Archive for September, 2011

MINI’s Dirty (Large) Secret

Posted: September 11, 2011 in MINI
Tags: , ,

It’s party time at BMW’s diminutive MINI division. Year-to-date sales are up over 26% and all is wonderful, right? However, August 2011 year-to-date sales data tell a different narrative from the spin put out by BMW PR. Most of the business is really stuck in neutral.

When you look at U.S. Light-Vehicles Sales by Nameplate, it’s always been hard to know how well any particular MINI variant has sold. That’s because all MINI sales data has been reported as one line item: Mini Cooper S car (I). (“I” is for imported as opposed to domestic production.)

Since MINI returned to the US, the official sales statistics have lumped together every variant of the MINI Cooper, including base and S-Models of the Hardtop, Convertible and Clubman. The cars with the John Cooper Works (JCW) option packages were similarly included. The public never got a breakdown as to how many convertibles were sold or how many picked the S variant over the standard Cooper.

Year-to-date, MINI has sold 27,565 cars – that’s behind 2010 year-to-date of 29,704 cars. The 7.2% decrease isn’t a good thing in a market that is seeing most manufacturers post healthy sales gains. So what’s up with the back-slapping and champagne at MINI? One word: Countryman.

2011 MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4 with the John Cooper Works (JCW) option package.

When the Countryman was introduced, it was classified as a “truck” by the EPA and that’s how it’s reported for official sales statistics. Cars and light trucks are broken out separately as are domestically-produced models from imported ones. For example, I can tell you how many Toyota Corollas were produced in the US versus Japan, but I can’t tell you the breakdown between the sedan or the Matrix wagon. So this is the first opportunity we have to evaluate how well a single model is selling within the MINI universe.

Americans seem to be unnaturally attracted to SUVs (or is it crossovers?). We won’t buy a cool sports wagon such as the BMW 328i Touring; but we will buy one if it’s jacked up a few inches, saddled with 4-wheel drive, given some faux off-road creds (like it’s ever going to be driven off pavement) and marketed as an SUV.

2011 BMW 328ix Sports Wagon. It's a lovely car, but the X3 SUV creams it in sales.

We no longer live in the Wild West and 99%+ of the time an SUV will never drive off-road. Yet we cling to this myth that we are going to ford streams or blow through the Mohave sand dunes in the same vehicle we use to take the kids to school and fetch groceries. There is also this mistaken belief that the bigger and taller the vehicle, the safer you are in an accident. SUVs have a higher center of gravity and are much more likely to roll over in an accident. You’d be better off in a mid-sized sedan with lots of air bags.

The 2011 Countryman (base MSRP $22,350) rides on an all-new platform. Its body is welded to the chassis, so it would be best described as a crossover or CUV. It has 7 air bags and an air curtain system. And its selling like the iPad. Year-to-date sales of the Countryman are nothing short of spectacular at 10,071 units.

Although MINI’s August sales were down 30% from 2010, overall sales are up 26.7% year-to-date. The entire increase – 100% – is due to the Countryman which now accounts for more than 30% of MINI’s total sales. Apparently all it took for MINI to expand its appeal was to inject a small wagon with steroids and sprout 4 door. Suddenly Americans take notice.

The front of the Countryman looks like an English Bulldog

I can attest to seeing many new Countrymans running all over Los Angeles. Frankly, I wish it had been around before I leased my MINI Cooper Clubman S (MCCS) in 2009. I could have used four real doors and the large rear tailgate would have made it easier to load junk, not to mention carrying my dog in his crate. In short, the Clubman was just too small and uncomfortable for my lifestyle.

That's quite a cavern for a MINI

Is Countryman handsome? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. I think it’s loveable like a fat, wheezing bulldog. It’s so big and cartoonish that it’s almost endearing. The interior is much the same as any other MINI except for the cool utility rail that runs from front to back. If you like MINI’s quirky interiors, then you will love the Countryman. The verdict is that it sells and that’s all that matters.

It kind of looks like an English Bulldog, no?

The Countryman's dashboard and center console is very similar to other MINI models

The back seats look like seats! Note the center rail that runs from the front seats to the rear seats. MINI offers several add-ons like cup holders, coin holders, etc. for the rack. You can slide them back and forth between front and back.

The Countryman is also the first MINI to offer all-wheel drive – dubbed “All4” in MINI-speak. Most LA drivers don’t need a car equipped with all-wheel drive. The system adds unwarranted cost, complexity and weight that ends up costing more to operate and maintain on a long-term basis. The front-drive Countryman (30/25/27 mpg with the 6-speed automatic) is more than sufficient for daily duties. Yet it’s somehow comforting to think that in some natural disaster – like rain – you car can save you and shepherd you home.

My MCCS was plagued with a bad case of torque steer. In hard driving, you had to really hold on to the wheel or risk losing control. The ALL4 system in the new Countryman would have directed some of that wild torque to the rear wheels making it an easier car to control. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that the MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4′s extra heft (232 lbs), cost (base MSRP $27,650), reduced mpg (30/23/26 with the 6-speed automatic) and higher center of gravity would negate the All4′s superior torque management capabilities.

The next new MINI to go on sale will be the MINI Coupe. The base Coupe ($22,000) costs $1,900 more than the Hardtop and while it sports one slick backward baseball cap roof, it also loses two rear seats, rear visibility and has less cargo capacity. Early reviewers don’t think it gained any additional sporting characteristics over the base MINI Hardtop. You pay more and get less.  Ah, the cost of fashion!

The 2012 MINI Cooper S Coupe with the JCW option. You can see the backward baseball cap. Style over substance.

The front of the Coupe is the same as other MINIs; but from the A pillar back it gets unique sheet metal and a steeply-raked windshield.

There's still space for some groceries and flat boxes. Nothing tall is going to fit in the Coupe's boot.

Unfortunately, we won’t know exactly how well the new Coupe is selling because its sales will be lumped into that catch-all single line item for “MINI Cooper S car (I).” My guess is that the Countryman will continue to be the growth engine at MINI. It’s the same thing for Porsche. If you look at its sales, the sports car numbers are dead flat (a new 911 is coming in March) while the sales of the Cayenne SUV have doubled in 2011. The American love affair with SUVs continues…


All I could think of was “Electro Glide.” No, I’m not referring to the 1973 cop movie or the Harley Davidson’s motorcycle; that would be Electra Glide. And I’m not referring to music or a record label either. Perhaps I should call it Electro Glide v. 2.0 or Electro Glide 2011.

What I’m describing is the feeling of gliding on a gas-electric hybrid carpet over the lovely, well-paved, wide, traffic-free streets of Palm Springs in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. It was such a serene and drama-free experience that it was hard to believe there was a complex, highly-sophisticated dance going on under the skin, fusing hardware, software, electrons, grease and internal combustion into one compelling act.

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid sedan.

Hyundai engineers have choreographed a lovely pas de deux between a 30 kW permanent-magnet synchronous electric motor capable of 40 hp and 151 lb-feet of torque and Hyundai’s 2.4L 4-cylinder GDI DOHC Theta II engine (used in the base Sonata) capable of 166 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque, converted to an Atkinson (shorter compression) cycle for hybrid use. The former is fed by electrons from a lightweight (96 lbs), compact 270V lithium polymer battery sandwiched behind the rear seats and the latter by a 17.2 gallon gas tank placed underneath and between the rear wheels. Mash the accelerator and the married system leaps to 206 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque. Driven normally, the EPA suggests 35 city/40 highway and combined 37 mpg. Some hypermilers brag over 50 mpg. Now this is a ballet I can sit through!

This see-through diagram shows the parts of the Blue Drive hybrid system. The electric motor (in front) and lithium polymer battery (in back) are in blue.

You can sense the constant start/stop of the gas engine; but it’s more like a calm heartbeat than an unannounced seizure. I think after a day or two in the car, you’d forget it was happening. Even with that in mind, the Sonata operated and drove quietly, nearly seamlessly; without vibrations, hesitations or confused gear ratios. The dedicated NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) engineers nailed it. Again, my brain thinks Electro Glide.

The Hybrid Blue Drive system is an impressive first effort from Hyundai. It’s a full parallel hybrid system, but it’s not the same 2-mode system (electric only or gas-electric combined) found in the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion Hybrids. Blue Drive can operate in EV mode alone, the gas engine alone or a blend of both, depending on driving conditions and demands. Hyundai says you candrive up to 62 mph in EV mode assuming the battery is fully-charged. Unfortunately, you aren’t likely to get more than 1 minute EV drive time at that speed.

The Blue Drive badge will likely appear on future Hyundai models.

The other big difference is the choice of transmissions. Where Toyota and Ford use a CVT (continuously variable transmission), Hyundai uses its new six-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual selection and an electric motor that takes the place of the torque converter. No more whining CVT rubber bands. The 6-speed auto makes the Sonata Hybrid more engaging. Slick stuff.

A sophisticated fully-independent suspension system coupled with lots of soundproofing helped produced the quiet but confident ride. (You know, Electro Glide!) I didn’t get to drive it over big potholes or rough roads (like everywhere in LA); but what imperfections and valleys I drove over were handled with aplomb.

This Sonata Hybrid has the panoramic glass sunroof that is part of the Premium Package.

The car accelerates (hybrid) quickly to 60 mph (just over 9 seconds according to the factory) and drives much like any other non-hybrid car in this class. The Sonata Hybrid doesn’t use the grabby, mushy and lifeless regenerative brakes found in some hybrids. I found that the “normal” 4-wheel anti-lock discs gripped confidently in a satisfying linear fashion.

I was surprised at the Sonata’s tight 35.8 ft turning circle. Usually these front-drive sedans need a wide berth when attempting a U turn. This is a big plus for maneuvering in tight, narrow city streets. The Honda Accord needs an embarrassing 37.7 feet to do the same maneuver.

Hyundai’s “motor driven” or electric power rack and pinion steering system (EPS) eliminates the fuel-sapping belt-driven connection to the engine. Unfortunately, EPS also tends to anesthetize road feedback – think Prius. That said, Hyundai’s engineers have done an admirable job of injecting a modicum of life into the Sonata’s EPS. (We’ll leave it to the engineering wizards in Weissach to find the electric steering G-Spot on the all-new 2012 Porsche 911 coming early next year.)

This rear/right detail shows how the side style line blends into the trunk lid spoiler and frames the rear taillights.

I give props to the all engineers in various departments who fine-tuned this car. The Sonata Hybrid operates as one melded machine – as if all electric and mechanical components were tuned to one vibration frequency. The typical mid-size hybrid sedan customer is looking for a comfy, roomy, well-equipped, worry-free, eco-friendly, fuel-sipping family hauler and daily driver. In short, they nailed it.

When Hyundai introduced the new 2010 Sonata in 2009, there was a rush on Depends at the local Target closest to Toyota’s and Honda’s US headquarters in Torrance, CA. The Korean giant was very good at producing copycat Japanese cars; but it had always been just a step or two behind the curve. No more.

The front grille is blacked out and the LED eyeliner is a nice touch on the Hybrid that distinguishes it from the normal versoin.

The new Sonata signaled to Toyota, Honda and Nissan (as well as Ford and GM) that those days were over, and Hyundai was going to be leading the pack in design, quality, build and value. Hyundai’s safety ratings now match the competition. JD Power quality ratings are way up. Consumer Reports really liked the new Sonata and ranked it in its top 5 mid-sized sedans, one notch below the Honda Accord and two notches ahead of the (outgoing) Toyota Camry. The Sonata GLS even earned the coveted “Recommended” red check. And Hyundai’s standard warranty – 5 year/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper, 10 year/100,000 powertrain and 5 year 24/7 roadside assistance – trumps all the competition.

Hyundai’s “Fluidic Sculpture” design language, introduced on the 2010 Sonata, continues to distinguish the brand and it has agedwell. It’s definitely not bland like the Accord, Camry and Altima. When you see a Hyundai now, you now recognize it as a Hyundai; before, you didn’t know or care.

The subtle styling differences on the Sonata Hybrid help lower its drag coefficient to from 0.28 to 0.25 (even if it still looks like a surprised catfish). The roof is slightly more raked. The side mirrors are fine tuned and now sport embedded LED turn signal repeaters. LEDs also appear in the taillights. The side “spear” character crease flows from the front fenders, through the door handles and into the subtle, integrated trunk spoiler. Of course, there are the requisite Blue Drive Hybrid badges.

The lighting helps show the side "spear" that flows from front to back on the Sonata. It helps break up what would otherwise be considered a slab-sided silhouette.

The dash looks well-balanced and flows (you know, “fluidic”) effortlessly into the center console. The smallish (by today’s standards) 4.2” vivid infotainment touch-screen sits on top flanked by vertical HVAC vents. Dedicated function short cuts on the screen’s sill are easy to read and use. The dual-zone automatic climate control has large, simple controls and the system was quick to cool the cabin despite the 110 degree desert oven outside. I love the fact that the Sonata Hybrid had four heated seats, but in So Cal, you’d better be damn sure the AC works well before you buy any car.

The interior plastic tones are pleasing to the eye and it's all very balanced. Controls are easy to read and reach.

Whether you get the Camel or Gray interior, the various surfaces and plastic plastic panels are mostly high grade, soft to the touch and textured. Only a couple panels failed my tap and scratch test. The 8-way power driver’s seat had plenty of room for my 6’1” frame and I could actually sit behind myself without collapsing my legs. The shallow back seat bench doesn’t have much thigh support, but neither does anything else in this size/class.

A Bluetooth hands-free phone system is standard. The $5,000 Premium Package is the only option available on the Hybrid. It includes a panoramic power sunroof, 17” eco-spoke alloy wheels, navigation with a back up camera, a thundering Infinity Premium 400 watt sound system with HD and XM Satellite Radio, leather seating surfaces, and a rear view mirror with an embedded digital compass and HomeLink.

The Sonata Hybrid's panoramic sunroof makes the cabin feel light and airy.

The Hybrid sacrifices the folding rear seats to the slim, rectangular lithium polymer battery pack. A separate starter battery (like in a regular car) nestles in the trunk’s right rear recessed corner. All told, you don’t give up much cargo space to the hybrid package.

You're looking straight at the lithium polymer battery pack of the Sonata Hybrid. It doesn't suck up too much trunk room. It's sandwiched in behind the rear seats.

The auxiliary battery is used to start the engine and power accessories. Just like a "normal" car's battery.

My test car was the fully-loaded Sonata Hybrid with the Premium Package. With a base MSRP of $25,795, freight of $750, the total damage is a very competitive $31,545. The 2012 Camry Hybrid LE has a base MSRP of $25,900 and is EPA rated at 43 city/39 highway compared to the Sonata’s 35/40. Depending on your mix of driving, the two may come very close to each other in real-world use.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid will face fierce competition from Toyota. This is the just revealed 2012 Camry Hybrid. It will be priced almost the same as the Sonata and Toyota will hammer the fact that it's got much better city EPA ratings than the Sonata.

The next two years will see a more competitive field of mid-size fuel efficient sedans. In addition to the Sonata and Camry Hybrids, Hyundai’s sister company, Kia, has its own version of the Sonata Hybrid, the 2011 Optima Hybrid, with a MSRP of $26,500. I haven’t driven it, but it has the same hybrid drive system. Ford is readying an all-new Fusion Hybrid for sale in 2012 and Nissan will likely introduce a re-engineered 2013 Altima Hybrid later that year. And don’t forget that the 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI (clean diesel) offers near-hybrid mileage with a sportier German demeanour.

If you’re in the market for a mid-sized hybrid sedan, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is a compelling choice. For me, the biggest techno-geek selling feature is the transmission. It simply imbues the Sonata Hybrid with a unique almost sporty character – something missing from most hybrids. It’s striking, solid, quiet, well sorted and generously appointed and now its my first choice in hybrid mid-size sedans. It slips so quietly and effortlessly through the daily routine, you may even name your car Electro Glide.

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Basic Specs

Base Price $25,795
Drivetrain Front Wheel Drive
Curb Weight (lbs) 3483
City (MPG) 35
Hwy (MPG) 40
Horsepower 206@6000
Torque (lb-ft) 193@4500
Wheelbase 110.0
Length (in.) 189.8
Width (in.) 72.2
Height (in.) 57.7