Stop/Start, Diesel on Mini’s U.S. Wish List

Americans’ preference for automatic transmissions, combined with regulatory and cost issues, discourage the small-car-maker from acting on its technological urges.

LOS ANGELES –Already in European Mini-brand cars, stop/start technology and diesel engines are on the auto maker’s radar for the U.S.

“There will be” stop/start in U.S. Minis eventually, Vinnie Kung, Mini USA product planning manager, tells WardsAuto in an interview here.

Americans’ preference for automatic transmissions is delaying the technology, he says.

Stop/start technology, which shuts off the engine automatically when the vehicle stops and restarts it when the accelerator is depressed, is mated only to manual transmissions in European Minis.

“Sixty-five percent of all Minis (sold in the U.S.) are automatic,” Kung says. “If we did (bring stop/start), only 35% of the people would benefit. Unfortunately, now you’re talking about a very low volume of cars.”

Also giving Mini pause is that in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency city-driving test cycle, stop/start may add just 1 mpg (0.4 L/100 km).

Manual models with the technology may not result in a city fuel-economy improvement because the EPA test “sometimes doesn’t have your foot come off the pedal completely, which will never activate start/stop,” Kung says.

Regulatory and cost issues also are preventing Mini from bringing diesel engines to the U.S.

“We’ve always considered (a diesel engine) and always wanted it, but we have many external factors that unfortunately work against us,” Kung says, noting the EPA and the California Air Resources Board have conflicting diesel tailpipe-emissions targets.

“It’s hard for us to go after a moving target when they don’t know what the target is.”

In its 2017-2025 fuel-economy rules, CARB places a lesser standard on carbon-dioxide tailpipe emissions by 2025, 166 g/m, than does the EPA, targeting 163 g/m. CARB says with the lower threshold it is accounting for the larger size of vehicles on California roads.

CARB and the EPA favor zero-emissions vehicles, such as the fully electric Nissan Leaf, or partial-zero-emissions models, such as the extended-range electric Chevy Volt, in their future rules.

Mini’s status as a niche brand in Europe creates another barrier in bringing diesels to the U.S., Kung says.

“To adapt a vehicle for here would be costly, and it’s very hard because we’re a low-volume brand. To be able to make that (investment) back (would be difficult),” he says. “Even though I’d love to bring it here, we all like our jobs and can’t lose money on every car we sell.”

Mini doesn’t emphasize fuel economy in its marketing, but Kung says there is a correlation between high fuel prices and volume. He counts the April-May 2008 period, when gas prices skyrocketed to $4 per gallon, as a sales high point for Mini.

Due to their small size, Minis tend to be fuel-efficient. To meet the forthcoming EPA regulations, a new B/C-segment front-wheel-drive platform to be shared between Mini and parent BMW will help.

“Luckily for us we have the upcoming UKL platform that gives us a lot of neat opportunities, which allows us to as a result incorporate things we never thought were possible,” Kung says. This “allows us to get fuel-economy numbers that we also thought weren’t possible.”

However, BMW does not plan to share its carbon-fiber technology with Mini. BMW just opened a new joint-venture plant with supplier SGL Carbon in Moses Lake, WA, and will use the material to reduce the weight of its vehicles, leading to expected fuel-efficiency gains.

Mini’s models already are light, Kung says, and using carbon fiber would boost their price.

“We’re already ahead of the curve, so we don’t need to find that much weight to remove from the vehicle. Right now our Hardtop is 2,500 lbs. (1,134 kg). It’s a smart weight balance to have safety, to have performance all in there and (at a reasonable) cost.”

Mini also is dabbling in electric vehicles with its Mini E fleet demonstration cars. Some units still are on U.S. roads, but others have been shipped to other markets, such as China, for similar testing.

Kung deems the Mini E trial program a success but hints retailing EVs in bigger volumes for now will be the domain of the BMW brand.

“The BMW Group is now evolving into other electric concepts like the Active E,” he says. “The Mini E was definitely the stepping stone and will go down in history as the best learning experience we ever had in the BMW Group about electric vehicles.”

BMW’s Active E fleet models spawned the BMW i3 all-electric and i8 plug-in hybrid vehicles due in the U.S. in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

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