- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

Forward-looking concepts will not be the only vehicles unveiled at Detroit's prestigious international auto show next month. Nostalgia will play a role.

Among the retro fleet will be a Jeep Willy's concept, Mazda's next-generation RX-7 rotary-powered sportster, Ford's new production-version two-seat Thunderbird and BMW's rejuvenated Mini brand, which makes its debut with the new Mini Cooper.

Of these, the Mini is a curiosity in a market that worships big and powerful vehicles. The folks at BMW, however, think the Mini will make waves. Dealers are hot to have them. Mini franchises will be awarded to 70 BMW dealers in major metropolitan cities across the United States, including Detroit; Seattle; Boston; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Columbus, Ohio; and Minneapolis.

To date, the automaker has received 150 applications from BMW dealers interested in the brand. Selected dealers must make the commitment to have a dedicated sales area and staff for Mini. Sales will begin in March 2002.

Minis make sense in Europe, but here in the land of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, the tiny transports seem in danger of becoming roadkill. But who knows, if the cost of gasoline keeps rising and the economy continues to fall, Minis could start looking mighty good. While the base vehicle will be available with a 1.6-liter, 115-horsepower engine, a supercharged 160-horsepower engine also will be offered. That ought to be enough screaming horses for this midget to keep from falling underfoot.

Mini officials say the car will start at about $18,000 and a fully equipped one will not top $21,000. The best part is that the car will be available with all the options from BMW's 7-Series, including a navigation system, said Richard Steinberg, Mini program manager for the United States.

The bad news for yuppies is that while the BMW name will be used in the background to give consumers confidence, the car will not be known as the BMW Mini.

Mini hopes to sell 20,000 cars in the United States in the first year, although Mr. Steinberg said there's reason to believe it could go higher.

The Mini Cooper will be targeted at the 20- to 34-year-olds and will be marketed through nontraditional media, including the Internet. Mini officials expect the vehicle to be widely successful and say the automaker could raise capacity at its plant in Oxford, England, from 100,000 units to 200,000, if needed.

About 10,000 Minis were sold in the United States between 1960 and 1967. About 12,000 now exist on U.S. shores. But Mini officials say only 2 percent of the U.S. population is familiar with the brand. That soon could be subject to change.

WARD'S AUTOMOTIVE REPORT

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