Far-fetched concepts are a time-honoured tradition of automotive showmanship. Usually, however, there is at least an actual physical rendition of the vehicle being unveiled (even if it may not be driveable and will never reach production).
But in an era when new-car reveals now all take place online, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised when the concept car itself turns out to be virtual too. Even in Mini’s own studio, there is no actual physical example of the Mini Vision Urbanaut. This is, says Mini, a “digital vision vehicle.”
Another term for it might be “flight of fancy” – a truly radical re-imagining of what an automobile can be when liberated from conventional constraints, courtesy of the three elements of future automobility: electric propulsion, autonomous drive and connectivity.
The goal: "To create a unique space in the city when you’re not driving,” said Mini design head Oliver Hellmer. “We tried to deeply understand what people want to surround themselves with in different moments (and) to create something that feels like home to a certain extent.”
Perhaps the easiest way to get your head around the Urbanaut is to think of it as a tiny camper van, albeit minus the kitchen and bathroom parts. According to Mini, “the interior of the Mini Vision Urbanaut provides the ideal environment in which to go on a journey, but is also the aim of the journey. Having arrived at the chosen destination, it can transform into a living room in just a few simple steps.”
Within a package about the same length as a subcompact crossover like a BMW X1, the Urbanaut contains a “day bed,” a “cozy corner” seating area and the equivalent of a family-gathering dining table.
The front windshield can open up to create a kind of “street balcony.” There is only one door – a wide sliding door on the curb side.
When the car is stationary, the dashboard lowers and the driver’s area becomes a comfortable seating corner – the day bed. The two seats in the darker area at the rear become the cozy corner where passengers can enjoy some time to themselves. In the bright and airy middle, across from the entrance, a small integrated table provides a place for occupants to meet and interact.
Perhaps the most intangible aspect of the Urbanaut is the three “Moments” that define different ways of using it. “Chill” is the Moment that involves using the cozy corner at the rear – “a little retreat, a space that really adapts to the situation I’m in,” says Hellmer. “Vibe” is all about socializing around the table when, “at the end of the day, you might want to spend some time with your friends or family.” And “Wanderlust” is when the Urbanaut is actually going somewhere, either autonomously or with the driver at the controls. In autonomous mode, the user interface is a circular screen in the mid-cabin table; when the driver is in control, a “minimalist parallax dashboard” just provides route information and hazard alerts.
Then there is the Mini Token – “the centrepiece of the Mini Vision Urbanaut’s experience worlds,” says Mini. Roughly the same size as a worry stone, the Token activates the three preconfigured Mini moments when placed in matching slots in the table at the centre of the car. The Token can also be individually programmed to provide different personalized experiences, letting the user configure their own preferred scenario of fragrance, ambient lighting, music, etc.
If you can get your head around all that, this car was envisioned with you in mind. Me, I’m an engineer.
Of course, to package all this into a 4.5-metre space requires a mono-volume shape that is also much taller than a typical Mini. To our eyes, the digital rendition calls to mind Toyota’s Previa minivan of the 1990s – or perhaps VW’s concepts for the reborn bus. Mini says its front end represents “a clear evolution of two time-honoured Mini design icons – the headlights and radiator grille” and hints at a future Mini design direction.
As on the BMW iX, the grille doesn’t flow air but instead is the intelligence panel for automated driving. Behind a milled aluminum panel with slotted openings are the headlamps, which are only visible when turned on. The “skateboard” wheels are transparent and illuminated from the inside, the colour of the lighting varying according to the current Moment.
There’s definitely lots of food for thought here, but don’t expect to see a production version in your local Mini store any time soon.
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