Deliciously retro-future Mini Urbanaut van explores inner space
At its core, Mini has always been a brand that challenges conventional automotive dimensions. The badge's all-new Vision Urbanaut takes the challenge into the future, reorganizing interior space for a fully autonomous world. Mini houses a versatile, shape-shifting interior inside a set of smooth, timeless van lines to create a totally different style of MPV. It leaves us hoping that a Mini-van actually becomes a real thing ... so long as they ditch the cringey aspects of the design.
The Urbanaut is described as unusually tall for a Mini, but its 446-cm (176-in) length makes it a properly compact van just a few centimeters longer than the new Volkswagen Caddy. And that's the idea — showing how the generous space left over by a decentralized electric powertrain and dashboard-disappearing Level 5 sensor suite can make a "mini" a particularly spacious, versatile (and weird) MPV.
"In 1959, the very first Mini ushered in a small-scale revolution in vehicle construction with its transversely mounted engine," says Mini design chief Oliver Heilmer. "With the Vision Urbanaut, we have been able to rethink and increase the usable surface area inside the car even further in relation to its footprint."
Before we dutifully get into how Mini uses that increased interior surface area to create three "Mini moments" (spoiler alert: "chill," "wanderlust" and "vibe"), we can't help but start by plunging down that delightfully round, bubbled mono-shell. The adorable van greets familiar and unfamiliar onlookers with a digitized face made to show information in addition to light. Mere centimeters above its digital headlamps, the front-end flows into a spherical-glass windshield supported from below by a skeletal-like pillar structure. From some angles, the windshield appears to flow seamlessly into the glass roof, but there is in fact a very defined seam, with hinges that allow the windshield to swing up and serve as something of a veranda.
The Urbanaut is not a camper van, but its interior is comfortable enough to while away a full day in. Once parked, its dashboard drops down and transforms into a wraparound daybed. The seats, meanwhile, swivel much like a camper van's front seats, allowing for the occupants to face each other and otherwise reposition comfortably. The darker rear lounge invites occupants to escape for some alone time under the ambient glow of a digital mood arch.
Yes, a digital mood arch ... and then things get weirder. The side table with plant looks simple and domestic enough but is actually the portal to those Mini moments you're going to wish we had forgotten about. Drop your worry stone-sized token into one of the slots on the table and get whisked away to the moment of your choosing.
"Chill" lives up to its name by creating a relaxing inner sanctum focused on the rear lounge, with nature sounds, ambient music, and a forest canopy displayed on the digital arch. The circular display that hangs over the table drops down to serve as a lamp. Outside, the digital lights and backlit wheels take on a forested appearance to convey to the world that the passengers are busy chilling in their own urban oasis.
The only "moment" during which the Urbanaut is in fact acting like a vehicle and moving forward, "Wanderlust" supports a theme of dynamism and travel. The digital arch above the rear lounge shows the blur of passing scenery, while the circular screen amidships displays navigation and trip info atop a backdrop of retro-inspired travel imagery. Passengers can choose to drive or ride under automated power by simply tapping on the Mini logo to transform the dashboard and prompt the exterior digital surfaces to communicate whether man or machine is at the helm.
"Vibe" attempts to create a sort of in-vehicle lounge, opening the sliding door and popping the windshield to erase the divide between city and car. The circular screen becomes a command center for controlling music and other media, and both the interior and exterior display graphics of an equalizer moving to the beat.
So those are Mini moments for you. And yes, we enjoyed the mini VW bus-like exterior styling much better before reading about that interior weirdness, too. In the very unlikely event Mini ever pursues such a vehicle, we can only hope it offers a basic empty cargo variant for buyers to build out themselves.