When you ask even a moderately well-informed car person what the ironic difference was between the original Issigonis Mini and the reborn BMW Mini (or MINI, if you like shouting), it’s that the original was tiny on the outside but massive between the pillars, while the 2001 remake was comparatively vast on the outside with a truly terrifying lack of space inside.
A lot of that came down to safety standards. Back in the 1960s it was perfectly normal to place your loved ones into a box made of poor-quality, cheaply bashed-together metal with no safety aids and to simply hope for the best. Crumple zones? You were the crumple zones.
By the 21st century matters had changed a bit on the passive safety front and it was no longer acceptable to transport human beings inside a passenger cell no stronger than a wet paper bag. A lot of the new Mini’s size was down to its vastly improved crash safety over the dinky original.
Say what you like about nostalgia but it ain’t what it used to be. Ahem. I for one wouldn’t want my son, heir and mini-me being carried around at 60mph among thousands of SUVs (and imitations), knowing that all that stood between a Range Rover bumper and his tiny head was a door you could dent with a rubber mallet.
On the other hand, since 2001 there have been several all-new Minis launched and each one has grown bigger, podgier and more ill-proportioned. Catch sight of an R50 Mini One today, or better yet an R53 Cooper S, and it looks like a cleanly-etched beacon of supermini styling perfection.
The glass-to-metal ratio is spot-on, the face and headlights are endearing without saccharine sweetness and it has a certain deftness about its poise on the road. Against its 2019 descendant it’s a natural beauty that’s been lost beneath thick foundation and fake eyebrows.
Speaking to Auto Express at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Mini’s big cheese Bernd Koerber mentioned his preference for the next all-new version of the one-time design icon to shrink back to where it started. He told the weekly title:
“I would love to see Mini move back to the essence of clever use of space. That means the outer proportions on the core Mini Hatch could be reduced. I can see that happening.
“The benefit of electrification is that you don’t have to compromise on function. If you fit the battery wisely, you can go smaller but still offer functionality.”
The extra context in that article suggests Koerber is shooting for dimensions very similar to those of the first BMW-era Mini. For the reasons outlined above, this is a very good thing. For another thing, the limitations of packaging a safe car in a small shell won’t have the same fallout in terms of interior space.
We should all know by now that, designed correctly, an electric powertrain takes up much less space than internal combustion. The cabin of a future electric Mini could be much roomier than the R50’s while still ticking all the (very numerous) boxes required to score five stars with Euro NCAP.
At the same time it would be a hoot around town, albeit a quiet one and possibly one that ends up being barely any different to drive than any rival. Electric drive delivers response as sharp as Mini would be willing to tune it. Parent brand BMW’s first electric i3 biffabout was quicker than the V8-driven M3 over a short distance from a standing start, so there’s every chance a Mini with technology a decade newer could be at least as quick and even more entertaining.
It sounds like a great solution. You can retro-fit electric drive to the classic Mini but those safety issues linger and there’s the small matter of a £79,000 (minimum) bill. The R56 Cooper S will take a lot of beating in the fun stakes, but as an everyday companion an electric Mini the size of the R50 sounds absolutely brilliant.