53 have to regress toward the mean: in the realm of affordable vehicles compromise always wins. Viable means profitable. Profitable means widening and expanding appeal. As the company changes MINI will shed some fans but, as we’ve seen, they’ll attract many more to replace them.

    But these changes if they go to far will come with a cost. MINI’s first fifteen years as a company could become a business school case study. MINI risks becoming a story about how marketing differentiation ultimately trumped designing differentiation.

    BMW/MINI’s intentions are good, of course, but it’s pretty obvious that the icon that is Mini/MINI is caught in the crosshairs.

    • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

      We’ve pointed out that, in the case of the nose, pedestrian crash standards have required it to get bigger, but we’ve made no such defense of the car growing in other directions and neither has MINI. As for the “drum we beat” we have never defended MINI’s getting bigger as a good thing in principle. I have, however, poked fun at persistent conspiracy theories that BMW is actively trying to make the MINI bigger for bigger’s sake. They’re not. Instead, from the conversations we’ve had with the MINI Design Team over the years, they’re actively trying to keep it small while still remaining appealing to an ever-evolving marketplace. Just making the car bigger is the easy out, and MINI has never taken that path from a design standpoint. I think it’s a matter of perspective. The market wants a bigger car, not BMW, and MINI is staying as small as it thinks it can in the light of that demand. They’ve also responded to that demand with other models, rather than trying to make the hardtop hatch all things to all people. Meanwhile we’ve published specific editorial not long ago where I talked at length about how I think MINI’s emphasis on mass appeal is misplaced, especially in regards to IQS scores. MINI’s design philosophy has never been about outright size. It’s always been about size relative to class. In one interview, Gert Hildebrand once said that (and I’m paraphrasing) MINI could build a commercial airliner and it’d still be a “MINI” if they execute it right — if they focused on it being a small airliner that made really clever use of space, was really efficient and a lot of fun to fly. In my opinion, that philosophy is evident in everything they’re doing and everything coming down the pipeline. They’re going to do a seven passenger car at some point, but they’re going to do it MINI, and for some people, it’s going to be a great option. It also won’t detract from the F56 one lick. Personally, I want the MINI to be and stay small as much as you do, and like many others, I’d love to see the Rocketman come to production. On a philosophical level, Gabe was squarely opposed to the idea of the Countryman when it came out. I liked the idea. It then won us both over on its own merits as the smallest crossover on the market with a ton of utility and a great AWD system. We also really like the Paceman as a car, but have also criticized it from a value-for-money standpoint. I genuinely like the looks of the F56. Even the S is growing on me (except for that terrible S grill badge). Is it bigger? A little bit. Is it big? Not even close. Is a tad more boot space a nice add? Yup. I also think it’s funny that just because we don’t jump on the complaint bandwagon of a particular topic (which we’ll never do), people accuse us of agreeing with all of MINI’s choices. Our actual agreements and disagreements are very explicit. We have a whole category of content labeled “Opinion.” When we don’t like something, we say so. When we do like something, we say so. The rest of the time, we’re reporting on what’s going on in the MINI world, and part of that is passing along why MINI says they’re doing what they’re doing. Sometimes we question that in editorial, other times we let you guys make up your own minds. Our actual opinions are our own, yet it’s amazing how often people in the comments accuse us of positions that we don’t actually hold, and have even written about at length in opposition. I also love that even on THIS story, we still get accused of towing some imaginary party line because we’re secretly part of the PR machine. Hilarious.

      • http://twitter.com/matthewwanderer matthew

        “they’re actively trying to keep it small while still remaining appealing to an ever-evolving marketplace…The market wants a bigger car, not BMW, and MINI.”

        I acknowledged that above. I also cited the LA Autoshow interview (not the one with Warming), but I can’t seem to find it on the site. Maybe it’s on WRR? I’ll dig it up from a backup.

        “Gert Hildebrand once said that (and I’m paraphrasing) MINI could build a commercial airliner and it’d still be a “MINI” if they execute it right.”

        I recall that interview well, and I disagreed with that stretching thin of the idea behind minimalism at the time and still do (motivated by this, I regrettably posted a bit of snark when his retirement was announced).

        “Is it big? Not even close. Is a tad more boot space a nice add? Yup.”

        I’m glad you’re pleased by the size of MINI’s current (and future offerings?). I am not. My opinion remains that MINI should also be designing a smaller car(s).

        “I also think it’s funny that just because we don’t jump on the complaint bandwagon of a particular topic (which we’ll never do), people accuse us of agreeing with all of MINI’s choices.”

        I only made one reference to Motoringfile in my comment above, and it wasn’t that MF is in lockstep with all of MINI’s choices.

        I want a smaller MINI. It’s that simple. I consistently acknowledge in the comments that I’m in the minority in that regard, and I stated above that I understand the market pressures and regulations at word as it relates to new MINIs and design choices. I just don’t agree with all of them.

        “I also love that even on THIS story, we still get accused of towing some imaginary party line because we’re secretly part of the PR machine. Hilarious.”

        I agree. It is pretty amusing. If that conspiracy were true, at least one Motoringfile and Whiteroof Radio contributor would own a second-generation MINI. (Given that reality, it’s ironic that (AFAIK) only Michael, a Bimerfile contributor, drives one, a Clubman.) This is still the case, no?

        I still want a very small, sporty, non-derivative, premium MINI. But I’m concerned that ship has sailed. In a small effort to keep my dream alive, I continue to post my opinions because I am a passionate believer in the original Mini’s genius. Just enough is more.

        • http://www.nathanielsalzman.com/ Nathaniel Salzman

          And your opinions are always welcome and appreciated.


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MINI Model Cheat Sheet

1st Gen MINI
R50: One & MC Hatch
R52: All 1st Gen MINI Convt.
R53: MCS Hatch
2nd Gen MINI
R55: Clubman
R56: Hatch
R57: Convertible
R58: Coupe
R59: Roadster
R60: MINI Crossover
R61: MINI Crossover Coupe
3rd Gen MINI
F54: Clubman
F55: Five Door Hatch
F56: Hatch
F57: Convertible
F60: MINI Crossover
F58: Traveller

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