MINI USA & MF Bring You the Answers

Hey Stracco: The Interview

MF: Before we begin I’d like to say thanks to Stracco for agreeing to do this with us. It certainly shows a dedication to the core MINI enthusiast community that is refreshing and reaffirming. We hope that this is just the beginning! Let’s set some background. What does a MINI Product Manager do exactly?

Stracco: The MINI product manager is responsible for most business aspects of the product… as in the car. I give input on colors and options… build business cases on future engines and platform variants for our market. I make projections on sales and future growth. Additionally I review all copy and marketing to make sure the product is accurately represented. There are lots differences between European versions of the MINI and American versions of the MINI and of course differences between current model year and past versions. So we don’t want them to get mixed up. I say “I” but of course I am not working in a vacuum and I get direction from lots of people.

mini

MF: Same here. Sounds like you have pretty broad responsibilities. Is it that way for everyone at MINI USA?

Stracco: Pretty much. There are only few of us at HQ, and another handful in the field. So with so few people responsible for a country as big as the US, you are going to get broad responsibilities.

MF: So how did you get the job?

Stracco: I was working at BMW Financial Services. When the MINI Product Management job opened up, you had to write business cases on several topics in order to apply. I did. As Captain Jack Pitney later told me “You write a mean business case Strac’O! We also knew we could work you like a slave, so you got the job! ” He then did a little “stirring the pot” dance. Jim McDowell has pretty much kept that promise ….threat… whatever…. ever since. But I’ve never seen him dance.

MF: So let’s start with the product questions. First some questions on the current models. Why are there no Recaro seats for the US and will there be any in the future?

Stracco: I’m there! As you know the US seats are different than the rest of the world due to the required built in airbag sensor. We looked at special Recaros for the US market but the business case was strongly negative. We didn’t think that we could sell enough seats, at the anticipated price, to make the investment in a US spec seat worthwhile.

We are looking at Recaros for the future though. Times and costs change ya know.

MF: Once the next generation model is released, how far down the road will the current accessories and parts (from e.g. the JCW stuffs, aero kits, etc.) be continuing for sell?

Stracco: Nothing but net. That’s a pretty broad question, but generally, for parts, a supply of 15 years is kept….or something incredibly long like that. For accessories, likewise, not much of an issue. Remember the Convertible will be continuing with the same body and engine for a few more years. If a particular accessory sells, Aftersales will likely keep it in stock.

MF: So the convertibles will continue to use the Tritec engine?

Stracco: Yepper. Gotta remember, the convertible is only two years old.

MF: Will the CVT be going away?

Stracco: Nope-er. It will continue as an option on the Cooper Convertible.

MF: Will the JCW kit for the MCSA ever be released in the US?

Stracco: Blocked! Sorry to say, but after trying and trying, and trying some more, we still can’t get the JCW Automatic kit to meet certain US emission standards. So it’s not available right now. I know that this has been frustrating for some, but none have been more frustrated than Thomas, our Aftersales Development manager.

MF: Why can’t you get Sirius Satellite Radio with a Nav system?

Stracco: Good one. Our antenna unit is basically three antennas and that would be one antenna input too many.

MF: It seems customers are interested in items that are available in other markets such as the heated windshield, power mirrors and rear view cameras. Why are these not offered in the US?

Stracco: Well as I said, we build business cases for options. If there is a unique technical problem, or if it doesn’t look like we can sell enough to make it worthwhile we don’t bring those options. In the case of the power mirrors, they require a pre-wiring that would jack up the price of the base car. For the limited number we would sell, it isn’t worth it. For the heated windscreen there actually is a technical problem in that it interferes with EZ-Pass/Fast Lane units. The rear view camera (really an accessory and not an option) has sold less than 250 units WORLDWIDE in the past three years. That’s not a real strong business case.

Instead of concentrating on the few options that we don’t offer, we try to offer almost everything a la carte so customers can get the maximum number of choices possible. No Salt, Pepper or Chili… unless you stop at a diner.

MF: What can you tell us about PAINT? You know what I mean.

Stracco: Of all the options on a car, color is the one most subject to taste. Everyone seems to have their favorite. We occasionally turn over colors usually with a new model year, in order to keep the line fresh. So how do we determine which color to cut to make way for the new stuff? We don’t rely on anecdotal opinion. We rely on sales figures. If the color doesn’t sell, it goes.

On the other hand, some colors like Chili Red and British Racing Green sell so well, that we are unlikely to ever change them so if you are planning on adding to your garage you can plan ahead. And yes, I know what you mean. I think you will find model year 07 to be considerably brighter than model year 06.

MF: Can you explain the difference between the suspensions on the hardtops and convertibles? The nomenclature is a bit dense.

Stracco: Yes, it is a bit enigmatic. I think the key take away is that it is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The convertibles have completely different suspension tuning due to their weight and weight distribution. So a sport suspension plus on a Cooper is not going to give you the same ride as a sport suspension on a Cooper Convertible. Both will give you sharper handling, but the rides will not likely be identical.

MF: OK. How about some GP questions?

Stracco: You must mean the MINI Cooper S with John Cooper Works GP Kit. The longest name for the shortest car! The Cooper so good we had to say Cooper twice! …I am hip to the scene.

MF: Will any of the GP parts be available for general sale?

Stracco: Not right now. They will be exclusive for the GP. In fact, if you’ve got a GP, and something breaks, the replacement part will have to be installed at a MINI dealership. Which kinda goes without saying, anyway.

MF: How much of the car is really built by Bertone?

Stracco: It is mostly built by Bertone. The body comes from Oxford and the engine comes from Tritec, but the rest of the parts arrive from the normal suppliers and Bertone puts the whole thing together on its assembly line.

MF: How did the GP come by its extra HP?

Stracco: My Magical Motoring Ball says “New intercooler, mainly”. There are other tweaks and weight improvements, of course, but Magical Motoring Ball is notoriously mono-syllabic.

MF: How about if we shift gears and talk about the next generation MINI. Will the amber dash stay for the next model? Will the clock return to the headliner?

Stracco: You will find some very cool lighting features in the next generation MINI but the amber dash light will stay as is. I don’t know where the clock will be but it won’t be in the headliner. We have more interesting things reserved for that space.

MF: There have been certain rumors that the next generation MINI will not have a multilink suspension in the rear. Is that true?

Stracco: Magical Motoring Ball says “I think a review of the rear spy shots previously posted on Motoringfile (and seen above) will prove quite revealing.“

Let me add, that having driven the car, nobody is going to be let down by the handling.

MF: …so can I borrow the Magical Motoring Ball?

Stracco: No…Magical Motoring Ball loves me.

MF: OK….So you’ve driven the car. Can you give us your driving impression?

Stracco: Sure. Both the Cooper and Cooper S have much more torque lower in the rev range. If the Tritec motor was the natural successor to the A-series, the new engine steps into the 21st century. It really has some impressive technology. The cars handle exceptionally well, just like you’d expect. The interiors are different than the current cars but I think they are easier to live with. The materials are a step up and the dash has a simpler layout. Less buttons and squeaky things. More opportunities to customize. It also has really good cupholders… Yessireee!!!

MF: Sounds good! But what about options? Is MINI going to have the full options set at launch or will they gradually be rolled in like the release of the R50/R53

Stracco: Oh believe me. I think there will be more than enough options. Many more than on the current car. In fact, I did a little calculation and there were over 73 TRILLION possible configurations for the car. Not that I am a mathematician or anything, but that seems like a lot. The vast majority will be available for launch, a few may follow on later. And we’ll continue to offer them a la carte as well as in packages for the maximum possible number of combinations.

MF: There seems to be quite a bit of chat on MF about a high horsepower version of the MINI. Anything like that in the offing?

Stracco: Without a doubt, the next generation engines will be a bit more powerful, but more importantly will offer some seriously useable torque. But I think what you are getting at is BIG hp numbers like 300+. Well, it is unlikely that we will ever have monster horsepower numbers on a MINI for two reasons:

1 BMW Group looks to MINI to bring up average fleet MPG in the US and bring down CO2 emissions in Europe. It is tough to achieve those goals and have a huge horsepower output.
2 and MINIs have NEVER been about hugely powerful engines. They have been about handling. Don’t get me wrong, the engines have always been more than sufficient, but MINI is a giant killer….not a giant.

MF: Makes sense. The other car on the horizon is the “Traveller”. Can you tell us how big this car will really be? When will it arrive? Summer of 2007?

Stracco: Actually, the Detroit show car gives a good idea of how much bigger the car will be. But let’s face it: It’s a MINI. By its very name, it’s still going to be a compact car. We will never have a truly large car because that is not true to the brand character. Besides, there are tons of minivans and SUVs that already have territory covered. Instead, expect the “Traveller” to have clever ways to use the interior space efficiently. Also, expect it to handle exceptionally well.

The “Traveller”, which doesn’t have a name right now, will arrive in a few years. Sorry, can’t be more specific than that or Steinberg will throw lobster parts at me. He probably will anyway. As long as they aren’t buttered I don’t care. Summer of 2007 is too soon. We can’t rush it any more than we are.

MF: So if the car is like the show car, will it have big doors and rotating seats like the show car so the back seat is easily accessible?

Stracco: Big doors and rotating seats are not in the cards. However, you will find some VERY clever solutions for back seat access which is greatly improved.

MF: So you are also the Motorsports Manager, right?

Stracco: Correcto!

MF: Great. One of our readers wanted to ask if MINI would be interested in entering the WRC series?

Stracco: I can only answer for MINI USA, and not for the MINI worldwide. First, WRC doesn’t have any events in the US, so its impact on this market is very limited. However, if privateers should become interested in racing MINIs in Rally America (different league), we would consider supporting this through our contingency program. But MINIUSA just doesn’t have the resources to sponsor a “factory” rally team, as much as we might like to.

MF: Dave also wanted to know if is it MINIUSA’s intent to evolve the North American MINI COOPER Challenge (NASA) into something more akin to the European series where drivers pay to show up and drive cars prepared by MINI and delivered by MINI to each event?

Stracco: Actually, we are not involved with the North American MINI Cooper Challenge.

You won’t see us pursuing anything like the JCW challenge in Europe. Our main racing efforts are in supporting privateers through our contingency program. Eventually, we’d like to see something like Spec Miata, but with MINIs. NASA’s formula is close to that, so it is started down the right path, although, honestly I haven’t heard much of this class lately. Whether something truly national evolves out this, or Phil’ Wick’s series or out of some SCCA class yet to be defined, remains to be seen.

mini

MF: What about the MINI Dragster? Will that be returning to the track this year?

Stracco: It should be. The contract is getting the finishing touches. Fireball Tim is very easy to deal with and Hubie could squeeze horsepower out of a wet rag. In other words, they are our kind of people. I know Hubie has a couple of tricks up his sleeve and with some luck maybe we can see sub-10 seconds.

MF: That is FAST. Which kinda, sorta segues into our next topic: Powertrains. Everyone wants to know what is next for MINI. With gasoline headed towards $4 in parts of the country is there any chance that the MINI D will be coming to the US?

mini

Stracco: We would love it. However, the problem with diesel is tailpipe emissions, particularly smog causing NOx. Unfortunately, the MINI D does not comply with emissions regulations for all 50 states. So a VERY large portion of our dealers could not sell it even if it were offered.

Cleaner diesel fuel will not solve the NOx problem because NOx is a result of high combustion temperatures and not fuel impurities. Now there are some new technologies like Bluetec which reduce NOx. Bluetec injects a urea solution in the exhaust stream and effectively scrubs NOx emissions. However, one key issue to using something like Bluetec on a MINI is space. Where are you going to put a big tank of urea solution? This is not an insurmountable problem, but it will be a while before a solution is found. Fortunately, we’ve got some of the most talented engineers on the planet, and we tend to let them worry about such things.

So for the time being we are going to concentrate on more efficient gas engines. And the next generation gas engines will be both more powerful and get better mileage.

MF: What about a hybrid or partial zero emission (PZEV) MINI?

Stracco: We have looked at hybrids, which often are PZEV, just as everyone in the auto industry has, and we strongly support them. Electric motors have definite performance advantages. Problem is, the rest of the world isn’t entirely sold yet. On the technical side one of the problems is, again, SPACE. Current hybrids use large, heavy battery packs. How do you put the batteries, electric motors and other electronic gear on a MINI without making serious compromises to both space and handling?

Super-capacitors maybe one answer here. Beyond that, of course, there is the flux-capacitor. But we’ll need gullwing doors for that.

MF: Will there be a future AWD MINI?

Stracco: It is possible that there will be AWD on some future MINI variant. When exactly, not even Magical Motoring Ball can say, but we always try to emphasize how important AWD is in northern tier states.

MF: With the addition of the Convertible, MCS Automatic, and soon a larger car, how does MINI plan to keep the brand and future products focused on enthusiast as well as the general buying public?

Stracco: We certainly have not lost focus of the enthusiast. We have the GP coming out shortly, which is truly an enthusiast vehicle, and we are launching it with MINI Takes the States, which is truly an enthusiast event.

Gabe, beyond that, let me say that at the heart of the MINI line will always be the two-door hardtop. Always. This will ALWAYS be a performance-oriented vehicle. Other variants will become necessary over time in order to ensure our long-term brand viability. They will certainly have lots of MINI character. However, I think the enthusiasts will always appreciate the two-door, because it will always have the go-kart feeling that enthusiasts demand, in spades.

MF: I know this isn’t really your bag, but there were a lot of questions about dealers, so here goes….Will there be more MINI dealers?

Stracco: Right now we are limited by production. If we can’t supply them with cars, we can’t build more dealerships. We will gradually add more dealers as more production becomes available,

MF: Most issues seem to be on the service side. Particularly with the distance to a dealership sometimes being very great. Is there the possibility of BMW dealers servicing MINIs?

Stracco: When we launched MINI in the USA in 2002, we weren’t just launching a car, but a brand. Only 7% of the people interviewed knew what a MINI was…probably from watching Mr. Bean. Part of building a brand is building independent dealerships. They might share property with a BMW point, but they must be their own separate entity. If we blur the line by offering service at ALL BMW stores, this will not only lessen the independent nature of the brand, but it will lessen the value of holding a MINI dealership. And we will not be successful in the US market if our dealerships are not financially healthy. MINI has withdrawn from the US market once before, and none of us want to see that happen ever again.

MF: There were also a lot of questions about dealer surveys. Some dealers seem to have indicated that anything less than a “5” on the survey is tantamount to failure. Can you explain a bit about how the surveys are used by MINI USA?

Stracco: OK…but I am going to have to channel the spirit of the Bionic Man…Steve Saward.

The CSI surveys are MINI USA’s means of assessing the experience MINI dealers provide their customers. We encourage dealers to develop & implement processes that don’t just meet, but exceed the expectations of their customers. We believe that activities that deliver that type of experience deserves a “5”. We realize this is not always possible and encourage customers to be honest in their responses. Currently, our dealers are — by and large – achieving very high scores, but there is a range of scores from dealer to dealer.

MINI USA uses the scores primarily as a diagnostic tool, to enable our field team to work with the dealers to fine tune their operations.

MF: Thanks for the channeling. Now, how about some unrelated questions? There is so much cool MINI “gear” available on the various non-US websites. How/who/what determines what becomes available in the U.S. versus “everyplace else”

mini

Stracco: It might be easier to show you than to tell you. Check out this picture of Steinberg wearing some Euro style sunglasses. In order to prevent scenes like this, we have to be quite selective about what we offer.

MF: I see what you mean…He is a very handsome man… watching a 3D movie…

Stracco: I jest of course. Accessories are very much like colors and other options. Ultimately it comes down to what sells. We found out early that different countries have VERY different tastes. Some stuff that sells well in Europe, doesn’t sell here at all. That’s really not surprising: Differences in style between countries is true for most consumer products. It is also why there is a lot of MINI gear available in the US that is NOT available elsewhere. Currently we have 200 accessory items and 39 JCW bits.

MF: Changing the topic again: What do you think of the recent Road and Track article comparing the VW GTI, Civic Si and Cooper S JCW. The Cooper S came in third and the slalom times seemed a bit suspect to some, and of course the GTI won the comparison. What are your thoughts?

Stracco: While Road and Track is a very credible resource, it isn’t gospel. All the cars were very close in performance. Your actual performance…and real world performance… may vary. I am not that concerned. In any case, we will be demanding a rematch next year! (wink wink)

MF: A bit off topic. Will there be a MINI Scooter?

Stracco: Actually I wrote a paper on that once. But no… to my knowledge there will NOT be a MINI Scooter. However, if you are really interested I can try and arrange an interview with someone over at BMW Motorcycles. Maybe they have something up their leather sleeves.

MF: Thanks, but I have my hands full covering MINI. How about another rumor? Will we be seeing a resurrection of the Triumph car brand?

Stracco: Twofer! I wrote a paper on that too. Steinberg is really a big Triumph backer. In fact, I think his TR3 is in the parking deck right now. Sadly, the idea never went anywhere. Like you, we have our hands full with MINI, and that will have to be enough for now.

MF: I’d like to thank you again. We have more questions, of course. Can we revisit them another time?

Stracco: Magical Motoring Ball says: “Thumbs Up”. And perhaps there will be more questions once the GP shows up?

MF: I’m certain there will be. ‘Till next time.