Mini showed the world its new concept car on Tuesday. It’s essentially an electric-powered wheeled room that’s filled with interesting and clever design details. There’s not much here that we haven’t seen before in various forms since as early as the 1930s, but it’s a solid idea and, if you’re thinking in terms of an autonomous future, it’s a design that makes a lot of sense. One warning, though: most of the terms and way the Mini marketing team has decided to describe this car will make you absolutely dry-heave. So, be careful.
The Urbanaut is, essentially, an electric van. It’s a one-box design (they call it a “purist mono-volume” in the press release, just as a little way of getting your eyes ready for all the rolling they’re about to do) and the interior is a flexible space that can be configured like a living space, not locked into the forward-facing rows of conventional cars, a novel idea with a lot of appeal that has been around since the Stout Scarab of 1935:
It’s also the basic concept behind driving, say, a Volkswagen camper van as your normal car, or the Honda S-MX Kei van that they once built for Japanese young adults to get busy in, or other concept cars we’ve seen before. And, of course, the new VW I.D. Buzz is very much in this category.
When it comes to a one-box design, Mini has toyed with this idea before, with their 1995 rear-engine concept cars, Spiritual and Spiritual Too.
I’m not saying this to disparage the Urbanaut. I think the room-on-wheels design is actually fantastic and has the potential to make a car much more usable, as it gives purpose and function even when it’s not being driven, and in that context, I think Mini’s concept does an excellent job.
The use of space inside the Urbanaut is excellent, and Mini even manages to do something that nearly all of these other wheeled room ideas couldn’t manage to do — how to effectively adapt the driving area into a living area when you’re not in motion?
Mini’s very clever solution uses a front swivelling captain’s chair. The Urbanaut’s entire dashboard and instrument cluster collapse down so it becomes a sort of couch/lounge thing at the front of the car; a solution I’ve genuinely never seen before.
It’s only possible thanks to electric car platforms that are like skateboards and drive-by-wire technologies since there’s no engine or bulky steering columns in the way.
This setup also allows for a pop-open windshield — like the old Safari windows in a VW Type 2 — to really shine as a cool feature. You can sit there, enjoying the breeze while napping on what was your dashboard a few minutes ago.
Another very clever little detail has to do with this round LCD screen mounted on the interior:
It functions both as a multipurpose infotainment unit, but it also folds down to be used as a desk lamp for that little desk/side table thing there, which is really clever.
You can see it in action in this deep-dive video from one of the lead designers of the concept, but I have to warn you, the video gives you the full, uncut punch of Mini’s marketing bullshit, and it’s a lot to take.
For example, it introduces the concept of “Mini Moments,” and talks about how the three kinds of Moment, called “Chill,” “Wanderlust,” and “Vibe,” and when you hear these talked about your body is going to react like any healthy person, and you’ll likely begin to vomit, so, please, be careful.
I wasn’t prepared and I got a little in my nose and it was terrible. They also call the rear bench area the “Cosy Corner,” so, again, please watch this on an empty stomach or keep a bucket firmly clenched between your knees, ready to accept any ejecta.
All good? OK, here you go:
Near-fatal levels of cringe-inducing preciousness aside, I really like this concept. Mini isn’t breaking a lot of new ground here, but this appears to be an excellent, carefully thought-out and designed take on what I hope will be an upcoming category of flexible one-box vehicles that can adapt to be small living spaces.
Such vehicles can be great for camping, commuting, eating drive-through and generally adds a new, useful volume of space to do whatever in.
I don’t imagine that production versions will be even remotely as elaborate as this, but even if the basic flexible-room concept makes it, that’ll be good. We’ve known for decades that such vehicles have real value and use, and it’s high time for a new batch to hit the streets, made even better with the new packaging options opened up by EV drivetrains.
Let’s just not listen to PR people talk about them.