Why Don't Carmakers Kill Off Unpopular Models?

Mini shows a rare willingness to ditch models few people wanted to buy

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) 2012

A Mini Roadster on display during the 2012 North American International Auto Show.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer

Mini is boxing up the scented candles, putting the caps back on the massage oils, and returning the Keith Sweat records to the closet. While other automakers continue to procreate new models almost weekly, the BMW-owned brand took a rare vow of chastity and moved to cut three cars from its lineup. Mini will now focus on only five remaining models.

Model death flies in the face of the prevailing trend in carmaking, which is to flood the market with as many different cars as you can build. Look no further than Mini’s parent company to see this in action. Twenty years ago, BWM sold four types of car: the 3-, 5-, 6-, and 7-series. Today, BMW has models for every number from one to seven and two entries in its i-Series.

BMW’s archrival, Mercedes-Benz, has followed a similar playbook. The luxury auto manufacturer now sells 13 different models in the U.S. and shows no sign of slowing down. “We are going through every segment we offer and looking to see if we can offer a more rugged model and a more coupe-like version,” said Mercedes-Benz Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche in a recent interview

But it’s the next part of Zetsche’s statement that shows how Mercedes’ strategy is different than Mini's—and where Mini may have gone wrong. “This is not the end of our SUV expansion at all,” he told Car Magazine. Car buyers have not fallen out of love with the high-seating, go-anywhere charms of SUVs and crossovers. It’s that kind of car many manufacturers—including, improbably, Bentley and Lamborghini—have been designing to fill the gaps in their product lines.

While Mini does offer a crossover in its lineup, the Countryman, the company has pursued other types of cars that are just, well, weird. Mini already made a convertible version of its hatchback before deciding that what people really wanted was a shortened convertible. The resulting model, the Roadster, comes without the rear seats of the original version. OK. ... And then, of course, Mini thought: Shouldn’t that extra-short, two-seater Roadster also come as a hardtop Coupe? Um, sure. And that big, chunky (by Mini standards) four-door Countryman—that should also come as a strange two-door model, right?

These three cars—the same ones now on Mini's chopping block—were answers to questions nobody asked. They differ from the kind of model expansion you see from other brands, which are focused on different expressions of what a family car should be (see: BMW X4Mercedes-Benz GLAAudi Q3). 

Sales for Mini last year were disappointing, and the company’s latest efforts—like the new Clubman station wagon—are far more conventional. After letting its freak flag fly, Mini appears to be settling down. 

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