BMW strategists are considering a plan for the United States in which select BMW and Land Rover dealers would handle Rover-badged cars in separate showrooms. Rover cars would be competition for Volvo and Audi.
It is part of an emerging marketing strategy that is likely to bring Rover cars plus the next-generation MG and the new Mini to North America.
As another part of that strategy, the recent U.S. campaign to beef up BMW's sporty M models as a 'franchise within a franchise' is a likely prototype for selling the MG and Mini brands, which also belong to Rover: They could get a separate area within the same BMW showroom, possibly even alongside M cars.
The plan is still evolving. 'No decision has been taken' on when, how or even if the Rover Group lineup will be sold in the United States, Jack Pitney, a spokesman for BMW of North America Inc., said last week.
But the parent BMW Group clearly wants to sell all its car brands in North America. Rover Group Chairman Walter Hasselkus has said in the past that a BMW Group approach - with separate showrooms for Rover -might be the best way to reintroduce Rover-brand cars to the United States.
That is still the thinking, according to Ian Strachan, Rover Group director of corporate communications in the United Kingdom.
MG AND GROUP STRATEGY
As for MG, the replacement for its single model, the MGF, is being planned in conjunction with BMW's other sports cars. It will be priced below the Z3 and M Roadster. It will carry the MG brand.
BMW dealers could end up selling all three cars, so a group sports-car strategy is being developed.
'Part of the planning for the future is the current car's replacement in a group sports-car strategy,' says Tom Purves, Rover's director of sales and marketing.
The next MG will be a 'four-cylinder sports car that's affordable,' he said. 'It will be sold in the United States.'
The current MGF was introduced in 1995, and its life cycle is likely to be 8 to 10 years. When the MGF was developed, Rover's resources were so constrained that the sports car could not be adapted for sale in North America.
Again, BMW says it has not decided on specific plans for the U.S. market, but the scenario of a sports-car group could dovetail with the recent emphasis in America on M models. That includes a record number of M models in the pipeline and the first-ever M ad campaign. At the Los Angeles auto show in January, BMW showed a prototype of just such an arrangement, with a separate M display area for dealerships. Only a handful of U.S. dealers today sell enough M models to justify the expense. That could change.
BMW of North America's Pitney warned that Rover's plans for Europe and other markets do not necessarily imply what approach the U.S. company will take.
THE NEW MINI
The new Mini, for instance, is scheduled for introduction in Europe in 2001, said Strachan.
BMW dealers will sell it in continental Europe. Rover dealers will sell it in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Both Rover and BMW dealers will sell the Mini in Japan. It will be its own brand, and select dealers will sell it from a separate area in their dealerships.
Both the Mini and the MG were originally developed by companies that were absorbed by the Rover Group as the United Kingdom industry consolidated.
The Mini replaces a car introduced 39 years ago. Although it was never more than a curiosity in America, the Mini still sells well in Japan. It will compete in Europe with the New Beetle and a new Citroen 2CV. The price will be about $18,000.
Like the MG, the Mini is basically a one-car marque.
Rover's new R40 mid-luxury sedan platform will be used to replace both the 600 and the 800. It goes on sale in Europe next spring. By 2005, Rover will have replaced the present 200 and 400 ranges, also with a single platform.
BMW and Rover have not decided on a distribution strategy for the R40 in North America either. It reportedly would not arrive in the United States until after 2000.
Rover last sold cars in America under the Sterling brand, which folded in 1991.
MG left the United States in 1981. It sold about 30,000 units a year here through the early 1970s.
Says Rover Chairman Hasselkus: 'At the end of the day, when you want to be a global player, you have to be active in the United States.'
Correspondent Mark Cooney contributed to this report