What made the original Mini so special, more than 50 years ago, was designer Alec Issigonis' creative use of space.
BMW has adopted the same design philosophy for today’s Minis - and never more so than in this concept, the Rocketman, which will be shown for the first time at the Geneva motor show.
It's a 3+1-seater with three doors, 3.419m long (only a few centimetres longer than an original Mini) but considerably wider at 1.907m, and 1.398m tall. Most interesting here are the rumours that have been flying around recently, that Mini is set to build a smaller entry-level hatchback to slot beneath the current car - and this concept surely proves that intention.
It's based on a carbon-fibre spaceframe (its signature woven texture is visible at the front, around the doors and inside the cabin), with wide-opening, double-hinged doors and integrated sills.
The lightweight seats can be arranged to provide maximum driving fun two-up, comfortable space for three or an efficient four-seat layout for short hauls. The luggage compartment is just as flexible with a two-part tailgate, one section of which is attached to the roof and opens extremely high
The lower section can be pulled out like a drawer to extend the body by 350mm; it's a logical extension of Issigonis' original downwards-opening boot design and enables the car literally to grow when necessary to accommodate four people and their luggage.
An intelligent folding mechanism makes it possible to lock the cargo drawer either higher up or further forward, keeping valuables out of sight and protected from the weather. If required, items can also be loaded through into the passenger compartment.
The glass tailgate, which extends well into the roof, has a central hinge with integrated gas strut so it can be opened even when the rear carrier is loaded with gear.
The Rocketman concept (wonder if they're paying royalties to Sir Elton John for using the name of his 1972 hit song) is aimed straight at the wired generation - the control unit can be taken out of the car and connected to a PC to update navigation destinations, the music playlist or contact details for mobile communication.
But it's still recognisably a Mini in its proportions, straight-line design language and signature styling cues such as the large wheels, chrome-trimmed grille and large circular headlights. Those headlights, however, have central LED's for full beam and eye-catching light rings for dipped beams.
The windows taper towards the rear and the high waist-line, accentuated on production Minis by a chrome frame ringing the vehicle, is accentuated even further on this concept by a light strip. The 18” rims specially developed for the Rocketman have an aerodynamically clean enclosed structure with a carbon-fibre wing contour to reduce drag and an aluminium trim strip on the rim.
The long doors pivot outwards complete with their sills so the driver and front passenger can climb in right next to their seats; they also make access to the rear seats much easier. This “cutaway” sill arrangement is made possible by impressive torsional stiffness of the carbon-fibre shell.
The doors also have double-jointed hinges, allowing a large opening angle when space is restricted. The carbon-fibre hinges also stand out in shape and colour with the doors closed - another styling cue taken from the classic Mini.
The tail lights project the rear, brake and turn signals on to the body to make them bigger and brighter.
The glass roof is segmented by illuminated braces to recreate the look of Britain's Union Jack flag; the braces are white so they're visible through the roof even when they're not lit up - and they match the side mirrors. At night the inside is indirectly lit by optic fibres.
Three individual seats slide fore and aft, allowing generous head, leg and shoulder room, and there's an extra seat in the rear with a folding backrest that becomes a stowage surface.
Three mobility layouts have been developed: if the front seats are pushed back as far as possible, the instrument cluster also moves back to convert the Rocketman into a seriously sporty two-seater.
Add a third occupant; the front passenger moves his seat forward to the standard position, creating an equally generous seating position behind him. If the driver then moves his seat (and the instruments) well forward, four people can be carried on short trips.
The door panels house the door pulls and stowage compartments, which have elliptical trim elements reaching past the B pillar. Leather upholstery and glossy painted surfaces combine with armrests and trim strips made from a special pressed paper, backlit by LED-powered fibre optics.
The instrumentation takes the classic Mini layout to a whole new level with a rev-counter and computer display in front of the driver. The characteristic centre dial has a peripheral speedometer and multifunctional, high-defintion, 3D colour display.
But, in addition to multifunction buttons on the steering wheel, the Rocketman has a trackball on the right-hand spoke. To navigate through the menu levels the driver turns the trackball horizontally, while vertical movements allow him to scroll up and down lists. The driver then selects the desired function with a press of the trackball. With functions such as in-car internet, the driver uses his thumb to move the cursor around the display in any direction.
According on the driver's preference and the driving situation, relevant displays and alerts are moved into the foreground, while the remaining status displays remain visible on a display level further back. This makes it significantly easier to move quickly and intuitively between the navigation map display, music programme selection and telephone contacts list.
The classic Mini met the needs of its time in a unique, fun way. Today's Minis echo Issigonis' creative use of space and the Rocketman offers a glimpse of how these features may look in the future - and still be fun.