Baron Mini

Superior Chevrolet, You Really Need to Rethink the Way You Work.


Shopping for a car is always a stressful experience. It doesn’t have to be, but when you are spending a large sum of money it tends to be. This is an example of two separate experiences I had today. One good, one bad, both examples of dealership and corporate culture.

The first example involves looking at a Chevy Volt at Superior Chevrolet in Shawnee Kansas. The second looking at a MINI Countryman two blocks down the road at Baron MINI. The experiences are like night and day, with the Chevy experience being one of the worst ever.

I like the Volt. It’s an American car with bright future. It’s green. It is a showcase car for Chevy and one they should be proud of. Currently Chevy is running a killer lease deal on the Volt, and it’s compelling enough for me to burn a Saturday morning trying to test drive one. The thing is though, I walked out of the dealership without ever driving the Volt, and saying I’d never shop at Superior again. Actually most Chevy dealers I’ve been to pull what I’m going to explain in a bit. Before I do, let just say that last Friday I test drove a 2013 Porsche Boxster at Aristocrat Motors, alone, after a quick copy of my license and insurance. That my friends is a huge thing. I do not want a sales person going on my test drive. Neither should you. It doesn’t allow you to relax, be yourself, and really experience the car.

So the Superior visit went like this. Kristy called to make sure they had one we could drive and double check the lease rate. Everything looked OK, but it seemed a bit odd that the receptionist passed her to a sales associate who told us we had to check in with the Sales Manager when we got to Superior. Why would you have to do that? You’ll find out in a bit.

We drove to Superior, pulled in and parked. As soon as we got out of the car, we were pounced on by a sales associate wanting our business. We told him we needed to speak to the sales manager as we had been told to, and he immediately started fishing for details on what we were looking for, what our time frame was, who we had talked to, etc.

In typical fashion, he ushered us to an open office and asked us to wait while he went to look for the manager. A few minutes later he was back, and said the manager would just be a bit and he wanted to get some more info before we began. All we want to do is test drive a car. We aren’t even looking at buying or leasing at this point. We just want to look at it. None of this seems to matter at Chevy though. Before you can test drive they need your phone number, address, credit score, relationship to each other, the options on the car you are interested in, what color you might want it in, your first born, and a sack of gold. Did I mention all we wanted to do was test drive the damn thing to see if we even liked it?

After about 30 minutes of sitting in the office where our sales dude would periodically get up and go talk to the manager down the hall, the sales manager finally arrived. Now this is where it gets really old school. This is not a car for me. It is a car for Kristy. The sales manager directed all his talking to me. Even when I pointed out I’m not buying or leasing the car, she is. Strike One. At this point he informed us that the sales associate would be “taking us” on a test drive and he disappeared down the hall. The sales guy got a set of keys and slipped outside to fetch a Volt, and we sat and waited.

10 minutes later he returned and informed us that all three Volts in stock had dead batteries, so we couldn’t drive one. Strike 2. At this point trying to salvage a test drive, I said it was OK charge one up, we’ll go run some errands and come back later for a test drive. Sensing a loss of sale he said hold on, disappeared into the managers office and came back a few minutes later. The manager said we could drive it even though the battery is dead. ( if you are unfamiliar with the Volt, it’s all electric. The gas engine charges the main battery, but you kind of want to drive it battery only to see how it runs in normal everyday conditions ). We were there so we said OK, only to find out the sales guy was coming along for the test drive. He told us it was Chevy policy, he had to. Strike 3. We walked.

Here is the deal. From the moment we exited our car, the whole experience felt rigged. The sales guy sized us up. He asked me if I was trading my BMW for the volt, he checked out my watch, he captured as much info visually and through the pre-test questions as he could. He relayed it to the sales manager who didn’t give a damn about Kristy, he simply wanted to sell ME a car. The whole experience was a giant fail because Chevy’s corporate dealer culture is steeped in old school methods. We walked out without driving or leasing a car. We drove down the street to Baron MINI, and experienced the complete opposite.

I have purchased a number of cars from Baron, but the experience I am going to describe is exactly like it was the first time I ever went there. We walked in, looked around a bit said we wanted to test drive a MINI Countryman and a Coupe, they photo copied our licenses, and insurance, handed us the keys to the first car and said go have some fun. The sales person didn’t ride along. They didn’t try and gather a bunch of info or ask what our credit score was. They didn’t get my phone number. They simply said take the car for a spin and let us know what you think. It was easy, relaxed, zero pressure, and it worked. Chevy could learn from this.

Out of the last 5 cars I have purchased, only once did the sales person ride along. Two years ago when a Honda sales person pulled this on a test drive, we walked and bought from another Honda dealer. The fact is, the only reason they want to go along on the test drive is to get more information from you that they can use to close the sale. In reality if the product is good enough, and the sales person treats you right, they don’t need to ride along. Like I said earlier, all it really does is make the potential buyer nervous and uncomfortable. The Chevy dealer told us it was “Policy”, for “Insurance reasons”. I’m calling BS on that one. If it is policy, it’s one GM and their dealers need to change.

So where did Superior fail;

They didn’t try to understand their customer
They targeted the wrong buyer assuming it was the man, not the woman
To much pressure from the start
They were overly aggressive
The product didn’t work. How can you sell an electric car with dead batteries?
They let their old school corporate cultural control the sales experience (the world has changed and buyers are to well informed, and don’t like being sold every moment.)
They treated a person interested Ina high tech 21st century car, like the same person buying a Camero
There were to many people involved in the exchange. Why did it take 3 Chevy employees to try and lease one car
They didn’t listen. All we wanted to do was take a test drive.

The 2011 MINI Countryman, Hands On.

Since I have the week off, I decided to have a little year-end fun and go over to Baron Mini to test drive the new Countryman. If you are unaware, the Countryman  is the new Mini crossover small SUV. And while it is a full 15 inches longer than a regular Mini, and a full 5 to 7 inches taller, this thing drives like a sports car. It is pure Mini in styling and performance, and I was totally impressed.

So what exactly is the Countryman? Well what it is not is mini, it is the largest of the entire line up of the Mini brand. The thing is though, it’s not really all that large either. When you see it in person you will probably be taken back by its size at first, but in reality, it is about the same size as the Nissan Versa and the Versa still feels like a compact car in many ways. One thing Mini purists can rest easy about is knowing that there aren’t any plans to create larger versions of the Countryman anytime soon.

Despite having a hatch at the rear, it’s not a hatchback in the conventional sense of the word; despite the option of ALL 4 four-wheel drive it’s not really an off-roader. And while its name leans to rural locals, to me the Countryman seems more like a city guy.

So when you think of the Countryman forget normal categorization. Forget it for the same reasons the MINI became such a huge hit in the first place: because it couldn’t be pigeonholed. The Countryman exists to lure people who fancy a MINI but can’t squeeze their lives, family and friends into the back seats or boot; it’s also for current MINI owners who have outgrown their MINI but not the ethos the MINI brand represents. And because it’s that bit bigger than the smaller three-door MINI Clubman, the Countryman thumbs it’s nose and waves a bit of charm in the direction of people who have checked out, say, a VW Jetta wagon, and come away thinking, “technically excellent, but emotionally barren.”

What I loved about seeing the Countryman in person, was the styling. MINI got it right. The car is not really elegant, but it has a solid aggressive stance to it that feels sturdy and rugged. It’s tall and bluff, some of the visual vestiges of the original Mini are gone, but many are hinted at in the final styling of the vehicle. You really need to see it in person to get a sense of what I am talking about.

If you’re already a fan of the MINI’s interior styling then you’ll love the cabin. It’s as stylized and kooky as ever and even if you’re not a fan of the Frisbee-sized central speedometer that encircles a multi-media display screen, it’s an interior you won’t mistake for any other. Running longitudinally through the cabin is an aluminum rail on which sits (in the car I test drove at any rate) a couple of sliding cup holders and a sunglasses case – yes, it’s a gimmick, but one that’ll keep you amused. It is like the “Openometer” on my convertible. 100% useless, 100% fun, 100% MINI brand.

In addition to the “Rail” the Countryman comes standard with the iPhone connection kit that not only allows your phone to talk to the bluetooth connected hands free set up, but in the car I drove they were able to connect my iPhone to the head unit and display movies in the central screen. The connection kit sits in a central docking station between the seats, and communicates with the multi-media display. It gives access to thousands of digital radio stations, lets you Tweet, Facebook, play video, make phone calls and all manner of other digital distractions that might make you the driver all others hate. But the technology is cool, and I am rather jealous that I don’t have it in my MINI.

The Countryman I drove came with a pair of individual back seats that slide fore and aft (it is my understanding you can get a bench seat, but I don’t know why you would after you see this option.); and like all MINI products larger adults are going to grumble about lack of knee-room in the back. And while the boot is handily bigger than the regular MINI’s and has a double-deck floor for extra flexibility, you still won’t get one of those trendy three-wheeler baby strollers in it. Furthermore, in the split seat version, with the rear seats folded down you won’t even get a flat surface.

As for the driving experience the Countryman lives up to the MINI S badge stamped on the side. On I-35 I was constantly having to back off the gas, because I would look over and catch myself doing 85. The car was nimble, quick, and quite agile despite the higher center of gravity and over all size and weight.  Now with that said, The Countryman’s greater height means the body rolls more through corners, blunting the regular hatch’s agility. And while it has plenty of road holding, the steering isn’t the precision instrument you’d get from the standard Cooper S. But this isn’t supposed to handle like the Countryman’s smaller sibling. It is a Crossover, not a sport hatchback.

The steering is nicely weighted and had a crisp feel at turn-in with immediate response from the wheels when you stepped on the gas. The Countryman I drove was really quite engaging – the torque steer and mild amounts of under steer that I’ve come to expect from my Cooper S Convertible are gone. There’s a lot more weight being thrown around and the higher ground clearance gives you a slightly more disconnected feeling from the road, but I adjusted to it rather quickly. The automatic transmission felt good and more fluid compared to the automatic in the 50th anniversary Mayfair Cooper S that is my second driver at home.

Like all other MINI’s, the Countryman has a Sport mode that will tighten up the steering rack, improve throttle response and stiffen the suspension to provide a more engaging feel on the road. But unlike the smaller Cooper S, Sport mode isn’t nearly as crunchy on city streets or broken pavement, (even with the large 18-inch alloys on the one I drove). If I were the owner of a Countryman I  would just leave it in Sport mode all the time – the improved dynamics really make it feel more like a smaller Clubman, which not only makes me happy out on the road, but makes me feel better about the Countryman’s size. It make the car much more lively than I expected.

If I were in the market for a small SUV for city driving and hitting back gravel roads on occasion, I would definitely consider this car. It holds true to the MINI brand and experience, while giving the driver a larger all wheel drive alternative to the original MINI.


My 09 MINI Convertible. First Impressions.



The New Convertible



In 2001, BMW revived the MINI brand by unveiling a new MINI Cooper model that updated the classic design and styling of the original while growing the car’s trademark size enough to fit the updated engineering, safety equipment and conveniences that modern drivers demand. It was a perfect play by BMW, and while MINI sales haven’t exactly set the world on fire here in the U.S. (although they are reported to be up 9.7% in 2009), that’s probably because the MINI brand has stood alone in trying to teach American car buyers what the Europeans already know: Premium small cars are worth every penny you spend on them. In other words, Americans typically associate the value of a car with its size – the more you spend, the larger a car you should be. MINI Cooper stands in stark contrast to this idea.

In 2004 I bought a British racing green Cooper S and after 6 years, and 30,000 miles I traded it in for a 2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible in interchange yellow, with the JCW aero kit.  Like I mentioned above Americans have a hard time grasping the notion that a premium level car can be small, and this car will definitely challenge the notion that value equals size. Why? Aside from opting for the high-performance John Cooper Works package, the convertible is the most expensive model in the MINI lineup, and the S model makes it even more so. With that said, the price of the car is worth every penny spent.

The convertible is now based on the second-generation R56 platform, the S Convertible is 2.3 inches longer than the model it replaces, though and at 146.2 inches long it’s still the second smallest car sold in the U.S behind the annoyingly cute Smart cars. The freshened front end is both taller and more rounded, these concessions were made to comply with new crash and pedestrian safety standards around the world, but the new MINI is still an unmistakable descendant of Sir Alec Issigonis’ original brilliant design.

Having owned my new MINI for just over 1 week this is really a review of first impressions and observations about how the car has changed in the last 6 years, and the differences between the hard top and the convertible model

The exterior of the car is distinguished with a set of matte black rally stripes that run from the air dam in the front all the way to the splitter on the bumper in the back. The front and back bumpers and grills have a more aggressive lower stance than the standard bumper assembly. In addition the JCW kit adds a side skirts to complete the ground effects for the car. The color while listed as yellow tends to shift in varying light and tends to lean to almost a Chartreuse at times. 17 inch black fan wheels, with a machined lip complete the exterior look. wheelsNow I am going to say something that many people might not agree with. The MINI, like any other convertible, looks great top down. With the top up not so much. I’m not saying it’s ugly, I’m simply saying that 99 percent of all convertibles just don’t look good top up. The lines are wrong, and the canvas top breaks the flow of color across the car. It is a minor issue, since the point of having a soft top is to drive top down as much as you can.

The interior of the car is similar to the older model MINI that I owned, the center of the dash is dominated by a larger than life speedometer. In fact in the 09 the speedometer is even larger than in my 04 which is really a great visual touch. Once again the large tachometer sits above the steering column and for the convertible, the Openometer sits directly to its left. Yes the Openometer, a gauge that monitors the total number of hours and minutes your car has been driving top down. open oTotally fun, completely useless, I wouldn’t get rid of it for anything.  What I don’t get about the MINI is the redesign of the center stack where the remaining controls sit. I love the toggle switches which are the main control buttons on the car, they feel expensive, look great, and are easy to use. They are however the only part of the controls that marry design aesthetics with ergonomics.

The problem is there are buttons everywhere, most of which seem arbitrarily placed and adapted in shape to fit their location. The controls for fan speed and temperature, look like rollers but are really just buttons that toggle on a horizontal axis, and then there is the poor volume knob, left all by its lonesome below the slot loading CD player. It sits quietly in an expanse of dash isolated and orphaned, creating visual confusion. I guess it just couldn’t be squeezed into the bottom half of the giant speedometer where the rest of the audio controls huddle together. Aside from this though, the overall look is quite pleasing. center stack

Since I paid the premium for my open air experience, the only button I really care about is the one that lets the sun in. The toggle switch sits above the rear-view mirror, and lowering and raising the roof takes just 15 seconds. In addition, there’s a sunroof mode that slides the cloth roof back just over the front seats. The result is an extra-large sunroof. A way larger than a my old sunroof, sunroof that stretches in between the beefy-looking roof rails that attach to the windshield.

controls sun roof

When the roof is retracted, it folds itself neatly into a stack that sits on top of the rear deck. The stacked roof does compromise rear visibility, but the tiny back seat which sits all the way back at the trunk line means there’s no where else for the top to go. One good thing MINI has done is a new active roll bar system that sits flush with the rear headrests. Unlike the last convertible’s fixed double hoops that occupied the full view of the rear view mirror. This new system stays tucked away until an impending flip triggers a charge that extends the bars to save you. The new system is more discreet and offers equal protection.

roll bars roll 2

The drive train is a Turbo Charged 1.6 liter 4 cylinder direct inject engine, that is paired to a 6 speed manual transmission. The engine produces 172 Horsepower at 5500 RPM and generates 177 lb-ft torque at just 1600 rpm. This is the reason that you pay a bit more for the MINI. Why because this means get up and go, the kind you don’t get in many small cars. The clutch is perfectly weighted and its take up point is defined. While the six-speed’s shift throws are a little long, each flick of the wrist is rewarded with a smooth, straight path into the next gear. I can’t name another small car sold in the U.S. that can match the Mini’s mechanicals, and you can tell the influence of parent company BMW and how it has impacted the performance of this car.

engine shift

The MINI convertible is listed with a 0-60 time of seven seconds flat. This might not sound quick, but the impression of speed, especially with the top down makes up for it.  Based on the handling experience of my former MINI I was nervous about torque steer and turbo lag, but equal length half shafts keep the wheels spinning in the same direction and the low-end torque helps mask the turbo spooling up in all but first gear where there has been some slight hesitation off the line.

Now for a note about Baron MINI where I got the car. This is the 5th automobile that I have purchased from Baron. It is my second MINI and the third one overall. As you can tell I love the folks at Baron. I have never really had a bad experience with them, and they have always gone above and beyond when working with me. My sales associate, MaryAnn Calhoun was absolutely phenomenal. She did such a great job and really sealed the deal on the purchase of this car. I mean that. I had no intention of buying a car when I walked into Baron two Saturday’s ago. Based on my experience with MaryAnn I’ll be returning to Baron for any future purchases.

This weekend I intend to post a photo essay of both the new convertible and the 50th anniversary Mayfair edition. It’s going to 70 on Saturday, perfect weather for top down driving and photos.