It’s interesting to revisit this decision almost four years on – especially as the F56-generation MINI has just been launched. Will we be saying the same thing in 2020? Okay, so MG Rover petered out in 2005, but it didn’t mean we couldn’t select the first BMW-built MINI as AROnline’s Car of the Decade for the ‘Noughties’.
In fact, we still reckon that our choice is pretty much on the ball, the way the industry is going right now. We can’t pretend that this was a popular choice, but there’s no doubting that the MINI has done wonders for the Oxford economy, as well as prove that it is popular to own a small, trendy car that can also command a premium price tag, both new and used…
MINI v2.0 – Rover’s take on the Millennial town car
When it first appeared in 2000, the BMW-era MINI was met with a mixture of excitement and disappointment from enthusiasts. Okay, we all knew how it was going to look, thanks to its initial appearance in concept form at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show and, that in terms of size, it was going to be seriously upscaled from the Issigonis original but, at the same time, how was it possible for something that was rather larger than a Ford Ka (but with rather less interior room) and powered by a range of Chrysler engines to be seen as being worthy of wearing the immortal MINI nameplate?
Quite easy really – because, like the Issigonis original, the R50 generation MINI was (and remains) a fantastic car to drive. Not only is its handling sharp and incisive, but the steering is accurate and well-weighted (as long as you ignore the whining EPAS) and the brakes are BMW-solid, rather than Rover-vague. Inside, you’re treated to a feast of ovoids and circles and tastefully coloured dashboard and trim options, while the driving position is spot on for those who like to feel in control of their car. Not only that, but unlike all of its small car contemporaries, the MINI’s A-pillars don’t create a blind-spot that makes junctions and roundabouts a nightmare to navigate.
The story of the MINI’s development is one of German/British in-fighting where, in terms of the car’s concept, the Bavarians won out. After all, the British wanted to revolutionise the small-car world and develop a 10ft long rear engined citycar that was avantgarde as the 1959 original – BMW, on the other hand, wanted to recreate and refine the Cooper, introducing the car as it might have been had it been evolved throughout the years, Porsche 911 style. The British idea, which went on to appear at the 1997 Geneva Motor Show as the Spiritual concept car, would probably have been the one that Issigonis might have approved of, but the shrewd Munich businessmen knew that, as admirable as that might have been, it was never going to sell in a booming global market.
BMW’s boss, Bernd Pischetsrieder, claimed to love the Spiritual twins, but concluded that they were at least ten years ahead of their time. How prescient that assertion was – as going into 2010, BMW is now working on such a car, touted to wear the Isetta badge, when it appears in the years to come.
Mini and MINI overlooking Monte Carlo. And the upscaling of the new car has never been more evident than in this shot…
That’s why, with the bossman behind it, there was no way that the new generation MINI was ever going to be anything but a larger, retro-styled, pastiche of the original.
However, thanks to the engineering excellence of the components on offer from the BMW parts bin, such as the Z-axle rear suspension (shared with the Rover 75/MG ZT), and the sheer skill of Rover’s chassis team in dialling-in a perfectly honed set-up, the MINI was always going to be a great car to drive. And so it proved. When the road testers finally got hold of the MINI, they were bowled over by its overall dynamics and smart styling and almost universally gave it a very big thumbs-up.
There had, of course, been problems in getting to this point. The Germans were always going to keep hold of the MINI marque – simply because it had so much international appeal, it would have been daft not to. Besides, the Dealer Network had already been split from Rover’s, moving closer to its own. BMW’s painful extraction of the Rover Group also meant that plans to build the MINI at Longbridge had to be hastily revised. Cowley was now going to be the car’s production centre, as it had already been seriously overhauled in readiness for the Rover 75 – and now, in order to maximise this investment, BMW decided to keep this asset.
The Rover 75 would be shifted back to Longbridge in an impressive logistical operation – leaving MG Rover entirely at the Birmingham plant.
Once it hit the showroom, there was no stopping the MINI. Along with serious sales in the UK and Europe, the MINI triumphantly returned to the USA and proved a strong seller from the start. Across the world’s smartest cities, MINI became the car to be seen in – and also proved that eager customers would pay premium prices for small cars, when the conventional thinking at the time was that mini-cars should command mini-prices. As for the much-touted rivalry between BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi in the small car sector, the Oxford-built car easily saw off its (far more intelligently packaged) Stuttgart rival, as well as the incredibly prescient aluminium bodied A2, which petered out unreplaced following an unexpectedly short production run.
MINI’s style and desirability, underpinned by its fine road manners, resulted in a huge success for BMW. However, just like the original car, it was expensive to build and was, at best, marginally profitable. It also struggled with early build issues and suffered from a number of well-publicised recalls. BMW just rolled-up its corporate sleeves and went about fixing the problems in the most pleasant way possible – via its accommodating dealers. That’s what MINI did so well – it gave customers exactly what they wanted – the Cooper and supercharged Cooper S models offered performance, the One D offered economy, the TLC servicing deal meant peace of mind, while the huge range of options meant that the MINI was almost infinitely customisable. You could even buy a convertible, if that was your desire.
Unsurprisingly, then, that all-round appeal also lead to industry leading residual values, as used car buyers clamoured over each other to get behind the wheel of one.
By the time that it was replaced in 2006, over 700,000 had been built, injecting untold money into the Oxford economy, as well as benefiting the UK as a whole. When the new car emerged, it was clearly an improved model and yet it seemed less desirable – it felt more like a mini-BMW to drive, while its cutsie-pie looks seem to have been distended most unseemingly. Sales continued strongly, though, only to start faltering following the appearance of the desirable Fiat 500 – which almost seems like a carbon copy of the original R50 concept. BMW are fighting back, with the extension of the range, including the Clubman and Countryman ranges. It remains to be seen if that original magic can be recreated.
There’s no getting away from it – MINI made owning a small car cool again and arguably became the first genuinely classless supermini since the original Renault 5 in 1972 or maybe, just maybe, the Metro during its honeymoon period in the spring of 1981 – because of that, it easily wins the AROnline Car of the Decade award, as it’s just as relevant now (if not more so) going into these tough times, as it was when it was launched in 2000.
The real tragedy, of course, was just how much of Rover’s work went into it and how little credit the British have subsequently received…
MINI has true international appeal… a reflection of when Britain used to be Cool Britannia.
Originally published 24 January 2010