Motoring: Some big mistakes in the planning of a new small car

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The Independent Online
BMW's surprise decision to unveil the new Mini at last week's Frankfurt Show, three years before sales start, may have been made for the wrong reason - to spike the PR guns of its arch rival, Mercedes-Benz. More worrying, the new Mini may be wrong car for the new millennium.

To understand the BMW decision to show the car so early, cast your mind back to the Geneva Show in March, where Mercedes-Benz scored all the brownie points with its new A-class, lauded as the most innovative new small car since the original Mini. BMW directors were facing a similar PR disaster at Frankfurt, Europe's biggest motor show, and what's more important, a show on home territory. Mercedes was due to unveil the Smart,the innovative little "city coupe" jointly funded by Swatch, the watch people. Front page headlines were likely. Drastic action was needed. And taken.

BMW would take the wraps off its biggest small-car gun - the new Mini Rover, now used to doing what it is told, was told to get a car ready only six weeks ago.

It worked. Even the German press who attended the press unveiling at a film studio in one of Frankfurt's scruffiest corners, swarmed all over the new Mini, and largely ignored BMW's other announcements - a new 400bhp V8 M5 super-saloon, the oddball half-car/half-bike C1, and the decision to supply Formula One engines to Williams from the year 2000. The Mini - probably the most eagerly anticipated new car in the world - was feted like a new-age star.

Unfortunately -and this is where BMW has miscued - it is not. It will no doubt sell in the required numbers -100,000 worldwide, in countries including America, Australia, Japan and Europe - to people who fancy a designer-accessory small car that's cute, pretty, fun to drive and has BMW-style kudos. Or at least it will for a few years. But for those who were hoping to see an inventive, forward-thinking tot - as everyone who ventured to the Frankfurt press briefing were - the new Mini disappoints.

For all the BMW PR razzmatazz, the A-class and the Smart are vastly more far- sighted.

Even the Rover engineers who conceived it seemed rather underwhelmed by it at Frankfurt. It's as though they, and their BMW masters, knew the enormity of the challenge - to replace an icon. And they copped out. The new Mini could be the product of any car maker - from Nissan to Ford - rather than the invention of the company with the heritage of the original Mini behind it. "We're hoping the next new Mini, after this one, will be really creative," said one, almost apologetically.

"We had a choice of two ways to go," said Rover design boss Geoff Upex, at Frankfurt. "We could have tried to reinvent the small car, as Sir Alec Issigonis did 40 years ago. Or we could have created a car that carried over most of the Mini cues, but was much more modern and sporty, and more in tune with modern times. We chose the latter path."

You can't blame them. But with Mercedes in such a creative mood, and rivals Audi also unveiling a small car vastly more advanced than the new Mini, the AL2, there must be doubts whether the new Mini will be able to compete, at least in the long term. Few technical details were officially announced at Frankfurt, but it is known that the new Mini will use a choice of 1.4 and 1.6 four-cylinder motors, made at a joint venture Chrysler/BMW factory in Brazil. The engine is not especially high-tech, although it is allegedly very inexpensive to make. (Rover insiders imply that the current K-series, made in Britain, is a more advanced engine.)

The body will be steel, although there is talk - Smart-like - of the body panels being easily changed, so that an owner can change his or her car's colour. The springs will be conventional steel. Nor will the car be especially roomy, although it will be much better than the current Mini. BMW says style was especially important. "We didn't want a tall, dumpy looking car," said one engineer, clearly taking a snipe at the Mercedes A-class.

It will be 3.6 metres long, which is about the length of the Rover 100/Metro (which the new Mini also replaces), and may be available in five-door hatch, as well as three-door guise. There will be three basic versions: Mini, Cooper and Cooper S. Prices will start at about pounds 12,000 in Europe, although the Cooper S will be nearer pounds 14,000. In addition, there are likely to be pick-up, cabriolet and van offshoots. There's even talk of an old- style woody-wagon. Unlike the old Mini, the new one is a separate brand - it's not merely part of the Rover car range. Mini, like MG and Land Rover, is a marque unto itself. As such, it could be sold by Rover or BMW dealers. In America, it is likely to be through the latter.

Nine different designs were submitted, all from either from BMW or Rover. "The winning design was one of Rover's own," said Geoff Upex. "But we naturally incorporated some of the better ideas submitted by BMW." Amazingly, the car bears an uncanny resemblance to an old design rough done by Issigonis more than 30 years ago. The car will be made in Longbridge, Birmingham, with production starting in early 2000, and sales commencing later that year.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a handsome, sporty, mechanically conservative little car. The world is full of such vehicles.But somehow the new Mini deserves to be more.

It is a product of a marketing need and opportunity, at a time when the world was looking for - and needs - a mechanical breakthrough. Other companies must now answer the call. Worryingly for BMW, and Rover, some appear to be doing so.

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