Mini Expects To Make the Most of Fractured U.S. Market

By Michelle Krebs January 13, 2009

  Mini Jim McDowell - 144.JPG By Bill Visnic

DETROIT -- At the Detroit auto show this week, nobody's kidding themselves: 2009 will be a rough year for auto sales. The only question is how rough.

There are oases of hope; one of them can be found at the Mini display here. Mini is the still-hot property of much larger BMW AG, which had its hands full fighting the market to a draw last year. Thanks to ballooning unemployment and deflating consumer confidence, BMW and most volume manufacturers are not particularly optimistic about sales in the U.S. this year -- but don't suggest such to Mini.

Mini was one of only three brands in the U.S. to sell more vehicles last year than in 2007, and the only brand to post a double-digit sales increase (28.6 percent), thanks mostly to the Springtime addition of the new Clubman model. The incremental sales from the addition of a new model always are a disproportionate boost for a low-volume brand like Mini, yet Jim McDowell, vice president of Mini USA, is predicting Mini can post another U.S. sales gain in 2009 -- dire predictions for the market be damned.

"Nobody knows how 2009 is going to work out until we get into it," McDowell told AutoObserver at the Detroit auto show here, but said "my 'guesstimate' is we will sell slightly more Minis in 2009 versus 2008."

McDowell says that the often-discussed "downsizing" of customer preferences -- predicted to align with the nation's difficult general economic situation -- is a trend that, perhaps paradoxically, would play to Mini's established strength as a premium small car.

"I think it will help Mini," if U.S. customers retreat from large, expensive SUVs and crossovers, he said, because many, while deciding for a number of reasons to reduce their automotive liabilities, will seek to maintain the trappings of quality and refinement by opting for comparatively less expensive premium compact car.

"A lot of people who buy Minis could afford to buy more," he said. Buyers moving away from more expensive and larger vehicles don't feel cheated by a Mini and don't telegraph to their neighbors that economic circumstances dictated a move to a less-expensive vehicle.

He said Mini also continues to show strength -- despite a growing cadre of potential competitors -- because buyers understand and appreciate the uniqueness of the Mini's fundamental design and platform.

"A lot of manufacturers who [say they] want to have a 'premium' small car want to have [an economy car] with leather seat covers," McDowell said, claiming buyers see that Mini transcends that mass-market approach.

McDowell also is confident in forecasting growth for Mini in 2009 because, just as it added the Clubman in 2008, it will have the Cooper Convertible for '09, which moves to the newer architecture of the current Cooper and Cooper S coupes. The current Mini Convertible had continued on the first-generation Mini platform while the hardtop variants were migrated to a redesigned platform, so the outgoing Convertible was in a runout phase. Serious intenders for the Mini Convertible also knew the updated architecture was coming, which diluted convertible sales last year, he said.

"We have a much stronger hand with three body styles in our lineup," McDowell said, adding that 2009 also will be the first full year of sales for the Clubman body style. 

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