Small cars are facing big problems these days.
Mini this week announced a global recall that impacts 89,000 of its cars in the United States, including its Mini Cooper line, and 235,000 worldwide because of faulty water pumps that can malfunction and have caused some engine-compartment fires. Mini parent BMW is trying to reassure consumers that the move is preventative. Indeed, Mini's documented problem — five of the fires reportedly destroyed cars actually being used by their owners — far eclipses the fire problem in the Chevrolet Volt that has so weighed down that brand lately.
Beyond that speed bump, Mini these days is achieving exactly what the BMW-owned brand has wanted to achieve in the American market: reigning as the undisputed champion of the tiny-car segment, holding off the likes of Smart, Scion and even Fiat.
Mini sold nearly 58,000 units in the U.S. last year, up 26 percent from 2010, as it fielded five different models with a sixth, a two-seat roadster, coming later this year. It also recently got the nod from J.D. Power & Associates as providing the highest level of customer satisfaction of any automotive brand in the United States, even beating out all luxury brands.
Meanwhile, despite efforts to give it a jump start with a new TV-advertising campaign, Mercedes-Benz sold only a little over 5,20 Smart Fortwos in the U.S. last year, its first year in charge of marketing (or unmarketing) in America the brand that it manufactures.
Scion is just getting started selling its little iQ in the United States. And Fiat, of course, has had well-voiced problems getting traction for its Fiat 500 in the U.S. market after initial ambitions of blasting into the U.S. mini-car market.
"We thought we were going to show up and just becuase of the fact people like gelato and pasta, people will buy" the 500, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne told reporters in Detroit last week. So now, having badly missed his sales targets in the United States last year, Marchionne intends to boost Fiat with a new wagon version of the 50 that will be introduced at the Geneva auto show in March and made available in America next year.
Meantime, Mini isn't sitting still. It plans to add three new models by the end of the decade based on a new front-wheel-drive platform. And right now, BMW has begun a creative-agency search for Mini, making it the first car-brand account that has gone up for grabs this year, according to Ad Age.
So while rivals seem stalled, Mini seems to have a clear road ahead in the mini-car segment, presuming it can get past the recall news soon.