Regular readers of MotoringFile learned ages ago that MINI is developing an SAV (sports activity vehicle) for the 2011 model year. The news broke yesterday about MINI’s new Crossover Concept car, which will give us a good window into what to expect in late 2010 debut of the Crossman Countryman factory car. BMW and MINI generally follow a pattern of releasing concept cars about 18-24 months before releasing a factory model based on that concept. The Crossman, known internally as the R60, will reportedly be a shared platform between BMW’s X1 (the 1-series baby brother to their X3 and X5 SAVs) and MINIs Clubman wagon variant of its iconic Cooper hatchback. Expected features include four doors, all-wheel drive, and possibly even an ultra-efficient diesel engine option. Reports from MINI are that the AWD system will not be a sport-tuned symmetrical system akin to the Subaru WRX, but rather an as-needed system to assist in low-traction situations. I don’t think anyone expects this “soft roader” to be suited for anything more adventurous than Midwestern pothole dodging, but that extra level of traction appeals to an ever-growing number of car buyers, especially those of us with real winters.

The inevitable, negative discussion on MotoringFile began right away with the expected cries of horror. “Oh it’s so ugly!” “This is killing the Mini brand!” and other shrieks of flaming lament. Were MotoringFile not a growing ad hominem wasteland, I’d probably jump in the fray. But no thanks. Every time MINI unveils anything new or different, it’s met by this bandwagon of tripe. There are still a few sensible chaps hanging ’round and participating, but they’ve got more patience than I do at this point. Godspeed, good sirs. Knee-jerks aside, there are a couple of valid questions surrounding this new MINI model.

Does a MINI have to be small?
It’s tough to expand who you are as a car company when you’ve been named an adjective. Being called a MINI doesn’t simply imply being small, it practically demands it. The original Mini Cooper was a downright tiny car by today’s standards. The first generation of the “new MINI” was actually received very coldly by the die-hard fans of the classic car in Europe. Chief among their objections was how much bigger the BMW/Rover MINI was. This is the generation of MINI that I own (internal model R53), and it’s roughly the size of a BMW 3-series coupe, but shorter in the rear. At the time, it was the smallest production car available in the United States. Since then, with the newest, all-BMW generation of the MINI (the R56), the car has grown by a centimeter here and there, but also lost nearly 100 lbs in curb weight. Not a bad trade off. The R50/R53 fanboys (myself included at first) were not big fans of the R56 when it debuted [for us] on MotoringFile. A consistent gripe was that the car was a bit bigger. This “alarming” trend became an ongoing topic of contempt and fully exploded when MINI announced their plans to revive the extended wheelbase version of the Mini Traveler in the form of the MINI Cooper Clubman. Although the car grew neither in width nor height, the hemming and hawing began right away about how this size increase was “killing the MINI brand” and “Oh it’s so ugly I’m going to sell my Cooper S!” and on and on. I can’t help but wonder what these knee-jerks would do if MINI revived a couple of the other classic Mini models like the pickup truck or the Moke. Regardless, the Clubman has been a smash success.

Looking at the specs for the MINI Countryman-to-be, the MINI Crossover Concept, this new MINI will be approximately six inches larger in every key dimension when compared to MINI’s iconic Cooper hardtop coupe. This according to the official press release. That doesn’t exactly put it into H3 country. In fact, that means that it’ll only be marginally larger than the Clubman. I think that should still squarely count as small. Especially when you look at it in the context of other crossover SUVs on the American market — where this model is squarely aimed. The Ford Edge is nearly the size of the BMW X5. The Toyota Rav4 is much bigger than it used to be. The Mazda CX-7 is the size of their 6 sedan. None of these are small. But in looking at the MINI Crossover Concept dimensions, it’s not much bigger than the MINI we know today. Which means it’ll be very small in its market segment.

I suppose that doesn’t really answer the question though. Does a MINI have to be small in order to still be a MINI? interviewed Gert Hildebrand, head of design over at MINI in Germany, for their podcast during last year’s MINI United event in The Netherlands. They asked him specifically about a 4-door model and what size meant in terms of what a MINI is.

Gabe Bridger: “How big can a MINI product be and still be a MINI? Will you be able to create a MINI with four doors that retains the look and feel of what we see today?”

Gert: “MINI is a size of relation, it’s not an absoulte size of measurement…If you put a Rolls Royce in front of a Jumbo Jet, it is a MINI as well…So MINI per say as a size point of view is a size relation to something else.”

That’s a great answer, and it doesn’t get more from the horse’s mouth than that — from the actual professional in charge of design at MINI. According to Gert, context makes a huge difference in what makes something a MINI. To expand on that idea, I think that the MINI goes beyond simply being smaller than other cars in its class. Rather, I think it’s much more space efficient than other cars in its class. The original design spec for the Mini was to create a small car that maximized interior space, allowing a very small and economical car to be truly practical to drive. That meant pushing the wheels to the corners. That meant mounting its engine transversely (parallel to the front wheels). That meant an upright windshield — all to maximize interior space. Fifty years later, my car is the same way. Getting into it is like a magic trick. “Where did all this space come from?” So in that sense, a MINI SAV, or MINI pickup truck, or MINI personal hovercraft, becomes less about rote measurements and more about space efficiency.

There are two other themes that run deep to what MINI is all about. Economy, and especially performance. Motor Trend described the R53 as “an exotic sports car masquerading as practical transportation.” MINI pigeon-holes itself as a “premium small car” and I think that’s spot on. It’s not luxurious, but simply nice in a way that few other small cars are. There’s real care taken in the aesthetics. It goes beyond the toaster appliance experience of most economy cars. Simply put, a MINI’s got soul. It’s also got guts. My car goes like stink and corners like it’s got saw blades for wheels. Yet still gets north of 30 mpg. Not too shabby.

Second question. Is a MINI SAV in line with those values?
That’s the really philosophical question. I don’t think anybody who’s paying attention can say that a car with MINI’s premium outlook on features, safety, design, and economy, in a 4-door package, with AWD wouldn’t just sell like crazy in the US. It probably won’t be a big hit in Europe, but they’ll probably be lined up around the block to buy them here. This has led to accusations within the MINI enthusiast community that MINI is only making this car to pander to the poor tastes of American car buyers who’ve been brainwashed into this notion that they need off-road capability in their daily commute up the freeway.  But is that what MINI is really delivering here? Yes, it’s based on the X1 platform, but that’s simply based off the 1-series BMW sedan. Given the alternatives and MINI’s very cheeky nature, doesn’t a micro-SUV simply make more sense than some sort of small sports sedan? There are tons of those on the market. MazdaSpeed 3, VW Jetta GLI, Honda Civic Si Sedan, Mitsubishi Lancer, and those are just the sporty ones. That’s a pretty crowded market space. But what SUVs of this size range even exist in the US market? The Rav4? The FJ Cruiser? Kind of, but you can’t claim any sort of sports car performance out of either of them. They’re also both still bigger than this MINI SAV will end up being.

In general principle, I would say no, an SUV or SAV or whatever you want to call it doesn’t exactly jive with MINI’s heritage as small, sporty, stylish, economical transportation. But in execution, this MINI Crossover Concept pretty much has me sold on the idea. It’s completely MINI. In fact, my first reaction in seeing it was utter surprise at how much the big front grill looked like the classic Mini face. In a lot of ways, this car looks more like the classic Mini than the current iterations of the Cooper. So is this SAV a MINI? Abso-friggen-lutely.

The Crossover Concept itself
Obviously, the production car will be much more conservative than this. It won’t have the funky sliding door or the rear tilt gate, which is kind of a shame. It probably won’t have the modular rail up the center, and I would expect a more traditional bucketed bench seat in the rear to accommodate a 5th passenger. It certainly won’t have the Ferengi mind control ball as the dash interface, but I expect it will have an interior unique from the Cooper and Clubman. I do hope it retains a center-mounted instrument panel. Overall, I think it’s just slick as can be. I picture one with a kayak on the roof rack, the diesel engine growling out massive amounts of torque, towing a trailer with a pair of scooters on it. Sweet. I would love to have one of these. Sadly, it’ll probably be north of $30k to spec one out like I’d want it. There are a lot of very nice cars in the $30k range. Lots of E46 M3s to be had. But if I got to where I wanted to haul stuff and people, or felt like I needed AWD to navigate the frozen north of Minnesota, the MINI Crossover would definitely be on my short list.

Check out the full unveil over at MotoringFile.

Listen here to Gabe and Todd give their design analysis on WhiteRoofRadio

Nathaniel Salzman