Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Get Motoring -- While BMW has been hailed for brilliantly executing the revival of the Mini, a look at another resurrected British classic -- Triumph motorcycles -- demonstrates how BMW probably has not taken full advantage of what they (re)created. While BMW has gotten good mileage out of the Mini Cooper model, it has not capitalized on the brand it created.

What is remarkable is not just the success of the Mini Cooper, but how the combination of the actual car and the marketing of the car have created, practically overnight, a distinct brand identity: the friendly hipness of the Let's Motor campaign. The campaign is not fungible. It would have fallen flat on its face without the charming Mini Cooper. But, and here's where BMW is missing an opportunity, the brand identity could easily extend beyond the current Mini and its variants and apply to a broader line of thematically similar cars.

The answer is not, as suggested by photos in this months Automobile photo gallery, taking the physical Mini and stretching, twisting, and jacking-up into an SUV model, a coupe model, etc. Better to take the Mini brand and create a clean-sheet SUV, coupe, etc. that share the Let's Motor gene with just the minimum physical resemblance to the Mini.

Triumph is a great case study.

The current incarnation of the Triumph motorcycle company started with a modern Bonneville. Where the Mini is a modern reinterpretation of the old Mini Cooper, the new Bonneville is almost a slavish reproduction of the classic. (To be fair, the different approaches probably reflect the greater change in the automotive regulatory environment.)

Once out of the gate with the new Bonneville, though, Triumph started churning out new models, particularly sport bikes and cruisers that bear only a passing resemblance to the Bonneville, if there's any resemblance at all. What they share is the same attitude, articulated in a modern idiom. (You can, however, still get your Modern Classics -- three 60's era lookalikes.) The awesome Speed Triple looks nothing like the Bonneville -- new or old -- but is unmistakably a Triumph.

Triumph took the essence of the Bonneville and built a modern lineup. BMW needs to do the same with the Mini.

Maybe the Automobile Mini variants are off the mark and BMW has a bunch of fresh, new models to introduce that extend the Let's Motor franchise. Let's hope.
Time to kill the 911 -- No car has occupied the fervid Downshift automotive imaginative universe like the 911 and its variants. The ultimate dream car.

Now it's time to kill it.

That the 911 continues to be one of the best performing, particularly best handling, cars in the world is testament to Porsche's engineering brilliance. But, what if they didn't have to overcome the handicap of the engine hanging over the ass?

Well, we know. In two very different comparison tests, the Boxster S came out on top. In Road & Track's search for the ultimate sports car, the Boxster S beat out, among others, the 911 Carrera. The Boxster also won Car and Driver's comparison of four convertible sports cars.

No Carrera in the Car and Driver contest, but the Boxster did beat a Corvette, while a Corvette beat a 911 in a head-to-head shootout a few months ago. By a rough transitive property, the Boxster beat the 911 in Car and Driver-world.

And, why wouldn't it? With the engine amidship, the Boxster starts out with an advantage (more fairly, without a disadvantage). The only thing the 911 has on the Boxster is power, but that's simply the consequence of a marketing decision by Porsche. They could put the Carrera's 320 bhp motor in the roughly 300 pound lighter Boxster, but that would cannabalize sales of the more expensive 911.

Note to Zuffenhausen: it would be a blessing, not a curse.

The 911 has for decades had a monopoly on the drivable exotic. A better all-around package than cheaper cars like the Corvette. And more livable than exotics like the entry-level Ferrari.

But, the Corvette's performance has become world-class while maintaining a 30K advantage on the 911 and nobody complains anymore that the Ferrari 400 has the temperment of an Italian tenor while requring a body-builder's left leg (especially because you can buy a clutchless manual).

What your left with the in the 911 is a timeless body form covering a dead-end chassis design. Eventually, hanging more than 60% of a car's weight over the rear-end is going to catch up to you.

So, let the ponies loose in the Boxster engine bay. If the 911 is going to get eclipsed, keep it in the family. Put enough power in the Boxster to make it a comparo-test winner because of, not in spite of, it's straightline performance.

But what about people like the Downshift patriarch, who once described driving a Boxster as akin to "kissing your mother"? (Since we know he actually and happily kissed Downshift's mother, we'll assume he butchered the standard "kiss your sister" epithet.) He was referring to the general level of appointment in the Boxster compared to his 911 Cabriolet.

Putting aside the improvement in cabin luxury in the latest version of the Boxster, if you care more about the Boxster's inferior dashboard quality than it's superior handling compared to your 911, you're using your 911 as a GT. So, Porsche needs a credible GT to meet that luxo-cruiser demand. A 928 for the 21st Century.

The 20th Century 928 was not an enormous success. But, two things have changed. One, as discussed, if it hasn't already, the 911 is about to lose it's performance mantle. That only a rear-engined car is a true Porsche isn't going to matter to the market when front-engine and mid-engine cars are squeezing the 911 from both ends of the price spectrum. Two, for a host of reasons, it took years before Porsche put a real motor in the 928. Now, Porsche has the Cayenne's 450 hp twin-turbo V8 it could drop in a front-engine car, all-wheel-drive GT from the git-go. And what git-go!

The 911 has served its time well. Time to move on.