What do you do once you’ve re-built a brand from the bare bones of fond childhood memories and carefully re-interpreted design features, only to discover that the resulting creation has outgrown the cultural status of the original?
Perhaps this is a nice problem to have, for it’s certainly the situation BMW finds itself in with its 15-year stewardship of the Mini marque, during which time the German giant has flirted with national identity, reinvented guerrilla marketing for the digital era and in the process utterly re-shaped the way upmarket small cars are sold.
In summary; the base model is bulked out with a catalogue’s worth of optional extras, allowing buyers to create a car that supposedly represents their ultimate desires. These options range from bodywork stickers through to a hefty array of interior options, from leather trim packs to additional driving modes and even a head-up display. It keeps the car profitable, distinctive and fresh – helpful when you’re riffing on a design originally sketched out in 1959.
The new Mini has always been a delight to drive, but BMW has had to diversify to maintain growth. The original car, as launched in 2001, was a carefully composed 150% photocopy of the original Alec Issigonis design. Over the years, and over three separate generations, the Mini range has grown to encompass a convertible, a small estate, an SUV, a sports coupe and roadster and five-door estate. Mechanical parity with equivalent BMW models is kept low-key and unobtrusive, and the parent company has been careful to keep production focused on the UK at its plant in Oxford (the Union Jack is a popular Mini motif).
This new Cooper S Clubman is the second iteration of the biggest conventional Mini model, away from the hefty Countryman SUV. The extended length is far better suited to the elongated frontal treatment of the third generation car – the legacy of extending the original geometry of the flat-faced 1950s-designed Mini into an aerodynamic, crash-worthy shape demanded by modern regulations. The Clubman might be large and handsome, but the chunky interior styling shrinks the perception of space (a glass roof thankfully keeps it from becoming too claustrophobic). Another legacy form – the round dial at the heart of the dashboard – is now home to a well thought-out infotainment system, although the graphics verge on the immature and the Wurlitzer-inspired lighting scheme pushes the ‘playful’ vibe to its limits.
In many respects the Mini is the quintessential automobile for the Millennial generation, representing an appealing bundle of nostalgia, superficial individualism, a much-vaunted design-centric approach and a carefully cultivated ‘cheeky’ image (although after a decade and a half the latter might be wearing slightly thin). More so than any other car, you have to be committed to the Mini character, one of the most self-conscious brands of recent times. There are many upsides, not least the way it drives. In Cooper S trim, the Clubman handles with Mini-like aplomb, one value that has been applied consistently since day one, although the eco-modes will sternly shut down the fun for the sake of lowering emissions. In many respects, the Clubman is the ‘grown up’ Mini for a maturing buyer, gravitating towards functionality but not yet willing to put away childish things. One only has to look at the Mini’s myriad imitators to see that these cars still get it right for so many people.