Last week we asked you to give us your questions to MINI USA Product manager Vinnie Kung. This week we have your answers. First a big thanks to Vinnie who’s been quite busy driving in the 24 Hours of Lemons recently. Oh and then there’s the little task of getting the entire refreshed MINI model line-up (not to mention the new Countryman) ready for the 2011 model year. So with all that said, let’s jump right in to it.
MotoringFile: Vinnie, great to see you again. Let’s get straight to the most important question. How was the 24 Hours of Lemons?
Vinnie: Oh, you mean the coolest race ever to happen? Yeah, things went great, thanks. I only hit the guardrail once with our D-Day themed Impala. We came in 32nd, but who cares when youâ€™re having fun.
MF: Ok, not that that’s out of the way, we’ve got a few questions about a little thing called the 2011 MINI refresh. For starters we’ve had a ton of people wanting to know about MINI Connected’s availability.
Vinnie: MINI Connected has been one of the most fascinating projects. But like any technology offer, there are challenges when itâ€™s time to get things onto the streets. As of now, it looks like December production is when we will see it.
Engineering suspensions, engines and other cool mechanical technologies takes about 54 to 60 months to develop. When it comes to electronics, we have only a fraction of the time in order for it to be relevant in the market. I can design a control arm today and it will work for a real long time. But a new app? I have only a few months. I mean, would you want a Friendster App in 2011? I didnâ€™t think so. So, sometimes extra time is all we need to finalize it. Iâ€™ve tried the latest version and itâ€™s awesome.
MF: Another 2011 options question. Is there a chance of the early JCWâ€™s being able to get the black headlights in either the standard xenons or the Adaptive headlights. Secondly why in the world is MINI not allowing us to fit the more aggressive looking black headlight surrounding to the most aggressive MINI, the JCW?
Vinnie: We agree completely, but the guys in Oxford have other intentions for the JCW models. We keep asking for it but we keep getting a big, â€œNo.â€
MF: A couple of JCW questions regarding the 2011 model year. Why exactly was the JCW engine not upgraded along with the rest of the range?
Vinnie: The Cooper and Cooper S models were the focus of this update. A higher power version of the JCW has been rumored.
MF: Can we expect an updated version of the JCW Engine kit?
Vinnie: It should be out real soon. I spoke to Florian Kuenstner who heads up the accessories and it will have a similar power increase like weâ€™ve had going from the N14 to the N18. Cool thing is that weâ€™ll now be able to hear the popping sound on decel better.
MF: Ok onto a few random options questions that readers had. First up why is there no lumbar support on the cloth and leatherette seats?
Vinnie: Itâ€™s priced into the higher end seats. To make both Cloth and Leatherette free on the Sport seats, we canâ€™t put lumbar support in it or weâ€™d have to raise the price of the Sport seats from $250 to $500 on the Cooper or increase the price of the Cooper Sâ€™ base price to add it as standard. Right now, we think it is a fair tradeoff.
MF: Is there any specific reason why MINI eliminated the tilt/slide/memory (for getting into the back seat) from the passenger seats in the late 2010â€™s while keeping them on the drives side?
Vinnie: It was part of a cost-down measure. Sadly, this was one of few things that we fought against but the beancounters prevailed. Luckily, we did win on a few fronts such as getting the MINI logo back on our engines, budgeting for oil feed line heat shields on the turbo engines and even getting new timing chain tensioners.
MF: What about colors? Will we see brighter non-metallic color choices in future? We’ve had plenty of bright metallics but rarely something retro inspired that doesn’t have metal flakes.
Vinnie: We always work on new colors, either metallic or not. For instance, we took the time to develop Ice Blue for December production. But incredibly, we have a high demand for metallic colors so we will continue to meet that demand by offering metallics that are bright, such as my personal favorite, Spice Orange metallic.
MF: Ok onto the JCW. Let me state that this next question is a reader question and is not officially sanctioned by MotoringFile. Ok here we goâ€¦ will the current R5X JCW cars ever be available with some type of automatic transmission?
Vinnie: It is not planned for the current JCW cars. The goal has been to keep the JCW pure but we know eventually, there will be enough people that want it and we may offer it. But right now, we want to be able to keep the existing JCW lineup interesting so we are focusing on making it stand out more from an appearances perspective.
MF: Now onto something a little more our style. Based on talking with dealers and our various sources I get the feeling that the current JCW hasn’t sold quite as well as expected or hoped. True or not we’ve not been shy of our critic of the car. We love the way it goes and stops but it just doesn’t look or feel special enough to us. We know MINI is listening but can we expect future JCW products that could address these concerns?
Vinnie: Besides the updates we will see in 2011 (gray-faced gauges, specific color combos, etc.) we will continue to lobby for more differentiation on the JCW models. When you buy an M3, itâ€™s almost a completely different car compared to a 335i. Same goes for the R32, Renault Alliance GTS, SAAB 900 SPG, SVO Mustang, etc. See what I am getting at? Even those were some pretty bad examples, the reality is that today, the JCW models appeal to the vast majority of new MINI customers that are new to the brand. Those of us who have been with MINI from the beginning prefer a truly differentiated car and for us, we need a GP replacement beyond what we saw with the WC50.
MF: Any chance for an AWD JCW in something like the current R56? The Golf R sure looks tempting sometimes.
Vinnie: Sadly, the current L3 chassis does not support an AWD system. While tempting, it would cost beaucoup bucks to get it to work in the market. The breakeven point would take either a huge price surcharge or an inordinate number of cars to be sold. Either way, due to plant and pricing limitations, success would be hard to come by.
MF: Let’s talk R60. There’s been a ton of excitement around the Countryman (more than we expected) but there have been a few questions that keep coming up. First is the rear seating. I know you’ve already answered this in our previous interview but has anything changed that could allow a three seat option in the US for the Countryman?
Vinnie: We have been lobbying for a five-seater for years. But to meet the changing US standards for side impact crash testing, we would have to heavily re-engineer the car and that would add price, something that none of our customers would want to hear about. We are still requesting a fully-compliant three-seater bench seat, however, and know that this is a huge factor in making people consider us for their next family vehicle.
MF: With the announcement of the WRC Countryman built by Prodrive rumors have popped up that there might be something road going that could be linked to the rally car. Is there anything you can shed on that?
Vinnie: I will have to respectfully decline commenting on that, due to the fact that it may incriminate at a future time.
MF: Can we expect any WRC inspired surprises in our future as MINI fans?
Vinnie: It would make sense.
MF: What about standard JCW options such as the engine kit or the Aero-kit. Is there any thing you can tell us?
Vinnie: The biggest goal is to make the JCW Aero Kit available from the factory as it would have perfect fit, finish and reduced cost. Since the supplier is a small-volume manufacturer (different than the supplier for the factory aero kit), they need to get ramped up. Once that is done, I believe this will take off very well as an option. Weâ€™ll need to transition out of the current factory aero kit in the meantime, which is now only on the Cooper models.
MF: The Coupe remains the most anticipated product on MotoringFile. Any updates you can give us on the timing? We’ve reported late Summer of 2011.
Vinnie: When the school semester starts, it would be a good time to see a MINI dealer.
MF: What about a debut?
Vinnie: The cars will stay pure to the concepts we have presented so far. So, I wouldnâ€™t expect a big debut at a show.
MF: The R58 Coupe seems like the perfect platform for a hardcore MINI. Would you agree?
Vinnie: With an aluminum roof, potential for great aerodynamics and lower weight, it has the inherent ability to perform better on a racetrack, all around the world â€¦ in a Challenging environment.
MF: How much do we expect headroom to be compromised in the R59?
Vinnie: Not sure yet. I hope itâ€™s not much.
MF: Moving on to everyone’s favorite topic, warranty issues. What’s the story with the high pressure fuel pump and intake manifold/throttle body issues that we’ve read about throughout the MINI web? Has this been addressed with both pre-2011 and post 2011 MINIs?
Vinnie: I wish I had more expertise here, but in product planning, we look at how the MINI product line will look like in the year 2022. But our technical service guys keep me up to date every so often on the current product line. I do know that the N16 and N18 engines get new intake manifolds so that should eliminate any issues there. The JCW also has several updates due to the MY changeover. But anything more than that, and Iâ€™d just be making it up.
MF: Regarding the R57. Why is no one touch down (or up for that matter) on the MINI Convertible? Was this a safety thing? Programming?
Vinnie: This is 100% a safety issue. The lift motorâ€™s current-sensing anti-trap feature is what allows us to have one-touch up on the R55 and R56. On the convertible, however, there are two reasons why the one-touch cannot work. For one, the rear windows have the ability to slide and then close into the front side windows and getting a finger pinched in there is tough for the vehicle to detect. There is no easy way to properly place a sensor on the rear glass and using current-sensing technology on the lift motor itself is not an accurate or safe way to offer one-touch. Also, if you had placed a contact sensor in the upper seal, this would only work with the top up and not with the top down. With so many variables and possible ways for somebody to get an extremity misplaced in one of the four windows, we decided to play it safe and let the window lift function be manually-controlled by the occupants.
MF: We know that there have been some decisions made to not bring the diesel to the US. Does that also rule out hybrid technology for MINI?
Vinnie: Diesel and Hybrid models have never been ruled out. The business case is what limits us. We all want it but at the end of the day, it has to make business sense and while there are many people out there just screaming for one (myself included), the spreadsheet says otherwise. US conformity is not cheap on the Diesel front. But it may be easier with other alternatives.
MF: What about the automatic Start/Stop system that has been used throughout the MINI range elsewhere in the world? We understand that the EPA doesn’t count it in the official MPG figures but does MINI plan to bring the system to the US in the near future?
Vinnie: Itâ€™s a classic compound business case problem. MSA (auto-start/stop) is only available on cars with manual trans. So right off the bat, weâ€™re looking at only 40% of all MINI Coopers since there is no MSA for automatic transmission cars. This doubles the price immediately. After all the calculations are done in our finance group, we then look at how many cars would actually have it, and we predicted a modest 20% take rate. So, 20% of 40% of 28,000 cars means only 2,240 Cooper Hardtops would have it. Then you have to hope that these people really want it because who would pay $750 for an option that makes no difference on the EPA label. So in the end, weâ€™d lose money on the option and in these times, I want to keep my job.
MF: Here’s another one that has been answered many times but we thought we’d give us another shot based on our readers interest. Has there been any movement in a UK delivery program (for those buying cars in the US) since we last talked?
Vinnie: Not as of yet. We just compounded this topic with the addition of the Countryman being built in Austria. Weâ€™d rather give our customers a true MINI experience from start to finish, but as of now, we donâ€™t have a way to provide that.
MF: Ok last question. Does the Fiat 500 keep you up at night? If not, does anything?
Vinnie: The Fiat 500 will have VW Beetle-itis. People will run, then realize itâ€™s a bucket of Fiat leftovers, and never buy one again. For Fiat, it may not be the best choice as their first car to bring the name back to the US. So, it does not keep me up at night.
Usually, I lose sleep worrying about roving bands of militant zombies coming in the middle of the night to steal my incomplete Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli cassette collection while they have their shoes on. I hate it when rude zombies leave footprints.
But as of now, my former adult magazine career is what still keeps me up all night.
And with that I gave Vinnie the secret MINI insider secret handshake and he was off into the night. If you didn’t see anything added “between the lines” above you may want to read again. Sometimes silence in a few of the answers was deafening.