Mini Tries to Go Maxi Without Losing Fans Who Saved Brand

New Mini Clubman
The Mini Clubman
Photographer: Fabian Kirchbauer/Mini
  • BMW unit rolls out Clubman wagon that's more than foot bigger
  • Automaker seeks to move beyond `Italian Job' racing image

How big can a Mini get and still be true to its name? Car buyers may soon find out.

The Clubman wagon, the newest model in BMW AG’s Mini’s line, is 14 feet (4.3 meters) long, which is more than 12 inches bigger than the model it replaces and even larger than the brand’s Countryman sport utility vehicle. At the New York International Auto Show this week, Mini will show off an all-wheel-drive version. And when the new Countryman comes out in the next couple of years, it too will grow to be at least as big as the Clubman.

The Mini Clubman
The Mini Clubman
Photographer: Fabian Kirchbauer/Mini

What’s going on is an identity crisis for a boy racer brand that’s trying to stay relevant in the age of the SUV. When new Mini ads brag about ride comfort and practicality, it’s clear that serious change is afoot. The challenge for the automaker known for its small, zippy cars will be how to broaden its appeal without losing the diehards who brought the moribund British marque back to life in 2002.

“They are definitely reaching a new audience,” said Ted Marzilli, chief executive officer of YouGov Plc’s BrandIndex, which measures brand and advertising strength. “The question is whether all of their customers will come along for the ride.”

More Competition

Mini executives say the brand needs to change. Not only are Americans flocking to SUVs as fuel prices have plummeted, but German luxury models are competing on Mini’s turf. BMW has its tiny 2 Series, Audi has the A3 compact car and Mercedes has its CLA coupe. While not considered a luxury model, a Clubman can easily cost more than $40,000, meaning that Mini is battling those companies for the same wallets.

“I call it coming out of its teen years and becoming a young adult,” said Peter Schwarzenbauer, who is BMW’s global head of the Mini brand. “Sizewise, we had to respond to feedback from consumers and offer more practicality. Some diehard Mini fans will say we’re expanding the portfolio too much, but we’re gaining new fans.”

Interior
Interior
Photographer: Fabian Kirchbauer/Mini

Mini’s image as a tiny car also has held it back, according to brand executives. The vehicles are actually quite roomy for their size. Even 6-foot-10-inch Randy Johnson, a Hall of Fame pitcher, can comfortably drive one, but no one knows it, said Tom Noble, head of Mini brand communications in the U.S.

“A lot of people never considered Mini because they think the cars are too small,” Noble said. “We’re trying to open the brand to people who need something more functional.”

Gear Heads

Noble says the bigger Clubman is still fun to drive, but not everyone agrees. When the hosts of the U.K. show “Top Gear” took it for spin, they said the car is “not as agile as any Mini you’re used to, and fairly staid and numb to punt along in.”

The Mini that Americans are used to began its rebirth in 2002 with the two-door Cooper, a swift and tight-handling go-kart that was red hot when it debuted. Mini generated serious buzz after the Cooper starred in the 2003 film “The Italian Job,” in which actors Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron run high-speed chases through Los Angeles. 

The cars were in such demand that dealers were charging full price. In 2004, Mini added a convertible -- not exactly practical -- and sales climbed to 41,000 in 2005 from 36,000 two years earlier. 

The Clubman came out in 2008 and U.S. sales exceeded 54,000. Mini kept adding new models, such as a sporty roadster, the Countryman and the two-door Paceman SUV. Sales peaked in 2013 at more than 66,000, but as gasoline prices fell, so did sales. In 2015, Mini’s sales of 59,000 accounted for about 15 percent of BMW’s U.S. total.

Fuel economy used to be the No. 2 reason people bought Minis, after sporty driving. Now it’s reason No. 12, Noble said.

Mini owners who still want a fast car with race-track credentials can get the high-performance John Cooper Works edition of the Cooper, and there will be a JCW Clubman coming, Schwarzenbauer said.

The move to roomier cars is finding new buyers, Schwarzenbauer said. The four-door Mini Cooper, which debuted in late 2014, is the brand’s hottest vehicle, with 75 percent of its buyers new to Mini, he said.

The Paceman will go away and Mini will have four vehicles: the Cooper, Clubman, Countryman and Cooper convertible. He said Mini will add a fifth vehicle, but he has hadn’t decided what it will be. The car will be something that can sell to a broad audience, he said.

Smashing Stereotypes

The Mini is known first and foremost as a tiny car, Noble said. But it’s also thought of as a vehicle for young women or for gay people. That’s why the automaker decided on a Super Bowl ad that would try to dispel stereotypes about the brand.

The ad featured superstar athletes and entertainers who defiantly challenge the conventional wisdom. “It’s a chick car,” says tennis star Serena Williams, looking tough. “It’s a gay car,” says lesbian soccer star Abby Wambach, looking disgusted at the notion. “This is a short man’s car,” says the lanky Johnson, who can fit in the Clubman.

At the end of the spot, tough-guy actor Harvey Keitel says, “This car doesn’t care what you call it.” The point: Mini can be for anyone with discerning taste.

Ad Buzz

The ad got a lot of buzz. In January, before it ran, 2.6 percent of new-car shoppers considered Mini. As the commercial has run through March, that number has grown to 3.4 percent, according to YouGov. During the same time, the percentage of television viewers who have seen Mini’s advertising doubled to 10 percent.

Noble said the Clubman is evidence that Mini is maturing. Some original Cooper buyers now have families, so the company made the car more luxurious inside. Some core buyers may still only want a sprite two-door Cooper, Noble said. But the brand will continue to go bigger, and the next Countryman could test the limits.

The car will definitely grow in size, Schwarzenbauer said, but added that the brand is hitting its limits both in terms of what kind of cars it is selling and how big they can get.

“With Clubman, we have about reached the maximum size for Mini,” he said. “Otherwise, the name doesn’t fit.”