Special Coverage

Frankfurt Auto Show

FRANKFURT – Kay Segler is relying on German ingenuity – rather than new brick and mortar – to solve a looming problem that hangs on the horizon for BMW AG’s Mini subsidiary.

This year, Mini expects to set a new sales record by delivering more than 220,000 vehicles worldwide. That number is bound to grow with this fall’s launch of the Clubman, a stretched Mini that offers a rear-hinged “suicide door” on the passenger side of the vehicle for easier access to the back seat.

Problem is, the Mini factory in Oxford, U.K., only has capacity for about 240,000 units, a number that is within reach as early as next year.

But Segler, senior vice president-brand management for Mini, says BMW will seek creative solutions before it pulls the trigger on a new plant or even an expansion of the current one.

“German engineers are always creative,” Segler tells Ward’s here at the Frankfurt auto show following the debut of the production-version Clubman. “We will find creative ideas to solve this.”

Retooling at the plant for the Clubman program is complete, and vehicles begin arriving in European showrooms in November and in the U.S. in February.

Adding a shift is not an option at Oxford, where employees on two shifts already are working 11½-hour days as well as half shifts on Saturday and Sunday.

“It means there is no choice but to find other solutions,” Segler says. “Sometimes you find them in the details.”

BMW does not want to build a new plant because that would require Mini to sell another 240,000 vehicles annually – a notion that runs counter to the corporate desire to remain somewhat exclusive.

“Mini is not there to run for sales,” Segler says. “We are built on a very strong brand, a strong resale value and good quality. We’re not just looking for volume.”

One option is to arrange for a contract assembler to build Minis from complete-knock-down kits that would come from Oxford.

Mini already has this experience under its belt. It hired Italian coach builder Bertone SpA to build a special-edition Mini Cooper S with a John Cooper Works GP kit in a production run of 2,000 units.

“There is potential for CKD production in other parts of the world,” Segler says.

Suddenly ramping up production at a new plant also would cause headaches for the auto maker’s dealer body. “We have 82 dealers in the U.S.,” he says. “They need time to grow with the model range, to grow with Mini.”

Mini’s strategy in the U.S. is to expand retail opportunities “selectively, maybe to a little more than 90 dealers,” Segler says. “We could double the network and sell more cars, but it’s not our policy.”

The Oxford plant has one assembly line, where convertibles depart temporarily from the main line for installation of the ragtop. Clubman assembly will be handled in much the same way.

After Clubman production ramps up next year, Segler says he expects vehicle production will be split evenly between the Clubman, convertible and coupe.

The new Mini Clubman is 9.4 ins. (24 cm) longer than the current Mini, adding 3.1 ins. (8 cm) to the wheelbase and rear legroom.

Three 1.6L 4-cyl. engines will be available in Europe: a normally aspirated 120-hp mill with BMW’s Valvetronic variable valve timing, a 175-hp turbocharged direct-injection gasoline engine and a 110-hp turbodiesel.

The sheet metal is unchanged from the A-pillar forward, but the doors, rear quarter panels and rear doors are unique to the Clubman.

Instead of having a traditional liftgate, the Clubman has split rear doors that swing open, such as those on a cargo van, similar to previous-generation Minis such as the Countryman, Traveler and Clubman.

There was considerable debate about which side of the vehicle would receive the suicide door.

In right-hand-drive regions such as the U.K. and Australia, the extra door is on the same side as the driver – a nice feature unless you are a parent concerned about a child exiting the vehicle onto the street.

In left-hand-drive markets such as the U.S. and most of Europe, the driver must walk around the vehicle to close the passenger-side door when a child climbs into the back seat. The suicide door must close first before the primary passenger door can close.

Segler says he understands the debate, but not everyone can be satisfied. “There are advantages and disadvantages,” he says.

Pricing in Europe for the Mini Clubman starts at €19,900 ($27,689). U.S. pricing will be announced closer to launch.