February 10, 2009

MINI mulling diesel option for future US models

In the pantheon of automotive journalism, USA Today rarely comes to mind. Yet today, MINI vice president Jim McDowell confirmed to the perennial paper that parent company BMW is actively considering adding a diesel engine for US - bound Coopers and Clubmans.

MINI already offers a diesel option for the Mini Cooper in Europe, but the current diesel engines do not meet EPA emissions. Hence any US-bound diesel MINI will be based on a new generation motor rather than a retrofit of the current European model, said McDowell.

As reported last fall, BMW has begun selling diesel versions of the 3-series sports sedan as well as the X5-series sport utility vehicle. Both vehicles use an ammonia-reduction catalyst to cut down on harmful nitrogen emissions.

Ultimately, it's a question of cost versus buyer-perceived benefit. The gasoline-powered Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S are gas-sippers. The 2009 Mini Cooper delivers 28 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. "If we add a diesel," McDowell said, "it has to really get high mileage ratings to appeal to buyers."

German automotive supplier Bosch AG has been spotted testing a modified Mini Cooper D in the United States. Leaked reports of its 60-plus miles per gallon fuel economy have whetted appetites, but they may have also lead to unrealistic buyer expectations.

Not all car-makers have found success with diesel models. Mercedes-Benz and VW have successfully sold diesels here for years. But Honda made an abrupt about-face in December when CEO Takeo Fukui announced the company would drop their plans to build a diesel motor for the US market.

The bottom line:
As car sales go, 2008 was one of America's worst years on record. The smart money would lead most to cut their costs and focus on sales. But if BMW plays their cards right, a diesel MINI Cooper would knock the eco-weenie Prius off its smug-shrouded perch.

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