MotoringFile Exclusive: Ask Stracco

Motoringfile is happy to bring you our second interview with Jeff Stracco (“Stracco”), MINI USA Product Manager and Motorsports Manager.

MF: People seem very interested about what’s in your garage. Care to tell us?

Stracco Speaks: In my position, I rotate company cars about every 8000 miles and try to get a feel for everything. Right now my MINI is an R56 Cooper S, Sparkling Silver, black roof. Redwood Red Lounge Leather and with the Aftersales Redwood Red steering wheel and shifter. Before that it was a Chili Red JCW Convertible. And before that it was an Astro Black R50 Cooper with a silver roof. For my next car I’ll probably take over a JCW Cooper S from Thomas Kurz, although if I had my druthers it’d be an R56 Cooper. It’s personally my favorite MINI.

The MINI shares space with a couple of antique BMW motorcycles. They are a constant.

MF: Why is the Cooper your favorite?

Stracco Speaks: That’s easy. It handles as well as a Cooper S and is just as luxurious. Plus it has as a lot of torque and it is fun to work through the gears. 40 MPG is also quite satisfying.

MF: OK. Let’s talk about R56 Options and stuff. Will Recaro Seats like in the European GP be available in the US?

Stracco Speaks: Not that we don’t love Recaros, but they aren’t available anywhere right now.

MF: Well that seems pretty definitive. If MINIs are all about customization, why are there so many limitations on dash, color, upholstery and Colorline combinations. Is it a matter of taste?

Stracco Speaks: We hear you. If it were strictly up to MINI USA, you could order whatever you like, We don’t care what your taste is like and personally, I have a lot of bad taste. I brush a lot but it doesn’t go away. Regardless, this one goes back to Munich and the suppliers.

The home office limits the combos globally because other markets don’t want cars coming back off of lease with bizarro color combos. That makes a tough resell and translates into real Euros lost at the dealership. In the US that isn’t so much an issue because not too many MINIs are leased.

The other reason is that many of the parts come from suppliers as complete sub-assemblies. In order to control the variants, and also the costs, some limitations must be recognized.

But hey, we still have over 150 trillion possible configurations for the R56, so how limited are you really?

MF: Why no “pop on deceleration” for the R56 Cooper S? People seem to like it.

Stracco Speaks: Times do change. When the 05s came out we had lots of complaints that people hated the pop. Who knows? We’d like it back too, but as emissions become tighter and tighter the opportunities to take liberties with the fuel programming become fewer and fewer.

MF: One of the most controversial aspects of the interior of the R56 is the center stack. Will there be a redesign?

Stracco Speaks: Everything gets redesigned eventually, but you probably mean in the short term. I think it is waaaayyy too early to determine whether the R56 interior is a success or not. Just like with the exhaust popping, some people may not like it at first, but they learn to love it later. Almost everyone I have spoken with has felt this way. I know when I get back into an R50, the plusses of the R56 interior immediately become apparent, starting with the improved leg room.

MF: How about an R53 question? Will there ever be availability of GP parts to non-GP owners?

Stracco Speaks: The GP is a very exclusive car. The owner’s paid a premium for that exclusivity and performance so turning around and offering GP upgrades less than a year after its launch would make some of our best customers, quite unhappy.

MF: Will there be any JCW engine upgrades for the Cooper?

Stracco Speaks: How much would you be willing to pay for it? Right now there are no plans because the business fleem case doesn’t look good, but if enough people are willing to pay the right price…who knows?

MF: What about the D? With fuel prices going up, is there any plans to bring the MINI D to the US?

Stracco Speaks: Gabe, you know we’d love to, but it all comes down to the business case, which isn’t really good right now.

MF: Care to explain a bit?

Stracco Speaks: Sure.

At a minimum we have to have a 50 state emission compliant engine, otherwise we won’t have the volumes to make a business case out of it. 40% of all our sales are in CARB compliant states and with more states coming on board that percentage is only going to grow. MINI doesn’t have a CARB compliant diesel. Our diesel engines are from Peugeot. Since, PSA doesn’t sell cars in the US, we would have to eat all costs for homologation. That means more cost for the customer too.

Is it technically possible to have a 50 state compliant engine? Yes…but with sacrifices, like space. Bluetec (AdBlue) is the best method of scrubbing smog causing NOx right now, and it is basically a big tank of urea solution. Not many places on a R56 to put that. Of course that adds cost and weight too. On a larger BMW, M-B or even a Jetta, the used space and added weight get lost in the overall equation. Not so with a MINI.

MF: Doesn’t the new clean diesel fuel in the US help emissions?

Stracco Speaks: It helps with sulfur emissions but not NOx which is caused by the high combustion temps in a diesel engine. It has nothing to do with the fuel.   It’s not all gloom and doom though, There are other options.

MF: Care to tell us about the other options?

Stracco Speaks: I say “No” pretty often. It comes from working for Steinberg for 3 years. But you don’t really expect me to say “Yes”, to this question do you?

MF: It was worth a shot. Regarding fuel economy, will any of the fuel saving measures we’ve heard about for the 2008 models come to the US?

Stracco Speaks: Most of them are targeted at the EU test cycles, and so they aren’t really available in any major markets outside of Europe. They wouldn’t raise the official mileage here in the US in any case. The EPA cycle is quite different from EU tests and as you know, will become even more stringent in 2008. These features also add cost to the base MSRP. Despite all this, we’ll get them eventually. But not in 2008.

MF: Will there ever be some type of Chrono Pack or gauge cluster for the R56?

Stracco Speaks: We’re working on something. Can’t give you a definite “yes” or a time and cost right now though.

MF: OK…moving on….You’ve probably heard this one a million times. Will we ever have one touch up windows.

Stracco Speaks: Magic Motoring Ball says “Yes”

MF: Ahh…the notorious MMB. I was wondering when it would make an appearance. Does the Magic Motoring Ball say when?

Stracco Speaks: Oh yeah…I guess that is kind of important. Magic Motoring Ball says “All model year 08 R56s hardtops and R55 Clubman, will have one touch up with anti-trap, but not the convertibles.”

MF: Magic Motoring Ball said Clubman…not Clubmen.

Stracco Speaks: Yes, the plural of Clubman is also Clubman. Strange, maybe…but remember that the plural of MINI is also MINI. I’ll let you in on a little secret though. When the name of the R55 was still in legal limbo, one of the suggested names was “Loxley” as in Robin of Loxley. I like Clubman better.

MF: “Let’s Lox!”… It does have a certain ring. Speaking of the Clubman, I’ve heard it referred to as a “shooting brake”. Most Americans are not familiar with that term. Can you explain?

Stracco Speaks: A shooting brake was originally a type of car that was elongated, to serve as a hunting platform. So you can see where the name comes from. As time went by and there were fewer pheasants and grouse and less aristocracy with hunting ambitions, the term came to refer to any elongated variant. Defratu. Some were quite sporty. Aston Martin had a whole series of shooting brakes. You really can’t call that type of car a wagon or an estate. It’s something different…a shooting brake.

MF: Defratu?

Stracco Speaks: Didn’t think you’d catch that one.

MF: Are you concerned that people will label the Clubman a wagon?

Stracco Speaks: Colloquialisms are beyond our control, However when you say “wagon” I think Ford Country Squire or Buick Roadmaster. The Clubman is about as far from that as you can get.

MF: When the Clubman debuts, will the first show room models be pre-spec’d or will customers be allowed to spec the cars themselves?

Stracco Speaks: They’ll be pre-spec’d. The factory likes the first few weeks of production to have similar specifications. It gets them familiar with putting together a North American Spec vehicle. However, suffice it to say that we have a few tricks to make the pre-spec’d vehicles quite desirable.

MF: The next generation of convertible, what can you tell us?

Stracco Speaks: A lot you can already guess, Faster, more fuel efficient, better emissions and easier to live with. We’ll also be taking “Always Open” to measurably new levels.

MF: Measurably new levels?

Stracco Speaks: Seemingly.

MF: Does that mean it will be a hardtop convertible?

Stracco Speaks: Alex Issigonis was all about maximum use of minimum space. Would Sir Alex put a retractable hardtop on a MINI?

MF: Hey…are you interviewing me?

Stracco Speaks: Are you asking me to? Because I have a few questions about that lingerie site that you worked on….

MF: …OK next question. We’ve heard about a 4th variant and the rumors in the press mostly describe it as some kinda of micro SUV. Can you explain the thought process of stepping into what is an already crowded market of micro SUV’s?

Stracco Speaks: First off, I don’t know where their press get’s their “SUV” info.

Secondly, we’ve looked at the issue of how to expand the MINI brand very carefully. There is clearly a big demand from people who are enthralled by the MINI concept of premium material, emotional design, performance and customization but just can’t manage a MINI for practical reasons and were forced to buy something else. And so they are not MINI customers, but we’d like them to be.

Just a little more room is needed….to fit a drum kit, a St. Bernard, a tool kit… stuff… because as a rule Americans move stuff and not people… And really, a little more room is all we can provide with a name like MINI. As you pointed out the market is awash with cars that provide a lot more room better than we could, so there is no point in trying to be big.

Fortunately, you can make another MINI variant with more space without getting a much bigger MINI. It just depends on the shape and concept you choose. The “packaging” if you will.

Scion packaged their first generation cars very well. The previous generation xA and xB were about the same length and had the same engine, but clearly very different cars. Another example is the Dodge Hornet show car from last year. That car was not much bigger than a MINI and of course had a Tritec engine, but looked quite different.

MF: Do you really think that a 4th variant like you outlined would sell better than say a performance variant? The preponderance of posters on MF seem to want performance.

Stracco Speaks: We’ll have something for the performance minded, don’t you worry.

MF: So is there a chance for a MINI Roadster?

Stracco Speaks: A chance? What do you think?

MF: I think there are a lot of two seat roadsters in the market right now in the MINI price bracket: Solstice, Saturn, MX-5 of course. It would have to be unique

Stracco Speaks: Unique would help, but the business case always has to work, and this one would be particularly tough.

MF: OK, what are the chances for AWD?

Stracco Speaks: Again with “Chance”? You must be a gambling man. We always try to emphasize to the folks back in Munich how important AWD is in northern tier states. Again, it has to be a positive business case. We’d like to have it of course, but we don’t always get what we want. The rest of the world isn’t as big on AWD as we are in North America.

MF: A lot of posters want to know if MINI will be getting a DSG or equivalent.

Stracco Speaks: The only real manufacturer of Dual Clutch Transmissions right now is VW. They don’t have a supplier, they manufacture the DSG themselves. Their front wheel drive box is actually manufactured by VW under license from Borg-Warner. They can afford to manufacture it themselves because they have huge volumes with VW, Seat, Skoda, etc. But, as you could imagine they are not prepared to manufacture those for anyone outside the VW family.

Everyone else has a dual clutch gearbox “In development” or something like that. Or if they have one, it’s not appropriate for a MINI. So it will be a while yet.

MF: Do you think the proliferation of MINI variants will water down the brand?

Stracco Speaks: Certainly not. People are concerned about this whenever a beloved brand adds a new model that isn’t like the one in their own garage. Right now MINI is a cult, but we have the opportunity to make it into a culture. To do that, and to ensure the long term viability of our dealers, we need more variants. If we just stuck to making two door compacts, we would surely fail on both accounts.

MF: Understood. Looking around at the larger BMW group portfolio, do you see the 1 Series as a problem for MINI in the US? Are you worried?

Stracco Speaks: I doubt it. That hasn’t proven to be the case in Europe where the 1 has been available for a while. Plus, they are really quite different cars and different customers.

One is a customizable, torquey, fuel sipping, handling machine. The other is the heir to a Bavarian muscle car tradition with it’s own following.

The only people who need to worry is the competition.

MF: Speaking of competition. Smart will soon be launching in the US. Do you feel that they will be a competitor to the Cooper?

Stracco Speaks: Smart is even more of a niche vehicle than MINI is. It also doesn’t have any of the performance characteristics of a Cooper. Will they sell? Probably. It’s a neat concept for a small car, but it’s not close to our concept.

MF: Any chance of a pure stripped down MINI for the autocrossing and road racing crowds?

Stracco Speaks: In autocrossing, MINI pretty much owns G-stock and H-Stock in SCCA autocross. And we’ve taken 1st and 3rd in SSC road racing for the last two years. You don’t get much better than that. Of course that is with stock Cooper and Cooper Ss. I don’t know of anyone racing a GP which would be in T3.

We considered offering a stripped down John Cooper Challenge Car for road racing, but there isn’t really an SCCA class it could be competitive in, nor would it be usable in Grand Am ST. That means the chances of selling any would be remote. Before you ask: Such a car would never be legal for street use.

MF: Will MINI ever sponsor a full time race team like BMW sponsored PTG?

Stracco Speaks: Magic Motoring Ball says: “A race effort like that is more than our entire US budget for a year.” We’ll stick with grass roots efforts. We’ve had lots of success, so you don’t want to mess with that.

MF: Will there ever be a MINI United in North America?

Stracco Speaks: Don’t know. We’ve not shy about doing big events, that’s for sure. Last year we did MINI Takes The States which was REALLY a big event. Consider it MINI United, except with more motoring, better scenery and a party in a different city every night for two weeks. Keep in mind too that MTTS was an enormous effort for Trudy (Hardy) and her marketing team. There are only 6 of them and that’s half of us!

MF: Will there ever be a dealer in Iowa City/Champaign/Alabama? What is the plan for adding more dealers?

Stracco Speaks: Really this is Saward’s territory, but we’ll continue to add dealers very slowly and carefully. The factory is still pretty limited, so we can’t add more dealers if we can’t get more cars. Following that, if the business case for Iowa City, Champaign or Alabama is better than other areas, than it’s possible.

MF: Will MINIs ever be serviced at BMW dealerships?

Stracco Speaks: We hear this request all the time, and we have considered opening up the servicing of MINI vehicles outside the existing network. However, after careful consideration, we’ve come to the conclusion that it makes best sense to have trained, dedicated MINI technicians that are intimately familiar with the quirks of your particular model, servicing your cars. If a non-dedicated tech occasionally works on a MINI at the local BMW center, there is a real likelihood that the repairs performed may not be the right ones for the vehicle. MINI dealers have dedicated techs that are properly trained and they know MINIs, which is what’s needed from a customer satisfaction point of view. Yeah, I suppose proximity to a local dealer is part of the customer satisfaction equation, but so is fixing the car right the first time.

MF: What is the biggest challenge to MINI in the US? Production restrictions? Competitors?

Stracco Speaks: Exchange rate. It’s a profitability killer and a limiting factor on everything we do. Unfortunately, it is out of our control and that is a real problem. Remember when we started selling MINI in the US the exchange rate was close to $1 to 1 Euro. Now it is approaching $1.40 to 1 Euro. That is a 30% depreciation in value and its effect on the business is huge no matter how well the hedges were done.

MF: Bummer. Maybe I’ll write a letter to Bernanke.

So do you think we can have another “Hey Stracco Interview.”?

Stracco Speaks: Magic Motoring Ball says: “Stracco is outta here shortly, but I am sure Steinberg would be happy to answer your questions, frequently, and in a timely fashion.”

Magic Motoring Ball continues: “Perhaps you should suggest that a web-cam be kept in Steinberg’s cube at all times. People could view it on the MINI Lounge and in all the dealerships.”

MF: Thanks again. We’ll be looking forward to the next “Hey Steinberg”