BMW is a car company scrambling to fill every possible niche with a dedicated vehicle in an attempt to grab as much market share as it can. Realizing that being a small car company in a big world is far more of a liability than an advantage, the German automaker has over the past year churned out several new designs that run the gamut from green hybrids (BMW ActiveHybrid X6) to strangely-shaped crossovers (BMW 550i Gran Turismo).
This growth-related fervor has spread to the MINI brand. While BMW's grand experiment in reviving the historic British brand was initially restricted to just a single model - the MINI Cooper - over time it grew to include special performance editions as well as with the wagon-esque MINI Cooper Clubman. In a bid to further expand MINI's lineup into a more fully-rounded group of offerings, a new MINI Cooper-based vehicle will be hitting the streets in 2010.
Dubbed the MINI Countryman, the latest vehicle to bear the company's winged badge takes a giant step outside the mold already established by the Cooper. Unlike its two-door coupe, convertible and wagon stable mates, the MINI Countryman is a four-door crossover. With two additional entry and exit points for passengers plus a raised ride height and matching all-wheel drive, this crossover-utility vehicle is poised to shake up the established MINI order and attract a new set of buyers to the company's showrooms.
What else can compact crossover shoppers expect from the MINI Countryman? Engine choices will remain very similar to those found in the Cooper, with a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder unit pledging around 118 horsepower in the base model and an improved turbocharged version of the same motor pumping out as much as 184 horsepower. Variable-valve timing, a twin-scroll turbo and direct fuel injection highlight some of the changes that should give the Countryman S edition of the crossover much smoother power delivery than previous Cooper S models.
Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions will most likely put in an appearance as the gearboxes of choice, although the introduction of all-wheel drive to replace the brand's traditional front-wheel drivetrain could have an impact in this area. Interestingly, the innovative new system is capable of sending 100 percent of the vehicle's torque to the rear wheels, which should give it an impressive advantage in slippery conditions compared to a regular Cooper or Cooper Clubman.
Unsurprisingly, the MINI Countryman will be larger inside than any vehicle currently offered by the brand, especially in terms of cargo space. The crossover will offer a 12.2 cubic foot trunk behind the rear seats, which is 3 cubic feet larger than the Cooper Clubman. Folding the seats forward raises the amount of gear that can be stuffed into the crossover to 41 cubic feet, dwarfing the Cooper Clubman's 32.8 cubic feet and adding a respectable amount of utility to the jacked-up MINI.
There is no doubt that a burgeoning compact crossover market currently exists in the United States. With pricing yet to be released, there are many eager MINI fans holding their collective breath that the vehicle won't bear an MSRP that puts it farther into the premium realm than current MINI offerings. MINI's upscale small car strategy worked well for the brand when it was first introduced, but will the magic continue when it comes time to ask a bit more cash for what is essentially a somewhat larger, all-wheel drive Cooper Clubman?
Car shoppers are always on the lookout for a utility vehicle that will give them a little extra storage space and a little more power, but at the same time there are size limits at which drivers would be no longer willing to accept a vehicle wearing the MINI badge. BMW is taking the risk that a more bloated MINI will still be fun to drive and 'cute' enough to stand out from the crowd. On paper, the new crossover certainly looks like a winner, but time will tell if the MINI Countryman will expand the company into a new market or simply dilute what was previously a very strong brand.