LOS ANGELES -- The redesigned Mini Countryman has grown enough in size to compete in the compact crossover segment with premium and volume players.
Riding on a new front-wheel-drive platform shared with BMW, the Countryman is about 203mm (8 inches) longer than the prior generation. It joins the redesigned Clubman in moving from a subcompact to a compact.
A plug-in hybrid Countryman is to go on sale in June, following the European launch of the regular model in February and the start of U.S. sales a month later.
As a compact crossover, the Countryman will take on competitors such as the premium BMW X1 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA.
Peter Schwarzenbauer, BMW board member for Mini, has no qualms about making the Countryman bigger. In fact, Mini executives believe the Countryman could become Mini's best-seller in the U.S. Today, the Cooper in its two- and four-door versions is the top-selling Mini.
Mini has sold 550,000 units worldwide of the current Countryman since it launched in 2010, "far more than we had ever planned," Schwarzenbauer said in an interview at the Los Angeles auto show.
While planning the new model, Mini asked owners what changes they would like in a successor. "They all said, "Give me a bit more room -- especially in the back and in the trunk,'" Schwarzenbauer said.
Because of its size, the Countryman was used as a second and third car but the larger one could be "the only car in the household," he said.
And the potential buyer base is larger: "By moving it upwards in the segment, we are entering into the volume area where the segment is four times bigger with more competition," Schwarzenbauer said.
Another key selling point is the improved interior -- also an owner request, he said: "We put a lot of investment into the interior, and if you sit in the current Countryman and the new, you would see a huge jump forward."
Plug-in hybrid model
The plug-in hybrid Countryman will be positioned as a performance model because of the quick acceleration and instant torque provided by the electric drive.
Thomas Felbermair, vice president of Mini of the Americas since May, said Mini lost "a lot of customers because of size."
Already with the Clubman, the brand "can reach out for target groups that did not look at Mini," he said. "And we have a good opportunity to keep them loyal."
The Clubman is the first vehicle that has attracted buyers from Mercedes, Audi and sibling brand BMW, said Felbermair.
The Countryman is likely to also be cross-shopped against the Audi A3 and the Volkswagen Tiguan, he said. But, Felbermair added, "Subaru is the main competitor for us. They are very successful."