In the mid 2000s I swiped a U.S.A. road atlas from the glove box of a Mini Cooper that the car company sent me to drive and evaluate. At the time, Mini was giving the paperback highway guide to customers as a kind of loyalty gift, the way banks give away calendars in December.
It was a legitimate road atlas, with 152 pages covering all of America’s 50, plus Puerto Rico and the Canadian provinces.
But it was more than that. The street guide also expressed whimsy and adventure. It included a two-page map of the U.S. highlighting about 50 towns with wacky names, including Nice, Cool, Bliss, Hope, Divine, Moody, Dull, Clever, Calm, Bland, Comfort, Humble, Hell and Delight.
Interspersed among state maps were half-page write-ups about out-of-the-ordinary, off-the-beaten-path tourist stops, places like Custer Ghost Town in Idaho, the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada, the Glore Psychiatric Hospital at the site of Missouri’s former State Lunatic Asylum #2 and our own America’s Stonehenge on Mystery Hill in Salem, N.H., which the Mini road book called a 4,000-year-old, “strange megalithic construction that has eluded thorough explanation for centuries.”
The message was that the Mini Cooper was no ordinary car. It was an original, intended to appeal to drivers who were originals themselves, who were individuals who dared to stand apart and be different. The small auto angled toward fun-loving adventure seekers brave enough to strike out on their own.
The Mini Cooper itself blazed new territory. The model started an entirely new vehicle category called the small premium class. Although it was very little, the Mini Cooper was a solidly engineered, upscale auto that squeezed in premium amenities. It was also an energetic mighty mite, designed to be agile and athletic in order to satisfy the daring, dash-about spirits who purchased it.
T oday’s Cooper was introduced in the United States in 2002. The product of Germany’s luxury-car company BMW, the little runner arrived as the first model available from the Mini brand, sold separately from BMW’s mainstream luxury autos – locally available at Mini of Peabody, in Peabody. Today the 2013 Mini Cooper Hardtop lists for $21,100. A slick, playful convertible version starts at $26,550.
As small as it is, the Mini Cooper is a lot of car for the money, and U.S. drivers are growing more aware of that fact. In 2012 Mini recorded its most successful sales year in America. At Mini of Peabody, local demand continues at a brisk pace, while now used Mini models are selling at a robust rate, reports Brig Currie, general sales manager at the dealership.
The cars still attracts dashing, independent-minded drivers. But it now also brings in a growing number of more ordinary consumers who are mostly just looking for a good deal, said Currie.
“We still get the people who love the Mini for its quirkiness, for being different and for being a fun car to drive. But we’re also seeing more of the mainstream car buyer these days. They come in for value and the fuel efficiency. They see they can get the Mini car for the same price as a lot of other cars that don’t offer as much,” Currie said.
“They like the fact that Mini is a premium brand, but it’s still a fuel-efficient vehicle and it’s priced right,” he explained. “They see a lot of value, with free scheduled maintenance on the car, and a strong bumper-to-bumper warranty.”
The warranty on Mini vehicles – which also includes roadside assistance – runs for four years or 40,000 miles. The free scheduled service runs for three years or 36,000 miles. Covering such items as oil changes, wiper blades and brake parts, the free maintenance saves owners up to $1,300, Mini calculates.
Another big factor in the growing popularity of Mini is the recent introduction of new models that broaden the brand’s appeal, Currie said. A particularly big addition was the 2011 arrival of Countryman, a larger Mini (though still far from large) with four doors, all-wheel drive and more room in the cabin. Due to Countryman’s elevated ride and four-wheel traction, Mini even dares to call it a crossover, which means it incorporates some aspects of versatile sport-utility vehicles.
“It gives us a four-door vehicle with a five-passenger option and we’ve never had that before. Someone’s family who didn’t fit in an original Mini can now get into this one,” noted Currie.
Other models joining the Mini fleet since then are the Paceman, a two-door take on the Countryman that is arriving just now as a 2014 model. The Coupe is a jaunty, expressive two-seat sporty dasher. The Roadster is a convertible version of the personally-sized, two-place scooter.
When you toss in the Mini Clubman, a stretched version of the Cooper that gives you more hauling space, you find seven distinct models or significant model variations available from Mini – and that’s not counting the John Cooper Works special editions that turn some of those models into hot rods.
But while the additions bring greater variety to Mini’s line, each one retains the brand’s signature sassy style, bold self-expression and brave individuality.
Currie pointed out that Mini’s corporate goal in the United States is to sell 100,000 vehicles in the year 2016. That will be a 50 percent increase from the company’s record-breaking annual sales level of 66,123 last year.
But keep that in perspective. Sales of 100,000 is a great achievement for a niche brand that appeals primarily to quirky, one-of-a-kind characters who like to spin around in expressive automobiles. But it is still a small chink in the auto business as a whole. Popular big-name brands like Toyota can sell more than 300,000 and even 400,000 of a single model in a single year, such as the Corolla and Camry sedans.
So Minis certainly won’t become me-too cars. Even as more value-minded, practical people buy them, Minis will remain autos for people who feel peculiar urges to cruise the Extraterrestrial Highway or to visit Salem’s America’s Stonehenge.
I’ll hold on to the road atlas I pinched a half-dozen years ago, and each time I see a Mini drive by I’ll still envy its driver.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and nonfiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2013 Mini family Cooper Hardtop 2-door, 4-passenger subcompact $21,100 starting list price Cooper Convertible 2-door, 4-passenger subcompact $26,550 starting list price Coupe 2-seat hardtop $22,850 starting list price Roadster 2-seat convertible $26,950 starting list price Countryman 4-door, 5-passenger crossover $23,400 starting list price Paceman 2-door, 5-passenger crossover $24,600 starting list price