Mini Cooper 5-door production line Oxford - Image: BMW UK

Mini faces a fork in the road in the United States. The retro-themed brand, reintroduced in the U.S. marketplace in 2002 by parent company BMW Group, needs to decide what it wants to be. Sales are falling as consumer tastes evolve towards larger vehicles. New technologies are cropping up at a rapid pace. What is the child of the British Motor Corporation, British Leyland, Rover Group, and BMW Group to do?

BMW Group management board member Peter Schwarzenbauer knows the brand needs to evolve — and not just in the U.S., where the brand reach a high point in 2013. After announcing a new electric Mini Cooper Hardtop (Mini E) for 2019, Schwarzenbauer took some time to address its U.S. plans.

“It’s really only in the U.S. where we are facing this with Mini,” he told Reuters, referring to declining sales in the face of crossover competition. In Europe, which lacks many of the rolling behemoths found here, Mini’s offerings appears much more right-sized to customers. The brand expects another record year of global sales.

Schwarzenbauer knows the brand can’t go larger. And it won’t. The Clubman and Countryman will remain the largest vehicles in Mini’s U.S. lineup, with no Mini Canyonero XL on the horizon. Instead, Mini just needs to find a new way for people to drive (or ride in) its vehicles.

The BMW exec feels the only way forward in the U.S. is to build “the Mini brand in the direction of the electric urban mobility company.” Ugh, there’s that word again. Banded about by much larger automakers looking for new revenue streams, “mobility” can mean any number of things. In this case, Schwarzenbauer likely means ride-sharing (and possibly ride-hailing) services, each stocked with Mini vehicles.

BMW Group already owns two car-sharing subsidiaries — DriveNow, operating in nine European countries, and ReachNow, launching in three U.S. cities last year.

But what kind of vehicles will they be? The Cooper Hardtop electric, something the brand spend a decade developing, is an obvious possibility. That vehicle uses a heavily modified BMW i3 drivetrain. However,  stuffing a battery pack with useable range into a small vehicle is a large task, something Mini continues to struggle with. The automaker is now on the hunt for a technology partner.

“We are talking to many OEMs around the world, not only in China, (about) how to electrify smaller cars,” Schwarzenbauer said. “There’s no final conclusion on it.”

He speculates that the brand could one day become an all-electric entity, and not just in America. “[BMW Group] made this decision to add the [Mini E] because we saw, especially in urban areas, emissions-free mobility is becoming increasingly important,” Schwarzenbauer told Automotive News Europe. “Mini is an urban brand, so it’s a natural evolution to electrify. We already have a lot of experience with electric mobility at Mini.”

Still, he wants future Mini owners to always have the option of driving the car themselves, even if it’s outfitted with autonomous driving technology.

Mini brand sales sank 10.4 percent in the U.S. last month. Through the end of November, 2017 sales have fallen 10.3 percent compared to 2016. In terms of individual models, the only Mini vehicles to see a sales increase this year are the Countryman and low-volume Cooper Convertible.

[Image: BMW Group]




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