Editor's note: An earlier version of this story, which also appeared on Page 3 of the May 20 print edition, gave the incorrect base price for the 2013 Mini Cooper hardtop. It is $20,495, including shipping.
WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J. -- In 2005, three years after the Mini Cooper's surprisingly strong debut in the United States, brand executives wondered how many more buyers there could be for a 12-foot car.
"When I first arrived in 2005, there was a question if Mini sales would decline," said Jim McDowell, 60, vice president of Mini USA. "If we had a few good couple chapters, would it continue?"
BMW, Mini's parent company, had forecast U.S. sales of 20,000 units of the original two-door in 2003, but 36,000 were sold. That was the beginning of Mini's surprising journey, carving out a niche for an expensive subcompact in the land of SUVs and pickups.
McDowell and his team kept Mini growing by rolling out variants, creating offbeat marketing and spending little on TV commercials.
They built a tight dealer network mainly of carefully selected BMW dealers. And they quickly settled on an irreverent, even wacky, persona suited to buyers of what one dealership general manager calls "a happy car."
The 500,000th Mini Cooper was sold April 2, just 10 days after the brand celebrated its 11th anniversary in the United States.
Mini had prevailed.
Others tried. The retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser peaked, fizzled and was dropped from the lineup. The second generation of the revived Volkswagen Beetle failed to sustain momentum. The anticipated threat from Toyota's Scion, a brand that promised to lure young buyers with hip cars, never materialized. Even the microcar Smart brand owned by Daimler AG failed to attract significant numbers of U.S. buyers.
"They each had a peak and dropped off," McDowell said. "Mini has grown year after year. We never have had a huge burst of sales -- but sustainable growth."
With a loyalty rate of 30 percent, high resale value and a three-year residual value close to 60 percent, Mini has become the brand to emulate for newcomers such as the Fiat 500. But Mini executives boast that no one is likely to be successful in copying the brand.
"The unique selling proposition that Mini stands for -- the agility, versatility and fun to drive -- that excitement has not been able to translate to other brands," said Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America.
Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive division of research firm Strategic Vision in San Diego, agrees Mini is a hard brand to copy. Mini focused on a target audience that wanted a sporty car "in a compact, fun package," he said.
The PT Cruiser didn't have the zip or the turning radius of the Mini, Edwards said. "The VW Beetle is cute but not sporty. The imagery and product cues were not specifically speaking to the target audience that Mini has captured."