Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mini previews the Countryman with Beachcomber concept

Mini Beachcomber

Mini BeachcomberMini provides the best clues yet to the appearance, size, interior layout and mechanical makeup of its upcoming small SUV at next month's Detroit auto show with the latest in a long line of production-based concept cars named the Beachcomber.

The flamboyantly styled off-roader borrows directly from Mini's upcoming Countryman--its new four-wheel drive planned to go on sale in North America in 2011, sharing key elements of its four-door steel body and four-seat interior together with its turbocharged 1.6-liter engine and newly conceived four-wheel-drive underpinnings.

Inspired by Mini's legendary Moke--a simple but robust, go-anywhere version of the original Alec Issigonis engineered Mini produced in small numbers between 1964 and 1968--the Beachcomber is not only being used to preview Mini's new urban off-roader but is also to explore design ideas that could find their way onto future derivatives of the Countryman, which is due to get its first public outing at the Geneva motor show next March.

“It's an ideas car that, depending on the sort of feedback we receive, may have a bearing on a future Mini production car,” Mini design boss Gerd Hildebrandt says of the Beachcomber. “It's based on our upcoming SUV but we've injected some added fun and off-road ability into it that we think could appeal to a certain type of Mini customer.” Mini Beachcomber

Central to the Beachcomber's appeal are pillarless body sides and the lack of any real doors or central roof panel--a layout that takes from the Moke and aims to place the driver and passengers closer to the action. The new Mini also features a series of fabric and composite panels that clip into place to provide occupants with protection from the elements.

Despite giving the Beachcomber open-air appeal, it is clear the open body design would be hard to produce given today's tough safety regulations. Although Mini is renowned for producing rigidly structured cars, it would also require some major modifications to the floorpan. Still, Mini officials do not rule out the possibility of the upcoming Countryman receiving a full-length fabric roof arrangement like that featured on the new concept car as optional equipment when it goes on sale.

Along with the open body, the design of the Beachcomber also places a big emphasis on off-road ability with generous ground clearance, cladding within the wheel arches and lower body sides, sturdy kick plates front and rear and 17-inch wheels shod with chunky tires clearly suited more at churning through mud than whisking you down the street. Further enhancing the go-anywhere ambitions are traditionally short overhangs, which help provide excellent approach and departure angles. Mini Beachcomber

Concept car flourishes aside, the Beachcomber's exterior styling combines the retro inspired appearance of the existing Cooper with a more technically orientated approach that Hildebrandt says will become more and more evident on upcoming Mini models. Eschewing the current trend toward edgy detailing and taut surfacing--as exemplified by parent company BMW's newly introduced X1, the exterior flaunts an almost old fashioned roundness, most notably within the front wheel arches, that is enhanced by modern detailing, as seen in the unusual shape and positioning of the headlamps, which have been taken from the Countryman in unchanged form.

Traditional cues include a negative radius grille and wrap around glass. Despite the apparent similarities with its existing siblings, however, the Detroit show car is much bolder and considerably larger than any Mini model that has gone before it. A body-colored grille, distinctively shaped headlamps and a high-set clam shell style hood dominate the front end. It also boasts a more heavily raked windscreen, a higher belt line and far greater ride height than any other Mini model down through the years. The side-opening tailgate mirrors that of Mini's early Cross concept shown at last year's Paris motor show and, in keeping with the robust nature of the Beachcomber, supports a spare wheel, although it will be replaced on the Countryman by a conventional hatchback.

At 160.2 inches long, the Beachcomber is 5.3 inches longer than Clubman--to date the longest Mini model to be placed into production. It also rides on a wheelbase that is 2.3 inches longer than the Clubman's at 102.6 inches. The increased dimensions might call into question the relevance of the Mini name sitting up front on the hood and projected in oversized form upon the spare wheel carrier at the rear, but they have also provided scope for a roomy four-seat interior with individual sliding rear seats and a generously sized boot.

The dashboard with its large central monitor and toggle switches, and seats with their rounded forms, mirror the themes established in other Mini models. In keeping with the Beachcomber's apparent ruggedness and open air design, it receives rubber floor mats and neoprene upholstery for the seats. However, they will be replaced by more conventional trim on production versions of the Countryman, which will be produced at Magna in Austria rather than Mini's traditional manufacturing plant in Oxford, England.

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