DETROIT – It’s not often you hear an automotive executive express pleasure over a sales decline, especially at BMW AG, but Michael Ganal, member of the board of management, says he is “satisfied” with Mini’s global sales slipping 6.2% last year to 188,000.

That’s because, he makes clear, the slump had nothing to do with flagging demand. The auto maker lost significant production because Mini’s sole plant in Oxford, U.K., underwent major renovations to increase capacity from 200,000 to 240,000 units.

“As our British plant in Oxford runs a 24/7 operation, construction measures obviously have a serious impact on production output,” Ganal says. “This explains why, despite the decline, we are absolutely satisfied with the 2006 retail. It clearly exceeded our internal forecasts.”

He also is pleased with 2006 U.S. sales, which fell 4.3% to 39,000 units, compared with 2005, for the same reason: lack of supply. With the plant back up to speed, Ganal says he is hoping for new global sales record perhaps as early as this year.

Ganal adds the U.S. soon could become the largest retail market for the brand, outpacing even Mini’s U.K. home market. The U.S. likely already is the auto maker’s most profitable market. Ganal says 52% of American buyers opt for upscale Mini Cooper S models, compared with 31% globally.

At the North American International Auto Show here, the auto maker introduces its Mini Sidewalk convertible, a special version of the current-generation Mini featuring exclusive interior appointments, wheels and exterior colors that will be available in mid-April.

Also on display for the first time is the next-generation Mini, whose proportions closely resemble the current model. However, it is 2.4 ins. (6 cm) longer to improve crashworthiness in the front and rear and to accommodate a new 1.6L engine.

Although the car’s height and width are almost the same as before, Mini aficionados will find the car somewhat bulkier in appearance, in part because the beltline and hood are slightly higher.

The hood height had to be raised to accommodate new European Union pedestrian impact regulations that require more crush space between the hood and the top of the engine.

dwinter@wardsauto.com