The BMW group has carried out three feasibility studies on whether or not to introduce its popular cult brand Mini in India. While two previous studies came up with a definite no, one earlier this year has given the green signal. The strength and resilience of the Indian car market through the global meltdown last year, coupled with its spectacular growth rates this year, have done the trick.

Going mini

So the company will begin its “Mini" operation, no pun intended, in India in 2011. The parent company’s well-entrenched Indian operation will play backbone for the Mini debut. And the plan will be two-pronged. Mini will first introduce its legendary, cult-status Cooper hatchback cars in two or three variants. These will be brought in using the completely built unit (CBU) route. The cars will be direct imports from the company’s Cowley plant in Oxfordshire, UK. The company will not target large volumes with the Mini Coopers and I expect they will remain niche, just like the Volkswagen Beetle or Fiat 500 have.

Following the introduction of its flagship cars, Mini will launch the Countryman variant, which will be assembled locally at the BMW plant in Chennai. BMW India has begun an expansion to accommodate its own new models, such as the upcoming X1 mini-SUV. The expansion will also include the Mini agenda.

Countryman cometh

The Countryman is the first Mini to be assembled outside the UK to begin with—it is being built in Graz, Austria, by Magna Steyr under contract. The kits for it will be exported from the Magna plant to the Chennai facility. This will give Mini pricing power, and the ability to get aggressive and rack up some fairly large volumes. So while the hatch will remain niche and expensive, the Countryman is likely to be at a sub-Rs20 lakh price point.

There won’t be a massive sales or distribution network to begin with. Only a few select metros, such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, are likely to get a Mini dealership each in 2011. Other cities could be added depending on the company’s sales performance in the first three-five years. Existing BMW workshops are likely to offer service support across India.

The Countryman variant has just begun going on sale in select markets across the world. It is the larger, taller, higher version of the Mini Cooper. So it’s not really mini then, in that sense! I got an opportunity to drive one recently. Before I saw the Countryman in the flesh, I have to admit I had reservations about the whole idea of a Mini on steroids. The car’s pictures suggested a disproportionate creature would be my ride. But having spent some time with the car, my opinion changed. It is, in fact, rather sporty, young and very different from anything on our roads—that’s for sure. And yet it has all the elements that make it a Mini—so it’s got chrome, lots of young and sporty design elements, and is very retro in its styling.

The Countryman that I drove was the S version, the most powerful, all-wheel drive. But there are other variants, including a diesel which I expect will make it to India. The optional all-wheel drive, which Mini calls ALL4, sends 50% of the power to the rear wheels when the situation demands it. I found the switchover was instant, the minute you needed more traction at the rear, in case the road surface got rough, or disappeared beneath you. On the inside too, the car has a quirky, fun nature. The cabin is finished with excellent materials and lots of old-fashioned styling—again, a Mini prerequisite really. Lots of goodies, such as climate control, navigation, cruise control, etc., were standard on the Countryman I drove. Other features such as a sunroof, or electric side mirrors, were not standard additions, but Indian buyers do like them. But it’s still too early to see what may make it to India, and what will not.

So there is plenty here that excites me, and frankly, if BMW is aggressive, as all indications seem to tell me it will be, then there could be many of these Countryman variants in our cities. And that is certainly not great news for either VW, with its planned mini-SUV, the Tiguan, the soon-to-be-launched Skoda Yeti, or for the bigger brutes such as Toyota’s Fortuner.

Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is editor (auto), NDTV

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