Mini Vision Urbanaut Concept First Look: Mini Takes on #VanLife

Launched in 1959, the original Mini revolutionized automotive design. With its engine mounted transversely across the front of the car and driving the front wheels, the Mini’s space-efficient mechanical layout became the blueprint for small and medium-size cars the world over. The second-generation Mini, launched in 2001 by BMW, was a digitally remastered homage to the original’s cheeky design that also amped up its fun-to-drive dynamics. BMW’s new Mini Vision Urbanaut concept is less a car than a lounge on disco-lit wheels.

Think of the Urbanaut as a small minivan stuffed with a hipster loft interior. According to BMW, it has a “daybed” and a “street balcony” at the front and a “cosy corner” at the rear. Pop a token into one of three slots on the small table and the Urbanaut will present you with one of three “curated Mini moments” (Chill, Wanderlust, and Vibe), each of which changes the interior ambiance, seating configuration, and connectivity settings. Steering wheel? Pedals? Other car stuff? Oh, it’s all in there somewhere. The six-page press release makes a fleeting reference to an electric powertrain and autonomous drive capability.

Is this really the future of Mini? BMW Group design chief Adrian van Hooydonk justifies the Mini branding on the basis the Urbanaut concept makes “clever use of space.”

The one-box format does deliver a lot of interior room for the concept’s given footprint. The only dimension quoted is an overall length of 175.6 inches, which makes the Urbanaut—in comparison to long-dead models—shorter than a Mazda 5 but longer than a Honda Element. And if the CGI renderings are to be believed, it’s taller than both. In purely physical terms, a Mini it ain’t.

Mini Vision Urbanaut: Urban Chic

Inside the Urbanaut is dominated by textiles woven from natural and recycled materials, washed with ambient lighting that changes according to mood and mode. Cork is used on the steering wheel and parts of the floor. The simple exterior is devoid of seams and decorative trim, with the car’s matte green-blue-gray finish fading into the greenhouse and glass roof. It’s enlivened, once the car is switched on, by changeable lighting graphics front and rear, and wheels inspired by the light-up ones on skateboards. The top-hinged windshield can be opened up when the Urbanaut is parked to create what BMW calls the street balcony.

For all its future-tech brainstorming and colorful lighting, however, the Mini Vision Urbanaut is an oddly dystopian take on a brand that once epitomized fun and functional transport.

Only one of those so-called “Mini moments”-Wanderlust-actually involves the Urbanaut moving, either with a driver at the controls or in fully autonomous mode. In the Chill and Vibe modes, you’re apparently just supposed to lounge around or socialize in the Urbanaut while it’s parked. But it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would actually choose to do that rather than, say, lounge around in the comfort of their own home or socialize with their friends at a bar or a restaurant. Unless, of course, in the future, we’re all going to be reduced to living in our cars…

Mini Vision Urbanuat: Spiritual Inspiration

The Urbanaut isn’t the first one-box Mini concept. The Mini Spiritual and Spiritual Too concepts unveiled at the 1997 Geneva Motor Show revealed BMW had been toying with the format as it worked on a replacement for the original Mini, a ground-breaking small car that had been in production with minimal changes for almost 40 years.

By the time the Spiritual concepts were revealed to the public, BMW had already decided on the design of its retro-styled front-drive hatchback that would appear as the all-new Mini in 2001. The decision to show the Spiritual cars at Geneva was primarily done to distract media attention from the launch of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

Originally designed in 1995, the Spiritual cars were in their own way as innovative and ground-breaking as the original Mini and hewed much more closely to that car’s core design concept of delivering maximum possible interior space in the smallest possible package than the car BMW eventually launched as the new Mini.

The Spirituals were powered by a three-cylinder engine mounted under the rear seat and driving the rear wheels. The suspension was a version of the Hydragas setup used on the original Mini, and the gas tank was under the front seats. At 120 inches, the two-door Spiritual was the same overall length as the original Mini, while the longer four-door Spiritual Too had interior room comparable to that of a contemporary BMW 7 Series.

While the Spiritual concepts were genuinely modern takes on the ideals that guided the original Mini’s designer, Alec Issigonis, in the 1950s, the retro-styled hatch that BMW chose instead, though an entirely conventional small car in terms of its engineering and execution (but nowhere near as space-efficient), was undoubtedly the smarter choice in terms of its commercial appeal.

Update: This post, which originally ran on November 17, 2020, has been updated to include new images of the Mini Vision Urbanaut concept.

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