When Mini first rolled out the reborn Cooper in 2002, selling a small, fuel-efficient car — especially a pricey one selling itself on quirky styling — might not have seemed like the best idea.
Gas was around $1.30 a gallon, and full-size SUVs — gas-guzzling dinosaurs that have since been largely chased into extinction — ruled the road.
"A 12-foot car was a really hard sell in the U.S.," recalled Jim McDowell, Mini's North American vice president. "We didn't have much in the way of competition, except cars that were vastly larger."
Yet Mini, which was revived by BMW, saw a unique space with few competitors, and pushed forward with the small two-door hatchback. Its retro style was a modern interpretation of the original Mini from the 1960s.
With an offbeat design and colorful marketing, the Cooper motored on to immense popularity. Since that 2002 launch, nearly 550,000 of the cars, in numerous variants, have been snatched up over two generations of the Cooper.
On Wednesday, we meet the third.
The all-new 2015 Mini Cooper will make its North American debut at the L.A. Auto Show during the second of three media days. Just two days earlier, the car will have bowed to the world from Mini's plant in Oxford, England.
Among the notable changes is the base model's three-cylinder, direct-injected 1.5-liter engine, making 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. Mini will be the second mainstream automaker to bring a three-cylinder engine to the U.S. market.
Ford Motor Co. has a 1.0-liter turbocharged engine slated for the its tiny Fiesta sub-compact, but it won't be the standard engine for that car. Mitsubishi's 2014 Mirage will use a 1.2-liter three cylinder engine in all models.
Automakers already use the tiny three-bangers in cars sold abroad, and they're eager to see how they will sell in the U.S.
"They're really going to try to test waters here that vehicle," Sullivan said of the three-cylinder Mini Cooper. "Marketing a fun-to-drive car with a 3-cylinder engine will be a challenge here. A lot will depend a lot on how the engine sounds, as with the Mirage or the Ford Ecoboost."
For now, the Smart Fortwo, a two-seat mini car, is the only three-cylinder offering in the U.S., but it's not a big seller
For the Mini, the Nov. 18 world debut date was chosen because it is the birthday of Sir Alec Issigonis, the man largely considered to be the godfather of the original Mini — the most popular British car ever made.
Although that tiny car is dwarfed by the modern Cooper, the shape of the reborn model hasn't changed much since its reintroduction more than a decade ago. So for the 2014 model, the brand embarked carefully on a redesign, seeking a measured evolution that stays true to the car's classic roots.
"People don't need to have the Mini go in for radical surgery to look new," McDowell said. "They just need it to have a more modern interpretation of the classic elements in a neat way."
Mini buyers are more savvy and loyal than the average car buyer, said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific.
"People that buy a Mini aren't your [Toyota] Camry shopper," he said. "They're a little more in tune with what's going on with the brand. They're going to notice a new Mini."
The retro design still carries the traditional oval headlights, flat roof and pair of doors, but big changes lurk underneath the car's skin.
For starters, the 2014 Mini is the first vehicle to use a new front-wheel-drive platform. BMW will use it throughout the Mini lineup and within its own stable, as it will underpin future small vehicles like the next-generation X1 compact crossover and the 1-Series.
Front-wheel drive has been a hallmark of this Mini's success. The Cooper has been able to use its low center of gravity and snappy handling to convince buyers that rear-wheel-drive cars haven't cornered the market on driving pleasure.
"Mini has been able to convert people into the notion that front-wheel drive can be fun and handle well," Sullivan said. "I think that's key to their success. They've been able to do that, and no one else has."
Since the first-generation Cooper's debut in 2002, a procession of quick, front-wheel-drive hatchbacks have come to market. These include the Mazdaspeed 3, the Ford Focus ST and the Volkswagen Beetle Turbo. Only the VW Golf GTI has played in this space as long as Mini's Cooper.
In addition to the new platform, the next Cooper gets two new engines that will find work in all future variants of the Mini.
In addition the three-banger base engine, the more powerful Cooper S will use a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine — also with direct injection and turbocharging — for 189 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque.
Both models will come standard with a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic will be optional.
Efficiency will improve, Mini says, although full EPA testing isn't done. The automaker does expect highway fuel economy on the base Cooper to pass the 40 miles per gallon mark, up from its current rating of 37 mpg. Mini also plans to launch a plug-in hybrid option for its lineup in the near future.
These gains are crucial to Mini's parent in complying with efficiency and emissions regulations in the U.S. and Europe, Sullivan said. BMW needs the help in achieving ever-increasing federal standards for each automaker's overall average fuel economy.
"BMW needs this," Sullivan said. "It's a big part of their strategy."
California, by far the brand's biggest market, is another key part of Mini's strategy. In the U.S., 22% of all Minis were sold in California in 2012, the automaker reports. Nearly 15% of Mini sales in the U.S. are in Southern California.
So the automaker naturally wanted to make a splash at the L.A. Auto Show.
"We've always had a real fondness for California. So many important movements start there and then spread across country," Mini's McDowell said. "People there are independent and open to doing something they've never done before and want to express themselves. The California psyche is our kind of psyche."