There hasn't been this much debate around an iconic car since Porsche introduced its controversial SUV, the Cayenne, in 2002. That vehicle went on to silence the purists who knew Porsche only as a sports-car company. Now Mini has created its first four-door, the Countryman. With all-wheel-drive and (theoretical) seven-person seating, it's not really mini at all. And that's what's causing the trouble.
Both the WSJ's Dan Neil (he of the Pulitzer Prize) and the NYT's Ezra Dyer (he of the luminously Dadaist prose style) have weighed in. The upshot of this battle royale is that Neil is angry, while Dyer is perplexed. But that's what happens when one-car companies try to expand their lineups: they have to sacrifice what made them great in order to capture more customers.
A desperate effort to retain the Mini-ness of Mini
As Neil points out, it is indeed a contradiction to create a Mini that's not really all that small (although it's hardly headed for GMC Yukon territory just yet). Mini-lovers could argue that the BMW-owned brand prepared the ground with the introduction of the Clubman in 2008.
That vehicle's stretched rear-end and swing-open doors evoked a mash-up of a coupe and station wagon, but more important, it didn't completely offend the Mini faithful. The Countryman, however, has pushed beyond a certain point of no return. A brand that was primarily about design has now been infected with... utility.
How can automakers extend the success of unique cars?
In the case of the Porsche Cayenne, the challenge was to curtail any doubts that Porsche's performance DNA could be wound into an SUV. So the company (with help from Volkswagen) built what's probably the finest SUV in the history of the breed (and is getting ready to do it again with the smaller Cajun). For Mini, the issue is to expand on its revamp of designer Alex Issigonis' legendary 1950s concept for a crisply engineered small car.
The Mini has so many distinctive design touches that making it larger runs the risk of transforming its rock-solid cuteness into cartoonish parody. Other automakers may not face this problem. Toyota (TM), for example, has been playing with the idea of adding new vehicles to its Prius lineup, moving beyond the groundbreaking hybrid four-door hatchback.
Un-design is easier to expand upon than ultra-design
It's not like the Prius isn't designed. However, much of its look is dictated by aerodynamics, to maximize fuel economy. What it really symbolizes is technology. So buying a Prius SUV or a Prius pickup truck is really about buying hybrid gas-electric technology. It's what's under the hood that counts.
Buying a Mini, on the other hand, is about purchasing self-expression of a much more overt sort. Even Porsche didn't have to deal with this when it rolled out the Cayenne -- all it had to do was make sure that intangible Porsche-ness, which had nothing to do with looks, made it into the vehicle. For someone to get interested in the Countryman, they have to adore both quirky design and have a need for roominess.
The target market is alarmingly narrow
Who fits this description? Basically, no one but hipster design-junkies who dig the Mini but now have kids to haul around. Mini would like to woo some of them away from SUVs and minivans. Mini would also like to pull a trick from the Porsche playbook. Unfortunately, what Mini has done is progressively add size to the initial two-door version of the car. Porsche, by contrast, worked backwards from an SUV, primarily because there was no way it could up-size a 911.
Am I saying the Countryman will fail? No. But it also won't do for Mini what the Cayenne did for Porsche.