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BMW Mini + Airstream = Mistimed?

BMW has consistently positioned its Mini line as more than just a car. Instead, it?? a lifestyle brand, with a range of driver accessories and even its own attempt at an online social network, sorry, ??rban initiative,?called Mini Space. A host of other marketing initiatives, both on and offline, are all designed to play on the car’s perky appeal. The latest: this partnership with iconic RV maker, Airstream, on a surf-styled concept for both that will be unveiled at the Salone del Mobile in Milan next month. The collaboration, with Danish furniture makers Republic of Fritz Hansen, installs sleek wood paneling throughout both the Mini Cooper S Clubman and the Airstream trailer. The car, meanwhile, gets wetsuit accents on its seats while the 22 foot trailer has a waterproof interior.

Despite the incredibly cheesy styling of the imagery, the partnership of Mini and Airstream seems a match in terms of brand values. Still, I can't help but wonder about initiatives like this. Given the economic environment and the grim news coming from the auto industry writ such large, one-off projects seem ripe to be filed under "nice but unnecessary." BMW recently laid off 850 Mini workers from its Cowley plant in the UK, and Mini sales were down 35% in January compared to the year before, according to the AP. BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer was "bullish" at a press conference held yesterday, but backed away from an earlier forecast of vehicles, including Minis, that would be sold this year, which he said was off by some 100,000. (See my colleague Jack Ewing's report from that event.) As for Airstream, well, RV sales have been in freefall for some time, down 32.9% in 2008 on the year before, and expected to be yet lower in 2009, according to industry association, the RVIA.

Concepts are certainly part and parcel of the auto design world. But this was strictly a one-off. "It is through concept studies like these that we communicate our MINI brand values of cool, out of the box thinking," wrote a BMW spokeswoman in an email. In other words, it's just for buzz. And while many argue that taking the foot of the innovation/design gas pedal in times of crisis will mean you're poorly positioned on the grid when the economy turns around, the timing of it feels wrong to me. What do you think?

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