The Mini Cooper goes electric as it turns 60 and tries to stem falling sales

MINI Drivers celebrate the end of MINI Takes the States in Keystone Colorado.

H/O: MINI USA

The caravan of cute cars descending on Keystone, Colorado for last year’s “MINI Takes the States” nearly doubled the small town’s population overnight.

Over 1,000 Mini Coopers from opposite coasts of the country drove a combined 5,030 miles to Colorado for the annual rally, drawing crowds of onlookers in towns across the Midwest.

The event is the automaker’s annual road trip for Mini owners across the country, giving them a chance to raise money for charity and meet like minded “Miniacs.”

BMW’s British featherweight hatchback, approaching its 60th birthday, is facing a midlife crisis and struggling sales in the U.S. In its heyday, the Mini was featured racing through markets and subway tunnels in the 2003 remake of “The Italian Job.” It leaped off rally car ramps in Monaco and broke world records, squeezing into the tightest spaces imaginable.

But today’s Mini Cooper is larger, more expensive and further from its roots than ever before. It’s a problem that’s led to slowing sales and left parent company BMW wondering what to do.

The Mini Cooper has had a bad year. The brand sold 361,531 Minis across the globe in 2018, a 4.2% drop from the prior year. In the U.S. where the small car is a niche product, the deficits are even larger with a 7.3% year-over-year drop in sales. In December alone, the year-over-year drop in U.S. sales was an astounding 40%.

The hatchback, which started its life as a post-World War II answer to an affordable city car, has seen both its weight and price soar from $800 and 1,400 pounds at its 1959 debut to $21,900 and 3,000 pounds for the most recent iteration.

“The new Minis are bigger, more complex, and further from the DNA that made them special in the first place,” said Richard Pruitt, a reporter for Automotive News, and Mini owner himself. “It’s the template for modern small cars that’s become a thing unto itself.”

Mini’s aware of that fact.

That’s why the company is looking to electrify both its cars and community in its bid back to relevancy.

Cult-like following

The Mini’s DNA dates back to the Suez Canal oil crisis in 1957. The soaring cost of gas led the Morris company to explore smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. The answer by engineer Alec Issigonis was to push the wheels to the edge of the car to make more room inside. It also made the car handle like a dream. And with a few improvements from its namesake, British racer John Cooper, it was a star at the track.

Norman Nelson with one of his classic Minis.

Source: Norman Nelson

“It’s a remarkably good handling car,” said Norman Nelson, who helps run Shasta Minis in Northern California. “There’s nothing more fun than seeing a Corvette on a backroad and having him wonder why he can’t pull away from you.”

The greatest selling point for the cars though tend to be their drivers. Mini boasts a community with an almost cult like following. The company even lists “The Best Owners Ever” as one the top reasons for buying a Mini on its website. There are 73 Mini Cooper owners’ clubs in the U.S. alone, with international clubs everywhere from Ukraine to Sri Lanka.

“We’ve got this owner community that just absolutely loves this brand and these vehicles and it goes well beyond a rational thing,” said Patrick McKenna, head of Mini product planning and consumer events.

The Mini lifestyle

George Marsh never thought he’d join a Mini Cooper club when he bought his Mini Cooper in 2003, but at the urging of a friend he became the 14th member of Southern California Mini Maniacs. He’s since been the president, vice president and treasurer of the club.

“I have 130,000 miles on my Mini, 95% of those are club miles,” said Marsh. “Even after the car’s gone, I’ll still have all of those friendships.”

Mini Clubs pride themselves on how active they are; the clubs tend to host cross country trips and meetups a few times a month. The area’s local Mini dealership often sponsors the events providing everything from parking lots to a breakfast buffet for the drivers. Jim McDowell, the former Chief Motorer of Mini, was a frequent site at club events all over the country, interacting directly with owners.

“We’re not like a Corvette club where we just shine our cars and sit in a parking lot drinking coffee – we rally – at a minimum we’ll have 20 to 25 cars at a rally,” said Joseph Montante, the deputy Prime MINIster of PhillyMini, a Mini Club in Philadelphia.

A woman stands next to her Union Jack emblazoned MINI Cooper.

H/O: MINI USA

Those rallies take place over the weekend and the road trips sometimes have members driving up to 175 miles a day. The routes the club chooses are generally themed like their recent “Salty and Sweet” rally where drivers made stops at restaurants and shops across Pennsylvania selling either salty or sweet things like jerky or ice cream.

Rallies like that are not unfamiliar among those in the Mini community either. Owners like Nelson have traveled across the world to participate in Mini events. He’s personally attended the International Mini meet in Bristol, U.K., completed four “Takes the States” road trips in the U.S. and even helped set a Guinness World Record as part of the largest parade of Mini cars.

That world record saw 1,450 Minis line a two-mile stretch around Crystal Palace Park in 2009, with Mini drivers from around the U.K. and even the Netherlands taking part.

“It puts a smile on your face and it comes with friends,” said Nelson. “I have friends in Belgium, South America, and Greece because of Mini. We’ve had people from the U.K. and New Zealand come and stay at our house.”

Disappointed fans

That’s what makes it even more surprising when both Nelson and Marsh say they won’t buy another one.

“I’m going to keep my ’03 til it dies but I won’t buy another Mini, not with these options,” said Marsh.

For some current owners, the newer iterations of the car just don’t have the same magic the earlier models had. It’s something the sales numbers seem to back up. Mini sales in June were down 22% compared with the same month last year. Analysts say the main reasons for the drop are the styling, price and the divergence from the brand’s roots.

“The small car market is shrinking and the people that are buying small cars are people with constrained budgets,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Autotrader. “Mini is facing formidable challenges.”

The numbers further illustrate that uphill battle. In a recent Kelley Blue Book brand watch Mini scored poorly with 17 out of 18 in reliability, 16 out of 18 in safety and 18 out of 18 in affordability. Its best showing was in prestige and sophistication where it placed 10th.

Mini’s brand awareness has plummeted: Its familiarity among non-luxury brands sits at -40% on the KBB familiarity index — and brand consideration sat at just 1% during the second quarter of 2019.

“I thought that they were cooler looking before they updated it,” said Chris Michael, who owns a 2008 Mini convertible.

Some of Norman Nelson’s Mini collection.

Source: Norman Nelson

Electrifying the Mini

For those who’ve driven Minis since they first came to the U.S. in the early 2000s, their little car is becoming commonplace.

“To the old timers like me, they’re taking away what makes it special,” said Montante. “Now it’s just a car. The Beatles had one, Bowie had one.”

Mini executives insist the car’s design had to evolve to meet ever changing safety and efficiency standards.

“Its not truly a clean sheet of paper. They truly have to maneuver around a lot of elements, whether it’s safety regulations or drag coefficients,” said McKenna.

Mckenna isn’t ruling out a smaller Mini though. The company’s listened to feedback from the faithful and is open to the idea, but with a twist — making it an EV. He pointed to the recent Mini Rocketman concept as potential inspiration.

“Electrification is that clean sheet of paper,” said Mckenna on the design for a hypothetically smaller Mini.

The company recently announced an all-electric Mini Cooper E concept that will be heading into production in 2020. That car will share a platform with its company cousin the BWM i3, but Mini has promised it’ll keep its British charm. For those looking to buy a new car, an electrified option could be the answer.

‘There’s a peace of mind with electrification, ” said McKenna. “You’re doing something to help the environment and it’s still a blast to drive. I think it fits in nicely to where the brand is.” 

Upon first look, Mini customers seem to agree with him: “I think it’s cool as hell!” said Michael. “I want to see what the range looks like but maybe I’ll hold out for that.” 

An affordability problem

The way the car looks is especially important when you’re charging more for it, and the Mini has always been a little bit pricier than the rivals it does battle with. Similarly, optioned competitors like the Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf sell for thousands less than the Mini.

“If you’re going to pay a premium for a car you have to like the way that it looks,” said Pruitt.

It’s not just the new looks that have failed to excite the Mini faithful – it’s the new models too. Mini has steadily grown its lineup, adding the Clubman in 2007 and the Country Man Crossover in 2010. While the move broadened the company’s appeal, it alienated many of the Mini faithful who saw their funky little car becoming no different from everybody else.

“They let it evolve into — is that a Fiat? Is that a Mini? You used to be able to tell from a mile away,” said Nelson. “I don’t care to buy a Clubman or a Countryman. I wish Mini would at least maintain making a small Mini.”

Industry experts like Pruitt agree the company needs a more affordable model.

“They need an entry level car that can go head to head with Mazda 3,” he said. “As a small car, they’re in a unique position. The competition is high, but there are less competitors.”

It’s a position the company is all too aware of.

“I think this is an opportunity for Mini to be bullish on the small-car segment,” McKenna said. “And for people who still desire a small car, I think this is going to be an interesting opportunity to gain market share because the strong survive, looking at it somewhat Darwinistically.”

That’s not to say McKenna hasn’t recognized the change in perception among Mini loyalists.

MINI Coopers parked at a MINI Takes the States stop.

H/O: MINI USA

Part of going back to basics meant bringing in an executive who has worked with brands with intense followings. Mini hired Michael Peyton – formerly with BMW motorcycles, Harley-Davidson and Ford – to lead Mini’s North and South America’s operations starting July 1.

Mini and its annual rallies have “more in common with Harley Davidson than it does with another car company,” McKenna said. “Because it does have this culture, this loyal following. We’re thrilled to have a new leader that also believes in the community and ‘MINI Takes the states.'”

Attracting a younger generation

Looking to the future, Mini hopes to race its way back into the black with the same people and the same demographic that made the Morris Mini a 60s cultural icon; young people. It’s something that people like McKenna see at events like “MINI Takes the States.”

“The majority of the people coming are first timers,” Mckenna said. “That’s something that we were always curious about — are we just gonna get the same loyalists coming back again and again. What’s really nice to see is this kind of fountain of youth effect. Twenty-somethings and 30-somethings put a lot more value in experiences and less value in let’s say owning a home/mortgage.”

It’s one of the reasons why the company takes feedback so seriously on events like “MINI Takes the States.” The past year’s event was the first to have two starting points on either side of the country with the west coast route starting in Portland, Oregon, and the east coast route in Orlando, Florida. A big part of both legs of the journey though was the driving experience of taking the road less traveled.

“We tend not to go on interstates,” McKenna said. “We tend to go on the windy back roads and seeing some of the most beautiful parts of the country.” 

“MINI Takes the States” even gave McKenna his best memory of the little car: “Being in a Mini and going to see Mount Rushmore with my kids in the car sharing in the experience. That was probably my best memory,” he said. 

The all-electric MINI Cooper SE takes to the track.

Source: MINI USA

A lifestyle brand

The company is also trying to sell Mini merchandise to its cult-like following, playing up the brand’s storied pedigree and its lifestyle credentials. A quick trip to the apparel section of the website shows everything from a beach tennis set to an actual Go-Kart all emblazoned with the winged Mini logo.

“It is a lifestyle brand,” said Pruitt.

A man stands next to his classic MINI at MINI Takes the States.

Source: MINI USA

It’s the company’s attempt to recruit the next generation of Mini maniacs, using the community that waited up to eight months for their little car from Oxford, England to move newer models off the lot. As Issigonis and Cooper’s red-headed step child heads into its 60th year, McKenna makes no mistake why it made it to that milestone in the first place.

“There’s a reason why this brand is still here after 60 years and it’s because of the customers,” said McKenna. “We can’t be complacent. We just have to continue to reinvent and just think about the experience of and everything about this brand and that’s what we’re focusing on these days — how do we go another 60 years and beyond.”

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