Cernobbio, Italy--BMW’s recent concepts on display at the annual Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este have gone exactly nowhere. Benoit Jacob’s beautiful M1 homage remained a one-off, as did the striking Z4 Zagato, and the awesome Pininfarina Gran Lusso. The 2014 event saw the presentation of the Mini Superleggera vision conceived by Mini in conjunction with the famous Italian carozzeria Touring—and, yes, you are forgiven for assuming that this is just another soon-to-be-mothballed nine-day wonder. After all, Mini’s portfolio already features two soft-top models, the Cabriolet and the Roadster. But Peter Schwarzenbauer, board member in charge of Mini, Rolls-Royce, and motorcycles, is apparently quite fond of the Como blue eye-catcher. “I don’t think it should be our goal to keep adding new bodystyles, to create even more variety,” he says. “Instead, I would rather focus on a relatively small batch of edgy core models. I like to call them superheroes because every model has its special character. What are these superheroes? For sure the Mini hatch and Countryman, at least one open-top model and perhaps one or two more variants. Does the Superleggera have superhero potential? Absolutely -- it could sharpen the brand. It’s still early days, but this car and the underlying engineering concept are significant in more ways than one.”
Joint effort of Mini & TouringThe Superleggera was designed by Anders Warming (Mini) in close cooperation with Louis de Fabribeckers (Touring). Fusing German, English, and Italian styling cues, the topless two-seater was built by Touring in Milan. The Superleggera sits on a 99.2-inch wheelbase. It is 163.9 inches long, 77.3 inches wide (71.8 inches without mirrors), and 47.6 inches high. At this point, a roof has yet to be devised. There is talk of a manual soft top with a plastic rear window.
A brief drive along Lake ComoWould we like to take the Superleggera for a quick spin? We certainly would, even though the first outing is restricted to a short stretch of lakeside gravel path. Like all Minis, this one sports a spacious cabin, body-hugging seats, and self-explanatory ergonomics. Pushing a flush-fitting button makes the door pop open, and we slide behind the three-spoke steering wheel and brace ourselves for an encore of the electric driving experience we last sampled in a Mini E. The concept car is equipped with a small rear-mounted electric motor fed by a small battery pack. To save energy, our driving range is restricted to five commutes from the Villa Visconti to the boathouse and back. Despite that typical instant-torque acceleration kick, the maximum speed is limited to 12 mph.
Looks like a Mini, feels like a MiniFirst impressions? Looks like a Mini, feels like a Mini. Quick steering, grabby brakes, firm ride. The concept makes do with a single-speed transmission operated via a chrome toggle switch between the seats. Behind the gearlever, we find the electric push-button parking brake. A slide control integrated in the center front section of the tubular steel frame acts as the on/off switch.
Minimalist cabinThe driver environment is minimalist. Straddling the steering column is a small round instrument that houses the digital speedometer and the circular bar-graph rev counter. The other display is the main center binnacle that incorporates a set of touch controls, a TFT monitor, the record button for the in-car camera mounted between the headrests, and an analog clock. The windshield and the fixed quarter windows are made of tinted Plexiglass. At this point, two leather-clad steel hoops behind the seats provide roll-over protection. If the Superleggera does get the nod, we would expect a structural windshield frame, safety seats with integrated impact-absorption elements, a fabric top, and a different set of air intakes. Items that would carry over from the show car include the proportions, the signature tailfin, the union jack touches (taillights, door beams), the 19-inch wheels, the quad headlamp theme, and the stance-defining blend of Mini and Touring crease lines.
A Riva power boat for the roadThe Mini chief designer Anders Warming is a Chris Bangle scholar and a BMW veteran. The 42-year-old Belgian’s previous creations include the X-Coupé, the GINA, and the Mille Miglia concepts. “We first started discussing the Superleggera almost six years ago,” recalls Warming. “Immediately after the 2013 Concorso, [BMW Group design chief] Adrian van Hooydonk gave us the thumbs up. The idea was to conceive a modern Riva power boat for the road, a proper Italian barchetta with a British soul. While Minis typically have short stubby noses, the Superleggera musters a relaxed cab-backward design with a self-conscious and relatively long front end. We did not want to end up with a retro-look car, but tapping the tradition of the great English roadster was perfectly okay—think MGA, Triumph TR2, Austin Healey. While some elements of the tubular frame structure are clearly visible, others are concealed by body panels.
Como blue rather than bright redWe started off with a series of bright red proposals, but in the end a more subtle hue like Como blue seemed better suited for this event. To underline the fact that this is a battery-driven vehicle, we chose matte violet as a secondary accent color for the brake calipers, the start-stop switch, the steering-wheel spokes, and the in-dash air vents.”
Will you ever be able to buy one?How close to production is this two-seat roadster? According to those in the know, the group R&D chief Herbert Diess has already put accounting on the case, and Schwarzenbauer is also cautiously optimistic. “First of all, we would like to gauge the reception here at the show. If it is positive, we might shift up a gear, knowing full well that an electric version must complement the Mini range in the not too distant future.” Trouble is, even the latest architecture introduced last year is not fully prepared to spawn an EV. While work on a zero-emission edition of the 2-series Active Tourer is making good progress, packaging issues virtually rule out a successor to the Mini E. Instead, BMW intends to offer a plug-in hybrid, starting in 2017. 2017 is also the provisional target launch date for the Superleggera. Although it’s still early, we expect this model to boast two separate yet totally integrated propulsion systems, as in the BMW i8. While the combustion engine would drive the rear wheels, an electric motor would be in charge of the front-wheel-drive duties. If it works out as planned, this compelling theme will in all likelihood be transferred from the Superleggera to other models including the third-generation Mini due in 2020.
No more range anxiety“We believe that battery development is going to yield results faster than anticipated,” states Schwarzenbauer. “By results I mean smaller, lighter, and more powerful energy cells. In direct consequence, we can expect a significantly extended driving range." A shift like this could become a real game-changer. We think that the combustion world will eventually start losing ground to the electric world, but it is of course very difficult to predict the timing and the gradation of this process.”
In the case of the Mini Superleggera, R&D is currently pleading for a relatively radical solution that would pair a 120-hp two-cylinder in-line motorcycle engine driving the rear wheels with an 80-hp e-motor driving the front wheels. Both units come out of the existing parts bin. This layout can switch between zero-emissions front-wheel drive, low-emissions rear-wheel drive, and combined 200-hp all-wheel drive.
Could the Superleggera spawn a tiny BMW twin?To create an even broader volume base, the new Mini soft-top might get a BMW sister model. True, the mother ship is currently developing a Z4 replacement together with Toyota. But this should not stop BMW from venturing into Z2 territory with a Superleggera sibling, which is exactly what marketing is evaluating right now. Comments an insider familiar with the project: “The beauty of the modular new architecture is its flexibility. It can be FWD, RWD, and AWD; it is able to accommodate a wide selection of powerplants; it allows us to put the batteries and the fuel tank where we need them for optimum weight distribution and space utilization.”
Schwarzenbauer also stresses the scalability of the concept: “Enginewise, we may select a two-cylinder, a three-cylinder, or a four. A similar scope applies to the size chart: from an ultra-compact city car to a relatively roomy family car, almost anything is possible. You see, for the future Mini family, we are looking at a bandwidth that stretches from about 3700 mm (146 inches) to almost 4500 mm (177 inches). That’s the kind of flexibility new-generation customers demand—and will get.”