Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mini Searches for the Perfect Shade of Beige That Nobody Doesn't Dislike

I really don't understand it. But then, there are so many things I don't understand.

When BMW assumed control and revived the Mini nameplate in the early years of this century (2001 to be exact), it was an accomplished update of a much-loved original that immediately commandeered the hearts of car lovers everywhere.

At the center of its appeal lay a surprising degree of utility and a playful sense of whimsy, that when combined with traditional automotive attributes like nimble handling and robust acceleration, made the Mini that rare sports car which appealed to men and women alike.

And when a 6' 3'' individual could sit inside with posture to make a teacher proud, well, the Mini became something truly unique. The critics loved it, the public loved it.

What could go wrong?

In a word, businessmen.

Before long, BMW was succumbing to the most-tired cliche in commerce: bigger is better. The Mini's singular appeal was additionally diluted by model variants, including the ridiculous Countryman, whose very existence contradicted the ethos the Mini was created to serve.

The latest Mini's bloated appearance evokes memories of cladding-encrusted SUVs of a not-so-long ago vintage, the clean lines of the original replaced by a lumpy, bulging exterior that is a fun-house mirror distortion of the original.

Of course, since SUVs and crossovers seem to be the Mini's developmental target, perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise.

Worse, quality control has taken a back seat to marketing. In this case, it means broadening the model range until it has reached the lowest common denominator critical mass prized by brand managers everywhere: a model for everyone.

Mini's handlers have decided it's better to be a car a large number of people could conceivably have a use for rather than be an automobile cherished by a smaller, but more-fervent target audience. Call it safety in numbers. Decentralization. Diversification.

Call it anything but successful.

Several car magazine's long-term tests have revealed shoddy workmanship apparent not only upon delivery of the vehicle, but which continue to assert themselves as the car accumulates thirty and forty thousand miles. And despite the base car's MSRP, fixes aren't cheap.

Popular perception has yet to catch up with reality, as Mini sales continue to steam along (at least when they're taken as a group and not compared year-to-year on a per-model basis). But if consumer's unpredictable and ever-changing tastes don't doom the Mini, poor word of mouth and a blurry sense of purpose will.

Whether you blame German management or English construction, the Mini's fall from icon to also-ran has been difficult to watch. It only heightens one's appreciation for Mazda and their tightly-focused Miata MX-5, which has admittedly grown a bit larger and more powerful over the years, also.

But Mazda has resisted the temptation to stray from its original mission statement and has only refined and sharpened the Miata's approach, which is why we continue to see the still-vibrant roadster show up on Ten-Best lists long after the Mini has lapsed into premature middle-age.

There's a lesson in here somewhere, if only someone would listen.

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