For nearly 60 years, Mini has been the epitome of cheap and cheerful. What’s more, it single-handedly created the two-box, front-wheel drive, transverse engine template that virtually every hatchback, crossover, and city car uses today. When BMW took over and rebooted the brand for 2001, it sought to bring everything that was great about the original car into the 21st century. Fifteen years in, Mini has a dedicated base, but the auto industry has changed more in the past few years than it had during the bulk of the original Mini’s lifespan (1959-2000). So where does a car company go when it’s already changed the game?
In short: Keep the cheerful, lose the cheap. Over the past few years, the company has refocused its lineup (discontinuing the Roadster and Coupe), and honed in on what works while cautiously climbing upmarket. But unlike brands like Volkswagen and Hyundai which have had a hard time convincing buyers that they can run with the big dogs, Mini has gracefully evolved into a contender with a seriously deep bullpen. It still offers some of the most unique small cars on the road, but now they happen to have interiors and performance that punch well above their weight, while still remaining within the reach of most car buyers.
What’s more, at a time when most automakers are itching to drop everything that isn’t a crossover to… build more crossovers, Mini is in the unique position of offering cars that can’t easily be pigeonholed, providing a stylish alternative to the faceless, beige rank-and-file. And at the New York Auto Show, the brand positioned itself to become even more competitive with the world premieres of the John Cooper Works Convertible and all-wheel drive Clubman All4.
Mini has a lot going for it: British design and manufacturing (like Jaguar, Land Rover, and Rolls-Royce), BMW engineering and powertrains, and an entry point in the low-$20K range. But there’s also an image problem, namely that builds stylish small cars at a time when buyers want to go big and bland. So instead of changing course, the company launched the “Defy Labels” ad campaign, shattering the stereotypes and capping it off with one of the most popular commercials of Super Bowl 50. Despite the name, Mini does (and arguably, always has done) big — it just never had anything to do with wheelbase.
The Clubman is just a shade over 14 feet long — less than an inch longer than a Volkswagen Golf. But it has massive rear barn doors that can swallow just about anything, room for five, and an interior that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bentley — diamond-stitched leather seats with contrasting piping and all. And for customers in the Snow Belt, it now has the BMW X-Drive-derived All4 system, a North American Exclusive. It primarily delivers power to the front wheels like the standard model, but can transfer power to the rear in a quarter of a second. And if you’ve got a competitive streak, the system shaves a healthy 0.2 seconds off the car’s zero to 60 time.
As we know it, the hardtop John Cooper Works is a 228 horsepower hot hatch that can stand up to the Volkswagen GTI and Ford Focus ST. But Mini’s sole survivor from its quirky phase is its convertible, and the company’s JCW skunk works couldn’t resist getting ahold of it and transforming it into an open-topped version of the hatch that terrorizes Porsche Caymans in the IMSA Continental Sports Car Challenge Series. The JCW ‘vert comes standard with Mini’s LED headlights, an aggressive wind-cheating front and rear fascia, massive brakes, and a standard six-speed manual. An automatic transmission is available, but you’d be crazy not to spend time with the manual.
Splitting hairs and creating new segments between segments may be in fashion in the auto industry, but more often than not, the result is a smaller or larger sausage in the same wrapper. Mini seems to have hit gold: It fields cars that fill a spot on the market that don’t have direct competitors. Before this latest JCW, there was no such thing as a convertible in the hot hatch segment. The Clubman competes with cars as diverse as the Volkswagen Alltrack and the Fiat 500L. Yet Mini isn’t like its competitors, and that’s why owners like it. With the doors these new models could open, a lot more prospective buyers may be liking Mini soon too.