Q&A with MINI USA on Diesels in the US
For the past 4-5 years we’ve been hearing from our US readers one question over and over again; when will we see a MINI Diesel. Capable of over 50 mpg (US) and loaded with torque the Cooper D has been a standout product for MINI around the world. And the forthcoming Cooper SD promises similar efficiency with even more performance.
So over the course of our time at NAIAS a plan was hatched that would allow MINI USA to respond to the question in a definitive manner. And of course that meant turning to MINI USA Product Manager Vinnie Kung.
MotoringFile: As definitively as possible, can you tell us and our readers the state of a MINI Diesel in the US market?
Vinnie Kung (MINI USA Product Manager): This may read like a short novel, but just wanted to be as transparent as possible and to share our experiences. I’m sure other manufacturers have been down this same road, except for VW, who, as a large-volume manufacturer, has the benefit of spreading costs over many times the number of cars as we do. MINI is a small group and we like it that way.
I’ve been on a personal mission to get Diesels here in the US since 2007. I’ve owned oil burners myself (PowerStroke F-250, X5 35d) and love the purring clatter of a Diesel that let’s everyone know that you’re smarter than the current crop of Prius drivers on the road. Couple that with incredible fuel economy, great drivability and the 40% increase in fuel economy, it is so obvious that we should have a MINI Diesel in the US. While many people think we’ve been dragging our feet and that we’re anti-Diesel, the opposite is true. I know many claim that they have gone to other makes because we don’t have the Diesel here, but we hope we can win them back. We’ve been pressing for years and despite the countless years that we’ve working on it, we have come close enough to taste the low-sulfur Diesel but were never able make the play on prom night. So let’s talk about how things went down from behind the scenes.
In 2007, we were looking good to have it in the US for model year 2010 (0909 SOP.) The plan was to bring the R56 Cooper D here without urea injection, thinking that it could last “as is” until 2015 or so before the EPA would step in and increase the tailpipe emissions requirements for particulate mass and CO2 on passenger vehicles. It would have been perfect but a year later, the economic crash of 2008 came and the dollar-Euro exchange rate went every which way. This resulted in a rather big dip in our 2009 forecasts as we predicted that most consumers were simply out of the new car marketplace. With MINI going into a necessary (and smart) worldwide stop on all projects that didn’t bring benefit to the company to survive 2009, we had to shelve “Project D-US” until further notice. We then had to understandably prioritize R60, R58 and R59, which at the time, were still just rumors and being prepared for worldwide debuts as concept cars.
Fast forward to late 2009 and with our playbooks back open, we were on a fast-track to bring back Project D-US. Our strategy was to evaluate the One D, Cooper S, Cooper SD and to put them all together on the same table. Then, we’d see which two would work best and then see which would provide the most bang for the buck. Then, a few months later, the changes to the CAFE and EPA regulations by the Obama administration meant that we’d (by law) have to add urea injection two years sooner by 2013, during the lifecycle of the current R5x platform. So, Plan A was to sell a MINI Diesel for two years without SCR and to then add urea injection when it was needed. Plan B was to add urea injection right away, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about it. We asked the engineering team, the Oxford plant and the internal project financing team what it would take. The answer was a STAGGERING amount because of the necessary changes to the body-in-white. We all love our MINIs but often forget just how tightly packages the car is today and to provide a place for the urea mixture tank, pump, lines, wiring and injection system, we needed to re-engineer the car with a new floorpan, left rear quarter panel, inner wheelhouse and attendant hardware (including interior panels and trim.)
Now we wondered to ourselves, how come the platform team didn’t think of this any sooner? In truth, it’s because Diesel vehicles in Europe conform to very rigid but more importantly, predictable, BIN standards that do not require SCR. This is unlike the US where every lawmaker is trying to get a book deal by becoming automotive engineers and petroleum industry experts overnight and to re-write the law as they go. The end result? To break even, we were looking at one of every five R56s being a Diesel without any loss of gasoline Cooper sales. While it sounds like an easy task, when you sit down and do a math, it only takes about five minutes and the numbers get ugly. Basically, if we bring the Cooper D to production for the US, charge $10,000 more than a Cooper, we’d still lose about $5,000 per car until the R5x platform ends. Now, I don’t know about you, but I love my job. And to keep it, I have to make some obvious choices and to concentrate on keeping the “other” cars coming. Instead of a Cooper D, I have a preproduction JCW R58 Coupe on order.
So, at the end of the day, Project D-US is no longer for the current platform. We are now focused on the next generation cars and believe you me, we will up the ante for fuel economy, no matter what fuel they will burn. Read into that any way you’d like.
MF: Ok so it’s not coming to the US. But our international readers have been clamoring for details on the Cooper SD for awhile. We know it’s coming to Geneva and we know it’ll have loads of torque (the most ever in a MINI) and great efficiency. What else can you tell us about it?
VK: Now I know you will all hate me, but I had a chance to drive it and the thing is incredible. It was Pepper White manual R56 Cooper SD on 17s. It rips out of the gate like the current Cooper S and just revs, all the way to 4,500 rpm. It has noticeably more noise than the N18 (about 40% more) but like I said, it’s GOOD noise! Best part, it can get 48 mpg (true US conversion.) But I must say, it makes me appreciate the N18 (the current MCS engine) we have today because it truly drives like the N47 (the current Cooper D engine), but can rev out more and pop on deceleration.
MF: Moving on to some easier questions. We’ve heard rumblings of some changes for March production onward. What can you tell us?
VK: Cool stuff, really. R60 gets the second load floor, and we will see a cool 50th anniversary package for the Clubman with a unique color. Also, we’ll see the discontinuation of the factory aero kit to make room for… uh, well, you know… another aero kit at the plant.
MF: Wow. Our voices have finally been heard then. Great news. So getting back to what we saw at NAIAS; the Paceman looked great, the red roofed JCW is sinister and the Countryman got lots of interest. With all of that plus the Coupe and Roadster on their way, you’ve got to be pretty happy with the line-up and what’s currently in the pipeline.
VK: The Countryman is the most MINI for your buck and the Coupe and Roadster only re-emphasize the MINI ideals that we hold close to our hearts. But it won’t be all fun and games as new competitors will be swarming from every direction for a piece of the MINI magic and we know it. The production version of the Paceman is just the icing for what we have planned in the next few years. Right now, we are working on several special-edition models and the R56′s replacement. I am confident that those both inside and outside of the MINI fold will be very surprised with the next generation Hardtop as it will be the coolest ride on four wheels.
MF: One more question and we’ll let you get back to that secret Mr. Fusion powered Back to the Future MINI project. What’s up with MINI Coupe? Is there anything you can tell us about the timeframe or perhaps something else we don’t know?
VK: As we get closer to production, I am happy to say that it will be very true to the concept car. We’re still working on finalizing the name, but I am all for calling it simply the Coupe. It will have a much more useful trunk area than you’d think and the rear decklid will have a pleasant surprise.
MF Wrap-up: I wanted to add a huge thank you to Vinnie for doing this interview. And I have to add it was Vinnie’s idea to come to MF readers with a real answer to this question. Readers on this site have levied a lot of criticism on MINI USA over the years and I often feel that a lot of it (not all) is unjust. This is a good example of where MINI USA is caught in a difficult place given economic realities and government regulations. Yes it’s unfortunate but this answer should dispel many of the rumors and off the wall theories that have been floating around the web for years.
I’ve known Vinnie for awhile now and I can honestly say I can’t imagine a better qualified person to be in his position – and that’s from an enthusiasts point of view. In fact the same could be said for most the staff at MINI USA. So while we may not always like the answers we get, I can say with some authority that they strive to not only give MINI owners what we want but make the brand something to be proud of.