Mini Rocketman: launch aborted?

MINI Rocketman
When Mini unveiled the Rocketman concept, the response was electrifying. "At last" people said, "a Mini that is the same size as the original. Where do I sign?" It now seems possible that there never will be a place to sign, as doubts grow over the viability of the project.

There are two big problems with the Rocketman, that go right back to the 1959 original.

The first Mini famously had 80% of its total space given over to people and (some) luggage. That is how it managed to squeeze four people into a box just three metres long. You might think that a modern downsized engine could fit into even less space than the original A-Series unit, but the engine is not the problem.

Today, pretty well 20% of a car's space is given over to safety equipment – front and rear crumple zones, side impact protection, airbags all round etc., etc. No matter how clever modern engineers are, they cannot make a car today with the same proportion of passenger space as 40 years ago. People might laugh at an old Lada saloon, but if you sat inside one, you would be shocked at how much more space it has than any modern car of the same overall size. Of course, a modern car would keep you alive in an accident, so that is a fair exchange.

However, the fundamental point is that space used for occupant protection cannot be used for something else. A three metre car can fit modern safety equipment plus two, or at a pinch three people, but it cannot fit safety equipment, four people and anything approximating a boot.

The second issue is that the original Mini did not make any money. Its size meant people saw it as a tiny car, and expected a tiny price, but all that clever engineering cost a lot of money. One of the reasons that the current Mini is one class higher (supermini, not city-car sized), is that BMW can charge a lot more money for it. A Rocketman would either have to be sold for less than the standard Mini, or be sold as the ultimate fashion item at the same price. If it cost the same as a normal Mini, its sales would be very limited, but the opportunities for selling at a lower price are limited. The standard Mini is not exactly cheap to make, but its costs are spread across an ever-growing range of models: hatchback, convertible, Countryman, Coupe and Roadster. The Rocketman would have to use mostly bespoke parts to get its length down and it would have to support all its own costs – it could turn out to be more expensive to make than its bigger brother.

Every car manufacturer has looked at radical city cars, but most have given up. Those that have tried are hardly beacons of success: smart has been a drain on Mercedes profits and the Toyota iQ, very clever though it is, has not exactly been a runaway success, with less than 3,000 sold in the UK last year. Mini would love another very small car, but it cannot decide if it is really going to be worth the trouble.