The Original Mini, introduced in 1959, revolutionized car design. With its engine mounted across the front of the car and driving the front wheels, the Mini’s space-saving mechanical layout became the blueprint for small and medium-sized cars around the world. The second-generation Mini introduced by BMW in 2001 was a digitally revised homage to the cheeky design of the original, which also increased the driving pleasure. The new Mini Vision Urbanaut concept from BMW is less a car than a lounge on disco wheels.
Think of the Urbanaut as a tiny minivan filled with a hipster loft interior. According to BMW, it has a “day bed” and a “street balcony” at the front and a “cozy corner” at the back. Insert a token into one of the three slots on the small table and the Urbanaut presents you with one of three “curated mini-moments” (chill, wanderlust and vibe), each of which changes the interior ambience, the seating configuration and the connectivity settings. Steering wheel? Pedals? Other car things? Oh, everything is in there somewhere. The six-page press release briefly refers to an electric drive train and autonomous drive options.
Is this really the future of Mini? The head of design at the BMW Group, Adrian van Hooydonk, justifies the mini branding with the fact that the Urbanaut concept “makes clever use of space”.
The one-box format offers a lot of space for the given space requirements of the concept. The only specified dimension is a total length of 175.6 inches, which makes the Urbanaut – compared to long-dead models – shorter than a Mazda 5, but longer than a Honda Element. And if you want to believe the CGI renders, it’s bigger than either. Physically speaking, it’s not a Mini.
Mini Vision Urbanaut: Urban Chic
Inside the Urbanaut, textiles made of natural and recycled materials dominate, which are washed with ambient light that changes depending on the mood and mode. Cork is used on the steering wheel and parts of the floor. The sleek exterior is free of seams and trim, and the car’s matte green, blue and gray surface fades in the greenhouse and glass roof. Once the car is turned on, it is enlivened by changeable light graphics in the front and rear and wheels inspired by the glowing ones on skateboards. The windshield with the top hinge can be opened when the Urbanaut is parked to create what BMW calls the street balcony.
Despite its forward-thinking brainstorming and colorful lighting, the Mini Vision Urbanaut is an oddly dystopian version of a brand that once stood for fun and functional transportation.
Only in one of these so-called “mini moments” – wanderlust – does the Urbanaut move either with a driver at the control or in fully autonomous mode. In the chill and vibe modes, you should apparently only hang around in the Urbanaut or socialize while it’s parked. But it’s hard to imagine why someone would choose to do this instead of, for example, lounging in the comfort of their own home or socializing with their friends in a bar or restaurant. Unless, of course, we will all be reduced to living in our cars in the future …
Mini Vision Urbanuat: Spiritual inspiration
The Urbanaut is not the first one-box mini concept. The “Mini Spiritual” and “Spiritual Too” concepts unveiled at the 1997 Geneva Motor Show showed that BMW had played with the format when it was working on a replacement for the original Mini, a pioneering small car that had been around for nearly 40 years with minimal changes was in production for years.
By the time the Spiritual concepts were unveiled, BMW had already decided to design the retro-style front-wheel drive hatchback, which was due to appear as a brand new Mini in 2001. The decision to show the Spiritual Cars in Geneva was made primarily to divert media attention from the introduction of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
Originally designed in 1995, the Spiritual cars were in their own way as innovative and groundbreaking as the original Mini and were much more closely aligned with the car’s core concept of offering the largest possible interior space in the smallest possible space than the car BMW introduced as the new Mini.
The Spirituals were powered by a three-cylinder engine mounted under the back seat that drove the rear wheels. The suspension was a version of the hydragas setup of 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 an interior comparable to that of a modern BMW 7 Series.
While the spiritual concepts were really modern, it carried over the ideals that guided the original mini-designer Alec Issigonis in the 1950s, the retro-style hatch that BMW chose instead, despite being a completely conventional little car in terms of technology and execution was (but nowhere near as space efficient) was undoubtedly the smarter choice in terms of its commercial appeal.