Earlier today we broke the news that MINI USA has decided to add a bench seat option to the Countryman. Now let’s look at how it all came about.

The development cycles of cars often stretch for many many years before they ever hit the showroom floor. And because of that, decisions are made well in advance of regulations being imposed. For instance when the width of the rear seating area of the Countryman determined, it actually was within the minimum size for three seats in the US. However shortly after development was finalized the NHTSA changed to the regulation and shrunk the minimum size in the name of safety.

MINI could have spent many tens of million of Euros to re-engineer everything inside the sheet metal for squeeze an extra inch. But doing so would potentially impact the side impact safety of the rear occupants and they didn’t want to compromise on that front.

But they also had a good idea that those regulations would be changing back to allow for three seats in less space. And sure enough very recently NHTSA backtracked and re-adjusted the minimum width making a three seat Countryman possible for the US market.

So what now? MINI USA is planning to offer the bench seat (allowing for that third uncomfortable seat) sometime during the 2011 calendar year. Why can’t they offer it now? The configuration still needs to be tested and approved for one. Then there’s the production issue. MINI needs to adjust their purchasing to account for more bench seats needing to be manufactured by its supplier and lead times for such a change can be months instead of weeks.

All that said it’s a change that MINI USA (and undoubtedly some Countryman buyers) will be happy to see. However having sat in the five seat configuration we’re not sure what all the excitement is about.