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American motorists’ mentalities were very different a decade ago. Gas was selling at $1.25 a gallon, and thirsty SUVs like the Hummer H2 were popular.
Fast forward to today and gas prices are more than triple the old average. That translates to buyer’s increasing interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient models like the MINI Cooper.
“MINI launched in the U.S. during the time when gas was cheap and large trucks and SUV’s ruled the road. Many thought the brand would be a one-hit wonder, and we are extremely proud that we were able to surprise some [of] the toughest critics, and at times, even ourselves,” MINI USA vice president Jim McDowell said.
Despite that skepticism, the company is celebrating a decade of sales and growth in the U.S., and steady upward progress. Most recently the company debuted its 2013 Countryman John Cooper Works edition, which is a more performance-oriented take on its largest offering to date. The Countryman is an example of how the company grew over the past 10 years.
The MINI brand first opened shop in San Francisco back in 2002, at a time when many didn’t think a funky, European hatchback had any place on the vast Interstates of America, a land where gas was cheap and size mattered most.
Many felt this premium small car brand, under BMW ownership didn’t have much of a chance of surviving in the States, especially because it started as a one-model company.
Soon, MINI expanded by introducing more models including not-so-small options. This eventually lead to the six choices you see today and a healthy customer base.
Saab will decide within the next 100 days if it will move ahead with plans to introduce a small premium 92 model to compete with vehicles like the MINI Cooper, Audi A1, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes B Class.
Company CEO Victor Muller gave more details on the still conceptual model, commenting that while it would have a teardrop shape like the original 92, it would not be retro-style. “We hate retro at Saab,” said Muller. The plan would be to sell between 30,000 and 60,000 units per year, with models costing roughly 10 percent more than comparable MINIs. There are even plans to offer a hybrid option in the future.
Muller has admitted that Saab is currently in talks with other automakers over the project as it is believed the automaker will either purchase an existing platform or work with another automaker to develop an all-new platform in order to make the 92 a reality.
Muller also commented that if the project gets the green light, a 2014 launch date is most probable.
Despite an even better than expected reception in Europe, Audi still has no plans to bring its A1 subcompact model to North America. Initial production for Europe was scheduled to be 50,000 units, but Audi may look at upping that number thanks to overwhelming demand.
In Europe the “small premium” segment is catching on fast with the A1 designed to take on the current segment leader, the MINI Cooper.
No doubt Audi’s hesitance to bring the A1 to North America is due to its size (although it is slightly larger than a MINI Cooper) as well as brand perception. Audi is working hard in North America to establish itself as more than just a BMW and Mercedes follower. Instead, Audi wants to establish itself as a segment leader with significant focus on flagship models like the A8 and R8. A car like the A1 could potentially damage that image. After all, it’s not like BMW risked its own brand image in introducing the MINI lineup.
While we understand Audi’s predicament, we have to think an A1 with the 1.4-liter TFSI engine with 122-hp and 147 ft-lbs of torque mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic would make for an impressive ride.
With an eye on emerging markets, as well as the growing small premium segment, Saab execs have made it clear that an entry level model designed to take on the Aud A1 and BMW 1 Series is on their radar. Now comes word that a small premium Saab, likely named the 9-1, could arrive sooner than expected thanks to platform sharing with another automaker.
In a recent interview, Saab CEO Jan Ake Jonsson commented that while a subcompact isn’t in the brand’s current production plans, there’s a possibility that the underlying platform could be donated by or shared with another automaker. Jonsson even went so far as to say that several other automakers have already come forward looking to partner with Saab on different technology aspects.
Platform sharing is becoming increasingly popular in a post-recession auto industry, where automakers are forced to work together to reduce costs and share emissions technology. The tie-up between Fiat and Chrysler is set to include considerable product sharing, while recently Mercedes parent company Daimler announced a partnership with Renault and just yesterday we heard the first rumors of the love-child between Volkswagen and Suzuki.
Jonsson didn’t go so far as to name any potential partners in the auto industry, but several smaller automakers, including Mitsubishi and Mazda, are in need of world-wide partners as well.
The upcoming lineup of front-drive “small premium” BMWs will will share the 1 Series badge with their RWD counterparts. According to a report by AutoCar, the new models, which will share the same underpinnings as the next-generation MINI Cooper, will also be hatchbacks and are likely to be offered in both 3-door and 5-door trim.
The new models, competing with the Mercedes A-Class and B-Class, as well as the Audi A1 and A2, will offer more interior space, improved fuel economy and sell for less than their RWD counterparts. According to AutoCar, BMW isn’t worried about offering both a front-drive and rear-drive 1 Series as it believes the different models will attract different buyers. In particular, BMW hopes the new front-drivers will help bring new customers into the BMW fold. Both front drive and rear-drive models are expected to have distinguishable design traits.
It does without saying that these small cars will use 4-cylinder engines (or possibly even turbo 3-cylinder engines, like in the upcoming MINI models) mounted transversely to increase interior room, shorten the hood length and allow for the maximum wheelbase.
Set to launch in 2013, the first of the front-drive BMW hatches will be a 5-door along the lines of the VW Golf, but designed to compete with the A2 and A-Class, while a more sporting 1 Series in a 3-door layout, will debut after to compete with the A1.
With BMW looking to offer the new 1 Series hatchbacks as front-drive models, it’s not year clear if the current rear-drive hatches available in Europe will continue on.