New electric MPV shows focus for next generation of Minis; could reach production
Mini is plotting the most radical addition to its growing line-up yet in the form of a spacious new MPV, previewed by the Vision Urbanaut concept.
The striking design is the result of an in-house project focused on developing solutions for the future of urban mobility in 2030, showcasing new packaging ideas and the latest electric and autonomous technology.
While it so far exists only in digital renderings, Mini bosses are seriously considering a production version of the model, although not until at least 2027. Mini boss Bernd Körber also said the Urbanaut previews design features that will be seen on the brand’s next generation of models, beginning with the three-door hatchback due in 2023.
The Urbanaut was conceived as a new interpretation of the ‘clever use of space’ mantra used since the launch of the original Mini in 1959, forgoing the classic two-box silhouette of all the brand’s current models for a tall, one-box design with a long wheelbase and short overhangs.
While the shape, developed by Mini design boss Oliver Heilmer, is similar to that of the Volkswagen ID Buzz concept, the Urbanaut is significantly smaller, at 4460mm long. That makes it 261mm longer than the current Mini Countryman.
Mini officials told Autocar that a production version of the Urbanaut is being considered both as a five-seat passenger car and a commercial version for urban deliveries. That would give Mini’s parent firm, BMW, a competitor to the popular small vans sold by rivals Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. Mini is currently working on its next-generation hatchback, which will be closely followed by a new Countryman and a smaller SUV.
Every Mini from now on will be offered with an electrified powertrain. The firm is considering potential electric models to expand its line-up in future, which could include the Urbanaut. The spacious MPV is also seen as a potentially important factor in raising Mini sales in China.
The Urbanaut heralds a new interpretation of the traditional Mini grille, being octagonal rather than hexagonal in shape, while round headlights sit behind a prominent milled-aluminium cover.
The concept’s vertical sides have a largely unadorned look with smooth surfacing devoid of any major feature lines.
At the rear, the window recalls the shape of the grille, while the wheels are inspired by those of a skateboard, lighting up in one of three Mini mood themes – Chill, Wanderlust or Vibe – when they rotate. The tyres feature a tread pattern resembling the Union Jack.
The Urbanaut’s cabin is entered through a large single side door that uses a slide-and-swivel mechanism to enable parking in tight spaces. In a design twist that recalls the Isetta bubble car produced by BMW between 1955 and 1962, the large windscreen is designed to open when the Urbanaut is stationary.
The tall glasshouse and glazed roof aim to flood the interior with natural light. Its lounge-like ambience is made possible by a steering wheel that was conceived to stow away when not in use and front seats that swivel around to face the rear. The rear seats fold away to form a sofa and a large digital panel is integrated into the interior trim and roof.
While this concept interior is intended to preview how future urban vehicles can be used as a ‘mobile living space’, Mini has already built interior packaging models of the Urbanaut that feature a more conventional layout with seats that fold flat to provide a bed.
Notably, Heilmer said the Urbanaut would influence future models: “You will find some citations of design items and language, especially in the interior, that will be translated into series [production] cars in the next model generation.”
The adoption of an MPV bodystyle was made possible by a decision to base the Urbanaut on a new, skateboard-like electric vehicle platform, because this affords greater proportional freedom than the BMW-developed-and-engineered FAAR structure used by Mini today.
“In 1959, the first Mini ushered in a revolution in vehicle construction with its transversely mounted engine,” said Heilmer. “With the Mini Vision Urbanaut, we have been able to rethink and increase the usable surface area inside the car even further in relation to its footprint.”
While BMW hasn’t named the platform that the concept is based on, the production version could use the EV architecture being developed by Spotlight Automotive, a joint venture between BMW and China’s Great Wall Motors.
That platform is set to underpin the new Mini crossover announced late last month and will be produced in China by Spotlight Automotive. The same operation is also planned to produce the next-generation Mini Electric hatchback.
Although bold, the Urbanaut isn’t the first MPV designed by Mini. Under the stewardship of Rover, the brand created the Spiritual Too, which was shown as a concept in 1997.
Q&A: Bernd Korber, head of Mini
What does the Urbanaut mean to Mini?
“This has to be seen in the context of our future plans. Starting in 2023, we’re going to go into fullblown electrification and expand our portfolio into segments where we think as Mini we can bring in our DNA in terms of design and driving excitement. The Urbanaut is meant as a long-term perspective on where Mini is going.”
How realistic is a production version?
“The importance is that we put it into context and into a timeline. The next step of Mini will be in 2023, when we have the next generation of the Mini hatch and the family around it, where we add a crossover and move the Countryman a little higher with full electrification. With the Urbanaut, we’re talking about a time frame of 2027 and beyond.”
Is there a market for the Urbanaut, given the decline in popularity of the MPV?
“Design is all-important for Mini. When we do design confirmations, we look at ‘will it be cool or not cool?’. We don’t look into making a practical MPV: there are other products out there that fulfil that need. We want to provide a cool answer to people who need space.”