BMW FINDS BIG DEMAND FOR NEW MINI

It's the kind of problem most auto makers want. BMW AG can't build the new Mini Cooper compact car fast enough to satisfy customer demand. Waiting lists per dealership are about 200-people long. The wait for the base model is about two months, and some buyers must wait up to seven months for delivery of the performance S model. Through 70 dealers in mainly metro markets, BMW of North America Inc.

It's the kind of problem most auto makers want. BMW AG can't build the new Mini Cooper compact car fast enough to satisfy customer demand.

Waiting lists per dealership are about 200-people long. The wait for the base model is about two months, and some buyers must wait up to seven months for delivery of the performance S model.

Through 70 dealers in mainly metro markets, BMW of North America Inc. expects to sell 15,000 Minis this year and 20,000 annually by 2003. The auto maker says it sold 6,739 Minis here in the year's first half. The car hit showrooms in March.

“I think the main reason it is selling so well is that BMW is behind it, as is the respect that BMW gets, and you can get a Mini for under $20,000,” says Joe Cacciabando, sales manager at Mini of St. Louis, MO. The dealership has sold about 130 cars. U.S. dealerships were initially allotted 300 cars each.

BMW underestimated the amount of customers who'd order Xenon headlights. Cacciabando says about 80% of Mini buyers want the feature as opposed to the 30% BMW predicted, and suppliers couldn't keep up with demand until recently.

BMW builds the retro-styled Mini in the U.K., keeping with the tradition, if not the old technology, of previous Minis. Minis originally were manufactured by the British Motor Corp., and were built from 1959 to 2000. The car was sold in the U.S. from 1960-69, when it was withdrawn from the market due to tighter emission and crash standards.

BMW acquired Mini's parent, the Rover Group, in 1994, selling off the loss-making unit in May 2000 but retaining Mini.

The Mini is a hot seller despite its diminutive size. That's counter to a current trend of “bigger is better” as evidenced by strong SUV sales.

“It's unique in its own way because it is small,” says Young Choe, sales manager of Crown Mini of Richmond, VA. “Besides, I think it would look pretty ugly if it were large.”

With demand as high as it is, dealers may choose to mark up prices of the Mini. That's not surprising, says Choe, whose dealership isn't.

“Some stores do, especially some on the West Coast. Right now they can get away with it. But we haven't done that here,” he says.

The Mini's initial popularity resembles the launches of Volkswagen AG's New Beetle and DaimlerChrysler AG's PT Cruiser. Both retro-styled cars enjoyed the demand the Mini is seeing, but now sales of each are down.

Says Cacciabando, “Originally, I thought the Mini might be a fad, but the way the car performs and handles, bar none, there is no other that can out-handle this car in the slalom course. Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, you name it…Sales may slow down, but I don't think the car will disappear.”

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