Technology is shaping the MINI buyer: New York Auto Show interview

MINI used the 2016 New York International Auto Show as a stage on which to present its all new Clubman All4 and John Cooper Works Convertible.

The new Clubman is MINI’s first model to slot into the “compact” segment and now offers the handling benefits of all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, the JCW Cooper Convertible is the hottest drop-top yet from the automaker, developing 228 horsepower.

While attending the show, Digital Trends caught up with Ralph Mahler, Head of Product Management and Patrick McKenna, Department Head of Product Planning to discuss these two new model introductions, MINI’s focus on technology, and the future of the MINI brand.

Digital Trends: Tell us about the Clubman All4

Patrick McKenna: Clubman is still very new for us having been introduced just a few months ago in Cooper Clubman and Cooper S Clubman versions. What we’re revealing here is the All-4, all-wheel drive, designation, which is available for “S” version of the Clubman now, and in a few months will be on offer for the regular Cooper. We want customers to have those two engine choices here in the U.S. and Canada. All-wheel drive has become so successful for us here that it made sense to offer this configuration. Having all-wheel drive available on the entry-level Clubman is important because it’s now an entry price point for new customers to experience MINI’s All4 system, whereas until now only the Countryman offered that system. Also, with the All4 setup, the Clubman S actually has a quicker 0 to 60 mph time because of the smoothness of power delivery. You’ll like this, too – this is a new color for us called “Digital Blue,” (chuckles).

In terms of utility, which offers more interior volume, the Countryman or Clubman?

MINI Clubman All4
MINI Clubman All4

PM: The new Clubman is actually our longest, widest MINI to date. It’s 6.6 inches longer than the Countryman, but of course, the Countryman sits higher off the ground. This is the more car-like alternative to the Countryman, but has about the same cargo capacity as the Countryman with the seats up, and actually a bit more with the seats down. The Clubman also sits on what we call the UKLII platform, a larger chassis. This is our first-ever compact car.

What are some of the most distinguishing characteristics about the Clubman?

PM: The interior, to be sure. The designers did a fantastic job on the cabin to elevate and bring a more premium feel to the Clubman. We made a ton of features standard. We made MINI Connected, Bluetooth audio streaming, and the larger infotainment screen all standard, because we know our younger audience will expect and spec-out their cars with these features. We have dedicated apps for Pandora, Stitcher, Spotify, Glimpse, and Audible with full functionality, not some patchwork version of the app. Every car gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel, auto climate, rain-sensing wipers, and a few other goodies. This car (pointing to the Clubman) happens to have an automatic, but every MINI we sell is offered with a manual – we’re proud of that. Only 4 percent of Americans drive manuals, but 20-30 percent of our customers opt for a manual.

Walk us through the John Cooper Works Cooper

The app will let you know if it’s going to rain so you can go put the top up before any damage is done.

PM: So we’ve already debuted the regular Cooper and Cooper S Convertible, which should just be starting to roll into dealerships in the next few weeks, but this is the global launch of the JCW version. The John Cooper Works version has more visual and performance differentiation from the Cooper and Cooper S. On the performance end, this is the same motor as the hardtop JCW meaning 228 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque and offers the same big brakes as the hardtop. Visually, the JCW is distinguished by its Chili Red blade across the front grille, the bonnet, and the interior. Compared to its predecessor, the JCW sits lower and offers much more standard equipment for only a few hundred dollars more.

Did MINI see a demand for JCW’s high performance in convertible iteration?

Ralph Mahler: There actually was external demand. Perhaps not globally, but here in America, there’s a rather high share of buyers who wanted more performance in the convertible body style. And beyond demand, there’s a lot of history to the John Cooper name, so we try to incorporate it, whenever it makes sense, into the MINI lineup. And though we do offer independent JCW parts, you can’t fully spec out a Cooper S to mimic this car.

What tech. elements are you most proud of in each of these cars?

PM: For me, the optional head-up display with navigation, speed, local speed limits, and shift light indicator is a favorite. Our app suite is also great. Like the Clubman, you get Pandora, Stitcher, Spotify, Glimpse, and Audible. I use Glimpse a lot, actually, to share my commute home with my wife so she can track my progress. Some might say that’s too much information, (chuckles), but I think it’s pretty cool. I’ve driven home a few times and my kids were outside waiting for me – I love that. Then there’s the Journey Mate app. I can open the app, pick any location, and send it to the car to pre-set the navigation. It also remembers the vehicle location so you can find it in large parking lots, etc. Even better, if you turn the car off and leave, the app will let you know if it’s going to rain so you can go put the top up before any damage is done. I also use the active cruise control on my long commute all the time, and it works all the way down to 18 mph.

How important is technology and features to your consumers?

PM: I’d say extremely important. Starting last year, we were getting about a 50 percent take rate on MINI Connected, in part because it’s combined with navigation, but the trend towards greater levels of interior features is definitely increasing. That’s what influenced us to make it standard equipment.

What other segments is MINI considering at this point now that it’s expanded to the compact segment?

RM: Worldwide, the compact segment is one of the biggest and therefore it’s most interest to us at this point. Our biggest model is a compact, but we only have one…so we’ll see what’s to come for that new ground. And one thing to keep in mind, even though the Clubman is our biggest model, it’s the smallest within its segment. Some journalists will say, ‘wow, that’s a big MINI.’ To which I’d respond, ‘it might be big for MINI, but it’s roughly the size of a Volkswagen Golf, and many don’t consider that a big car at all.’ That helps put it into perspective – by American standards, it’s not a big car.

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