From Four Wheels to Two: Has Mini Gone Too Far?

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Model Agyness Deyn unveils the Mini Scooter E concept in London, Sept. 23, 2010

Everyone knows the Mini as a British icon of the 1960s, the little car that zipped around the Alps in the Michael Caine classic The Italian Job. The look has evolved since then, but it's kept its retro cool and built up a global base of hard-core fans. So when the company announced that it had a new design concept to show off, Mini lovers everywhere were abuzz with excitement over what the new car would look like — except that it isn't a car at all ... it's an electric scooter.

"We expect that people will turn more and more to two-wheel transportation in the future," said Adrian van Hooydonk, senior vice president of BMW Design, at the Sept. 23 unveiling at London's Vinyl Factory. "City traffic is becoming denser and denser and sometimes four wheels just aren't practical." The revelation has provoked mixed reactions. Critics charge that BMW, which acquired Mini, is pushing the brand too far; appreciators are singing the scooter's praises for its eco-credentials. But all are asking: When is a Mini not a Mini?

This isn't the first time BMW has been accused of mangling the Mini. The new Mini Scooter E, which is as yet just a concept vehicle, is the latest in a series of Mini mashups that have included the Crossover, the first Mini to measure over 13 ft. long; the Mini Beachcomber, a buggy-style car; and the Mini Coupé. Before the Scooter E, the most recent and most controversial addition to the Mini family was the Countryman, a 4x4 that went on sale in early September. The massive Mini is aimed at drivers who have been put off buying the cars in the past because of their limited size and at Mini owners who have outgrown the hatchback or the convertible.

When the Countryman was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March, chat rooms were bursting with outrage. "Why do they keep insisting on calling these things Minis?" asked one person on "It's a trade mis-description ... hideous again!" Another exasperated commenter demanded to know: "What are BMW doing?!" A common complaint is that, by making the Mini bigger — or giving it only two wheels — designers are moving too far away from what made the Mini so cool in the first place: it's Mini-ness. "The thing about car buying is that, although to some degree it's about buying something to get you from A to B, it's also very much about a statement of your personality," says Michael Tyndall, an automotive-industry specialist at Japanese investment bank Nomura. "It's about what that particular car or brand communicates to the rest of the world." Minis are for the young, critics argue, the urban, the carefree who travel with nothing more than a friend and a few sandwiches. But a large, practical Mini? That's for soccer moms.

To see the potential dangers of trying something different, BMW could look at the story of the Smart car. A collaboration between the Daimler AG car corporation and the Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch, Smart specializes in tiny, two-seater city cars. Daimler first decided to expand the brand in 2003, with the Roadster, a two-door sports car, and then with the ForFour, a more conventional five-door hatchback, which was launched in 2004. Both cars failed and had been withdrawn from production by 2006. Daimler came very close to scrapping Smart, until the CEO Dieter Zetsche decided to save it — by forcing the brand to go back to making their much loved micro cars.

BMW's van Hooydonk admits that brand-bending designs like the Scooter E and the Countryman have the potential to flop spectacularly. "Any new product for which there is no predecessor, where you don't have any reliable data, is always a risk," he says. "But then, nobody was ever successful in business without taking risks." He's not worried, though, about any long-term damage to the brand. In fact, he believes mixing it up is exactly what Mini needs — and it hasn't hurt yet. "Up until now Mini has very much been about one car," he says. "I think you can only begin to speak about Mini as a brand now that there are new designs." Besides, van Hooydonk points out, all the new designs stay true to the original Mini ethos in that, compared with their competitors, each is, well, mini: "Whatever vehicle segment we are going to enter, the Mini will be the smallest offering."

Van Hooydonk appreciates, however, that when it comes to messing with Mini, the car has millions of devotees who will defend it passionately. "Mini doesn't just have customers," he says. "Mini has fans." David Hollis, head of the British Mini Club, is one of them. He has no problem with the expansion of the Mini family. For him, a big part of the classic Mini's appeal was how it pushed the boundaries of what a car was. "We mustn't forget that when the classic Mini came out in '59 it was a revolution," he says. "It was the first car that was front-wheel drive with a transverse engine." But Hollis' heart still belongs to the original. "I will absolutely, 100%, always stay true to the old Mini," he says. "If it wasn't for the old Mini, we wouldn't be here talking today."