Commentary

In a world where bigger is better, the Mini Cooper and performance-oriented Cooper S continue to buck the trend.

BMW launched the Mini brand in the U.S. five years ago, creating a premium small-car segment that seemingly was an oxymoron.

In an industry known for jumping on any bandwagon bound for increased market share, this was one almost every auto maker avoided. Their sights were on profitable trucks and utility vehicles of all sizes. Even the new cars on the market were growing in girth and muscle.

While Mini posted record U.S. sales, other auto makers were at a loss as to how to sell a subcompact here at any price – let alone exact a premium.

Ford had the popular Ka in Europe, but could not find a way to sell it profitably in the U.S.

DaimlerChrysler made plans to sell the diminutive Smart brand in North America and carried through in cost-conscious Canada, but delayed the U.S. launch until next year.

General Motors found a solution: tapping its Daewoo connections in South Korea for subcompact cars and leading the segment for a while with the Chevy Aveo.

Japanese auto makers since have entered the fray in a big way with the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Nissan Versa vying for sales supremacy.

While competitors pursue their respective strategies, Mini continues to boost capacity at its factory in the U.K., as customers wait months for their little bit of Britannia.

The American appetite for the import continues seemingly unabated. The 39,171 units sold in 2006 reflect capacity constraint during plant retooling – but the U.S. still managed to outsell the U.K. last year to become the brand’s best-selling market.

In a nod to its new No.1 market, Mini has made some key changes for the ’07 model. It has a new 1.6L 4-cyl. engine, both naturally aspirated and turbocharged, that improves in all the right areas: more horsepower and torque, better fuel efficiency and fewer emissions.

And the new Cooper and Cooper S have abandoned their hideous cupholders, attached to the instrument panel like a reckless afterthought. They now have conventional cupholders tucked unobtrusively in the center console.

Yet, as the brand strives to build on its success, Mini still is determined to go its own way.

The division of BMW has sold 2.5 times more cars than called for in the original plan – without resorting to incentives.

In a competitive environment where every new generation of a vehicle grows in size, the ’07 Mini has grown only ever so slightly – mainly to meet new European pedestrian safety requirements.

Those who want bigger can wait for next year’s new, stretched Mini – a production version of a concept wagon that made the auto show rounds last year and is known by a variety of names including the Traveller, Clubman and Countryman.

In fact, expect a whole family of new Minis in varying body styles over the next five years, officials say.

It’s a small world after all.

apriddle@wardsauto.com