What’s Going On Over at Mini?

New Mini Cooper Car is Unveiled in London
Source: Mini

When the sales reports for February came out, Mini was curiously at the top of the list. No, Mini didn’t sell the most vehicles, although that would certainly be newsworthy. Mini did, however, have a larger increase in year-over-year sales volume than any other brand for the second month of the year. Compared to the same month in 2013, Mini saw more than a 50% sales increase last month. Mitsubishi, Land Rover, Lexus, and Jeep all saw sales increases in the 20% range, but no other company even came close to Mini. That kind of sales increase is almost unheard of, so the question is: What’s going on over at Mini?

First of all, it’s important to note that Mini usually only sells around 5,000 cars a month. Sometimes it’s a little more, and other times it’s a little less, but selling an extra 1,000 cars is a much bigger deal for Mini than it is for Ford or Toyota. If each Mini dealer sells just a few more cars per week though, that can also have a major impact on the brand’s overall sales. At the same time though, significantly increasing sales for a niche brand is also a lot more difficult. Selling a Honda Accord is simple because there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who want a family sedan every month, and the Accord may as well be the default choice in that segment. Customers looking to buy a small hatchback are in much shorter supply.

Mini did, however, recently introduce a four-door version of its iconic hardtop car, the aptly named Mini Cooper Hardtop 4-Door. The two-door version of the Mini Cooper Hardtop is much more spacious than its size might suggest, but it’s still quite a small car. Adding two more doors and stretching the car to add both rear seat legroom and trunk space gives the newest Mini the added practicality that a lot of potential customers might want while still retaining the same Mini Cooper look that you don’t quite get with the Clubman.

That’s not to say that the Mini Cooper Hardtop isn’t practical. I’ve actually ridden in the back seat of one, and while it was no BMW 7-Series back there, I was still able to fit. Even better, since it’s a hatchback, there’s much more headroom than you would get in a 2+2 sports car, so you don’t have to sit with your head turned to the side. If you don’t need the back seats, you can also fit a surprising amount of luggage in the cargo area. Two friends drove a regular Mini Cooper from Portland to L.A., and then L.A. to Dallas last summer, and they had plenty of room for both of them and their stuff. Still, for people who want easy access to the back seat, say for a child’s booster seat, or who want extra cargo room, the Hardtop 4-Door makes for an easier sell.

Source: Mini

The two-door Mini Cooper Hardtop also received a major redesign for 2014. With more power, better fuel efficiency, a little bit more space, and a much nicer interior, the 2014 Hardtop is a much more refined car than its predecessor. It’s still small, but driving the new Cooper requires a lot fewer compromises than before. The interior is a very nice place to be, and the seats are absolutely spectacular. In fact, if you’re considering a base model Audi A3 or Mercedes-Benz CLA, I would highly recommend looking at what you can get for the same money from Mini. You’ll probably be surprised how favorably it compares.

With a newer, more refined car on its way to lots, it’s totally understandable that buyers were willing to wait. Dealers had to sell off their supply of 2013s, but they were faced with the challenge of attracting buyers with a limited stock and the promise of a completely new version coming in a couple months. In a major company like Ford or Toyota that sells a full line of vehicles, that’s not necessarily a big deal because there are ten or more different models to pick up the slack. With Mini, there are only a small handful of distinct models, and the Hardtop is far and away the most popular model in the lineup. For example, Mini sold 2,719 Coopers in February, while the Paceman sold 63. Even accounting for multiple sub-models, that’s a major difference.

When asked for a comment on February’s massive sales jump, David Duncan, the vice president of Mini of the Americas, confirmed to Autos Cheat Sheet that it was a combination of limited February 2013 supply as well as high demand for new models.

“The significant year-over-year sales increase in February 2015 can be attributed to two key factors. First, in February 2014 we were preparing to launch the all-new MINI Hardtop 2 door later that spring, and were in the process of winding down inventory of the previous generation model. Fast forward to February 2015, and not only is the new Hardtop 2 door making a name for itself in the marketplace, but we just added the practical Hardtop 4 door as well.”

Mini Cooper Hardtop 4-Door
Source: Mini

When discussing Mini, concerns are often raised about reliability. While the brand has a reputation for building quirky cars that are fun to drive, it’s also developed a reputation for selling cars that come with frequent and expensive repair bills. With Minis having been on sale in the U.S. since 2000 and with some of the novelty of owning a Mini wearing off, how the brand handles that reputation could have a serious effect on its sales.

Looking a little deeper into Mini’s reliability though reveals that the reputation might not necessarily be as well-deserved as popular opinion would have you think. Looking at TrueDelta’s user-reported repair frequency on the Hardtop model, you see that since 2003, repair frequency has been fairly good to average nearly every year. 2012 was an extraordinarily bad year, but it appears to be an outlier when you consider all 10 years that TrueDelta provides data for.

One site doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story though, so take a look at J.D. Power’s data on the Hardtop. While predicted reliability for the 2014 Hardtop is below average, it should be noted that the Mini’s biggest competitor, the Volkswagen GTI, also received the same score. While Volkswagens don’t exactly have a reputation for being bulletproof, it looks like the horror stories of Mini’s disastrous reliability might be a little bit overblown.

One explanation for this reputation might be that Americans are still used to the idea of small hatchbacks being inexpensive, basic transportation. Mini, on the other hand, builds much better performing, more premium vehicles. Their base prices may be fairly low, but they still require the regular maintenance of a premium vehicle. Forgetting to change the oil for two years will probably go poorly no matter what you drive, but just because it’s more likely to break something serious in a Mini doesn’t mean they’re bad cars. Changing the oil is basic maintenance.

Mini Cooper S Hardtop
Source: Mini

That doesn’t mean that Mini isn’t still interested in improving its reliability. The newest models have been moved to BMW’s front-wheel-drive platform and use significantly more BMW-sourced parts. While maintenance and repairs will still likely be more expensive than, say, a Chevrolet Sonic, the quality of the mechanical components can be expected to increase as well.

Echoing that sentiment, Duncan said, “The enhancement of product substance embodied in the new MINI Hardtop derives directly from the BMW Group’s outstanding development expertise and takes on a more extensive form than ever before in the history of the brand. This includes new automatic and manual transmissions, new ground-breaking three- and four-cylinder engines and new comfort and safety technologies that bring MINI to the forefront of the premium small car segment.”

Will the latest changes lead to a more reliable and successful Mini brand? Only time will tell there, but Mini is certainly doing a lot of things right. It’s offering a premium small car experience that didn’t previously exist in the U.S. and making moves to offer more practicality while still maintaining an emotional connection with its owners. After all, when people aren’t complaining about the repair bills on the Mini they used to own, they’re gushing about how great Minis are. How many people do you know who truly love driving their cars?

When I asked a Aimee, a Mini owner, about her experience, she told me, “I love driving my Mini Cooper! Even driving to work in the morning is more fun in the Mini!” She then added, “I may never drive my husband’s car again, and when I have kids I want to upgrade to the Mini Clubman.”

On the one hand, that’s some serious brand loyalty. On the other hand, I totally understand because it really is hard to drive a Mini without grinning. In the end, though, there’s definitely something going on over at Mini.