BMW's ROVER Group aims to sell all three of its car marques - Mini, MG and Rover - in the USA as part of a drive to reposition itself as a premium carmaker.
Rover left the US passenger-car market in 1991. The new US objective is part of a marketing strategy developed by Tom Purves, the former BMW UK managing director who was transferred 18 months ago to revitalize Rover's sluggish sales and marketing.
Land Rover has consistently sold more than two-thirds of its output outside the UK and has done well in the USA. But Rover has been heavily dependent on the UK market, where its share has fallen.
'All the cars that we build from now on will be engineered so they can be sold in world markets,' Purves said.
Rover's new R40 mid-luxury sedan, which replaces both the 600 and the 800, will go on sale next spring. It will play a critical role in redefining the Rover range.
The new Mini is scheduled for launch at the end of 2000. By 2005, Rover will have replaced the present 200 and 400 ranges, again with a single platform.
'We have always said, at the end of the day, when you want to be a global player, you have to be active in the USA,' says Rover Chairman Walter Hasselkus.
Until recently, the old Mini has only been sold in a handful of markets: the UK, Japan, France and Germany. Rover has reintroduced it in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain to help prepare the ground for the new Mini.
'The new Mini will be sold in all of the luxury sports and sophisticated car markets,' says Purves. In many of these markets, including the USA, the car will be sold by BMW dealers.
BMW and Rover have not yet decided on a distribution strategy for the R40 in North America, and the car would not arrive until after 2000.
MG is also being integrated into BMW's product portfolio.
'Part of the planning for the future is the current car's replacement in a group sports car strategy,' said Purves. 'That is in the planning stage.'
The next MG will be a 'four-cylinder sports car that's affordable. It will be sold in the USA.'
Before the takeover by BMW, Rover's resources were so constrained that models were not homologated for US sale. Those included both the MG and the new Land Rover Freelander.
Some Rover engineers are still looking over the compact sport-utility in a bid to adapt it to meet US requirements. But Hasselkus is not optimistic about their chances.
Closing the gap
While pushing into new markets, Purves aims to close the gap between Rover brand and rivals such as Audi and Volvo. He calls the segment the 'aspirant' sector, between mainstream volume brands and Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar.
Rover researched five categories in the near-luxury segment: brand desirability; product satisfaction; faults per vehicle; sales satisfaction; and repurchase intention. The Rover brand fell well short of Audi in all except sales satisfaction, where it enjoys a tiny lead.
The new products are vital to Rover's efforts to close that gap, Purves says. 'You've got to show reality in the metal,' he said. 'You can't communicate something that doesn't exist. Our job is to move the game up first to the aspirants and then eventually we'll get to the premier level. It probably took BMW 20 years, but everything is coming together these days.'
Purves and his team define the brand values for Rover cars as Welcoming, Effortless, Craftsmanship, Engineering and British Style.
In the meantime, as Rover waits for new product, it is trying to adjust marketing to appeal to younger buyers. 'One of the hurdles to Rover ownership in the UK,' he says, 'is an identification of Rover drivers with older people.'
He said Rover's new advertising for the 200 and 400 models is designed to show that it is changing to address a younger consumer group.