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.