FRANKFURT -- BMW said on Thursday it expected to increase the number of popular Mini hatchbacks it builds at its plant in Oxford, England by around 10 percent over the next few years.
"It is something that will be done gradually," BMW Chief Executive Helmut Panke told analysts in a conference call.
"We are not looking at another facility to build Minis. Oxford is its home, and we have some good ideas to increase volume production there step by step... 180,000 a year would not be out of this world."
The success of the iconic little hatchback, a modern version of the British 1960s cult classic, has taken BMW executives by surprise and kept the firm's sales growth on the rise as its core BMW brand cars reach a low point in their product cycle.
The company built around 160,000 Minis in Oxford last year with the factory running at its current full capacity and sold over 144,000, with the United Kingdom and the United States its top two markets.
Investors had initially worried that BMW would struggle to make much profit on a product pitched squarely at the lower-margin small car market, but the company says it now makes money on every Mini it sells.
Chief Financial Officer Stefan Krause said the extent of demand for the more expensive and faster Cooper and Cooper S versions have also taken the company aback. They had initially expected the basic Mini One model to account for 60 percent to 70 percent of sales.
"It is exactly the opposite now. Sixty to 70 percent is what the Cooper and Cooper S models are contributing, and these are very high-margin vehicles," Krause said on the call, adding the company was selling more optional extras on the cars than expected.
BMW is tight-lipped about how profitable individual models are and about precisely when it will launch new variants, saying both are useful pieces of information for competitors, but it is widely expected to launch a Mini convertible in the near future.
It also introduced a diesel version of the car at the Geneva auto show earlier this month.
The BMW Group said on Wednesday it would strive to match last year's profits in 2003 as it grapples with high development costs for a range of new BMW brand cars due out this year, but it stopped short of giving a precise forecast, citing uncertainty over Iraq.