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Automotive Finances & Money

We were so close to getting a new car… but not for me this time!

So as you may know, my wife loves her MINI Cooper S. This is her 2nd MINI, both were used when we bought them, and this one is pretty much fully-loaded. I bought it for her as a replacement for the old MINI knowing the CVT transmission wasn’t very good in it, and also because she sits in traffic up to 2+ hours a day, every day, so I wanted her to have something fun and engaging to help her with the commute.

But some of you may not know that MINI is at the bottom of reliability for most rankings. It’s not that the makers don’t care about it, but rather the engineering that went into it just doesn’t always work well together. Regardless, they’re a blast to drive and my wife (and I) can’t see her driving anything other than a MINI Cooper for the rest of time.

What went wrong this time?

First, you need to know that MINIs come with a 4 year, 50,000 mile warranty AND a 3 year, 36,000 mile maintenance plan. The warranty covers things that break while the maintenance plan covers replaceable items like belts, fluids, and brake pads (but not tires). Other manufacturers have similar plans too (currently BMW, Volvo, VW) .

When I bought the car, it still had time on the warranty, but I bought an extended maintenance plan. I was able to negotiate 50% off list price, so I paid $900. Basically, they knocked the price off the car as they couldn’t put in the paperwork like that on the plan. It was a highly desired lease trade-in car from someone who really took very good care of it, and I had first “dibs” on it. There were others who would have paid higher, but I got in at the right time at the right price. It was a surprise birthday gift for my wife, and we sold the other MINI a few weeks later for a nice price. We used those proceeds and savings to pay off the loan on the new MINI.

As an aside, I’ve only had 3 vehicles in the last 11 years, while my wife is on her 5th. Granted, she’d still be driving her 1997 Grand Am if I didn’t talk her into the other 4 cars 🙂

So, the maintenance plan has already paid for itself with replaced brake pads, oil changes and other sundries, while the remaining warranty took care of a bad fuel pump, water pump and new timing chain. The fuel pump was actually repaired after the warranty expired because we complained about stalling a few times during the warranty, and they even noted that they experienced it. One reason, if any, to get work performed at the dealer; they’ll do courtesy work after the warranty expires sometimes.

But now we’re out of warranty by nearly a year, but the car has barely over 50k miles on it. And my wife has been hearing a chugging or knocking, not unlike the chugging we heard when the water pump was bad. But I could tell this one was different. When I took the oil dipstick out, the engine sounded like it was about the die until I put the dipstick back. I could tell it was definitely something wrong, and I made my wife move her appointment up to the next day as I didn’t want her driving on it this way for 2 more days.

What they found was a laundry list of problems:

  1. The engine was “knocking”. I knew this, as a car guy, to be a bad thing usually caused by using improper or bad fuel. In this case, carbon had built up in the valves and needed to be cleaned away. Cost: $450 for “carbon blasting”. Now, I know there is SeaFoam I could use for a fraction of the cost, but I didn’t know how bad it was, and I knew this was a much more thorough job where they actually got into the valves to do the cleaning than just pouring in some solution and running it until stuff burns off. Also, I found it’s a common issue on the MINI at this mileage, especially with the turbo models.How to prevent: Well, my wife ALWAYS gets 93 octane gas at Exxon or Shell stations, not some no-name stations. MINI only calls for 91 octane, but mixing 89 and 93 seems to be too much for my wife (and I can understand). Plus she would have to refill every half-tank rather than when it’s closer to empty. Perhaps using SeaFoam as a cleaner before each oil change might help from now on, but it might also hurt. Just need to keep an ear out for knocking as the car ages.
  2. Evap (Fuel) System Leak. This is a big one because it could mean a new gas tank and fuel pump ($800+) or just a simple broken hose. Either way, our car would have failed emissions tests. We HAVE to get this fixed. Cost of the “smoke test”: $120. I did find out just today (before I publish this article) that the problem was just a broken suction hose, so it was a very minor change and low cost. Whew!
  3. Negative battery cable. Apparently the negative battery cable (as opposed to the positive one), has been sending some failure codes and something is wrong with it. The effects of the cable failing could be catastrophic to the electrical system, and THAT is not cheap to repair. Any owner of an old Jaguar or Land Rover knows that! Cost: $330 (mostly the cost of the cable).
  4. Right rear tire is dry-rotting and mismatched. Replacement cost is $320. No idea what’s going on here, but the vehicle is 5 years old. We bought it when it was 3 years old. Obviously either the dealer or prior owner saw need to replace 3 tires, but not this other one. Now, you might be saying “I can get a tire for a fraction of that price!”. Well, this is a run-flat, 17″ tire on a special wheel width. So after checking, I think the dealer is only marking it up $20-30. And since they know best how to work on MINI wheels and tires, I know they won’t mess up the tire monitor mounted inside the wheel, or they’ll make good on whatever they do wrong. I haven’t found a mechanic around here that I can trust yet, especially on such a “special” car like a MINI.
  5. A bulb: $30. It’s just a bulb that’s out in the front. Not sure if it’s safety-related, and I usually replace all external bulbs myself, but I know getting around the innards of a MINI is not easy. While they have it on the lift, I say just do it.

In total, we’re looking at about $1300-1400 estimate including taxes, but luckily just 2 days prior, we got a 15% coupon for service, so there’s about $150-$200 off, depending on the final price.

Why does this all matter?

So you’re probably asking “why do I care about what’s wrong with your car?”. Good question.

You know I’m a car nut and would jump at the chance to get a new car given any excuse, but in this case, my wife and I had to make a tough decision. Knowing the poor reliability, we definitely considered getting a new MINI under a new warranty and new maintenance plan. Again, why go back to a manufacturer with a poor history? See above (I’ll just repeat that my wife LOVES MINI! And I say “drive what you love!”). If we went with a basic hardtop model (non-turbo) priced with what she likes most out of her current car, we’re looking at about $26,000 new. To get exactly (or as close to) what she has now, we’re looking at close to $37,000. Wow.

That’s why I see this $1200 or so (after discount) as an investment in “saving” money (or not spending it) and just the cost of owning a car long-term. We don’t expect to pay this monthly or even yearly, so $1200 is far cheaper than $25k-37k. And going used, we would still be up against shortened warranty and maintenance periods, and unknown histories on the car.

This was a momentous day for me because I chose to KEEP a car rather than just giving up on it and trading it in. We’re mindful of our savings and other priorities now, and a new car for my wife isn’t on the list. Five years ago, I would have (and did) jump at the opportunity for a new car, but now I chose to pay the maintenance costs over a new monthly payment.

And as an aside, I still have my 2006 Honda Ridgeline, and I’m always on the lookout for a good replacement, but honestly I simply can’t find one. There’s a clunk in the rear (worried it’s the rear-diff or suspension), but otherwise it runs excellently. Too bad Honda hasn’t invested in this truck platform and come out with something much better, and probably has nothing in the oven as a replacement. The Ridgeline will probably die slowly with only cosmetic changes for the next couple of years 🙁 I don’t want the size or gas mileage of a full-size truck, and all the other competitors have less space, cost as much and get as bad MPG.

What about you? Anything in the market exciting you now? Had to make a tough decision on car maintenance lately?

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About the author

Clever Dude

16 Comments

  • I’m in a very good place now with my car. It’s up to about 194k miles and nothing major has gone wrong recently. I’m at the point where if it needs any sort of “major” repair (I’m thinking $500 or more) I will junk it and get a new one. We have already looked at the Escape as the likely car we get next.

    When you have to sink money in a car in the middle of its life I think that’s where decisions get difficult. My wife put hundreds if not thousands into repairs for her Dodge Stratus (which is now at about 135k miles). We were worried the transmission was going out but it was a different issue. The question is, at what point do you stop sinking dollars into a car? We are big on driving it until it dies but at what point is it not worth it to continue? Cars are sink holes for money but you can’t really avoid it since they are pretty much necessary for work/life.

  • You’ve “only” had 3 cars in 11 years? You have talked your wife into 4 more cars? Dude, you have issues. You also buy lousy cars. There are vehicles that are just as fun to drive as a Mini plus they are not maintenance money pits. Hopefully this last episode signifies a change car ownership attitude. Good luck.

  • @DC, you’re right about being in the mid-life of a car (actually early life based on miles for the MINI, but mid for my truck) and what the cutoff on expenses is, but considering the cost of new (and knowing used cars are expensive right now), that’s why we opted to spend on maintenance.

    @ToughMoney. Name a “lousy” car. Then tell me the “best” car that you would buy so I can smack it down. It’s obvious you’ve never driven a MINI, or if you did, it wasn’t for very long. It’s not for everyone, but the driving dynamics of a MINI are unparalleled unless you move up to a Lotus. A Miata/MX-5 is close, but even more expensive for less equipment and space. The confidence such a little car inspires around big trucks, etc. is one reason my wife loves it on her daily Beltway commute. She recently drove a cheap Kia Rio (which got good reviews from Consumer Reports, etc.) to Jersey and back, and it made her cry, literally. It was harsh, weak, loud, wobbly, you name it. There’s small and cheap and there’s small and fun. Pretty hard to get both.

    There are “fun cars” for cheap, but every car has its share of problems. There’s always a trade-off. And like I said in the article “Drive what you love” because for my wife who spends probably 4500+ hours in her car each year, she HAS to love it. I’m willing to pay that price, but I’m also going into the purchase knowing the risks.

    Lastly, if we went by what most reliability and maintenance cost pundits say, no one would be buying any BMWs, Mercs, Jags, Land Rovers, MINIs and even Hondas/Acuras (horrible transmission history). German cars have highly engineered parts that are expensive. British cars are known for poor electrical systems. But people still buy them. Car mags and sites pour love over German and British (yes, owned by an Indian company) cars’ luxury/sportiness and the market agrees.

    I had a Saturn that I didn’t really care for, so I got an Acura TL-S. Loved it and got up to almost 100k miles before trading it on my truck. Love the truck and can’t find anything good enough to replace it.

    Wife had a 97 Grand Am that was causing problems so we stupidly bought a brand new 04 Passat (top of the line). It was too expensive for us, so we traded down (stupidly again) to a very cheap 05 Malibu. Car was reliable but made of plastic. Not confidence inspiring. Sold it off, still had the Grand Am, but then decided to buy what my wife wanted all along: a MINI. The CVT tranny on it was crap, but the car itself had no other problems, so I upgraded her to a top spec Cooper S. She loves it. She loves me for choosing it for her and that’s what I care about.

    So yes, I have a car problem, but no, I don’t buy “lousy cars”. A lousy car is one you don’t even want to drive or is always in the shop. It’s one that’s rated low by consumers AND experts. In hindsight, the Grand Am, my wife’s first car, was our most expensive to maintain car compared to its value, while the MINI is the cheapest so far. Inexpensive up-front doesn’t always mean inexpensive long-term.

  • I have been driving my 2003 since 2004 and my spouse has tried to convince me to buy a new car numerous times. But it just did not make any sense….the car is paid off and the repairs have been minimal. Thanks for sharing!!!

  • If you haven’t already done the fuel system cleaning, save your money. Try STP Fuel system cleaner. It’s a bottle you pour in the gas tank. This works very well at removing carbon deposits. The dealer is not actually doing anything else. To remove the valves to clean them would probably cost you 10-12 hours of labor by the mechanic. Most labor rates for MINI dealers are at least $90-$100 per hour. This is obviously more than your quote. Find out for sure, what exactly they are doing before you pay for this service.

    On your Ridgeline, if your noise is in the rear of the vehicle, you probably need to have the rear differential fluid changed. It should be changed every 30k miles. This is common on Honda 4WD vehicles. It starts making a chattering noise when turning once the fluid deteriorates.

    I hope this helps.

    I am a mechanic of 17 years and an avid reader of your blogs. I also just refinanced my house to a 15 year fixed. I knocked 12 years off of my old 30k mortgage!
    Thanks for the financial sharing.

  • @Mark, our MINI dealer hourly fee is actually $127/hr. Insane cost compared to other non-dealer mechanics, but I have a trust issue and have been burned by even major chains (like when one put non-OEM brake pads on my truck and thought I wouldn’t notice. They replaced them with ceramic pads for free). In this case on the MINI, though, I think the buildup got so bad that I personally wasn’t willing to take the risk of just using some additive like STP or Seafoam. I’ve used it before in our old Grand Am, but that was a $2k car. This is still worth around $14k, so I didn’t want to risk damage on resale.

    Regarding my truck, I did change the rear-diff fluid myself, but only once and it’s up to 90k miles now, so you’re right that it’s probably due again. I log all my maintenance so I need to look at the date. I did it when I did the tranny fluid, so it’s probably been 2-3 years ago.

    And congrats on your mortgage refi! We’re still working on figuring out what we want to do with our house, so we haven’t made any moves and I’ve slowed down on mortgage paydown and focused on saving cash instead.

  • My opinion is pretty much the same as Mr. ToughMoneyLove. I think just about every car Clever Dude mentions would qualify as a “lousy car.” However, it is your money and I think you should spend it the way you think best. It sounds like you’ve already decided what you’re going to do, so I don’t think I should waste my time suggesting other cars. I thought I would point out though, that what you’re spending on the Mini repairs, is more than we’ve spent in the last 6 years, combined, and our car is over 10 years old. Just food for thought.

  • Calm down, dude – just trying to exchange views here.

    You asked me to name a “lousy car.” Here is your lousy car, in your own words: “MINI is at the bottom of reliability for most rankings.” It seems fair to call an unreliable car a lousy car, unless you don’t care about such things. Most people do.

    It must be awesome to experience the “driving dynamics” of this unreliable car while your wife “sits in traffic up to 2+ hours a day.”

    Actually, my comment was mainly directed to your “I’ve only had 3 vehicles in the last 11 years” as if that were some sort of huge financial concession.

    I get that you are a car nut. Lots of guys are. I like cars too. I have experienced the highs and lows of German and British engineering in the Porsche that I drove for 8 years and in the Austin Healey I drove for 3 years. But there is a lot of rationalization going on here. (The Mini is great at dodging trucks? Seriously?)

    And who said anything about a Kia?

  • @ToughMoney: Well, I’m going to get defensive when you claim all my purchases, including cars I claim to love, are “lousy”. And I asked you to name “the best car” you would buy, not a lousy one.

    I mentioned that it’s LISTED as unreliable, not that we’ve EXPERIENCED unreliability. Also, my wife isn’t just sitting for her commute. She has to change lanes quite often, merge (meaning she needs instant but controlled power) and wants something with size she can manage for the 40 mile roundtrip.

    “I like cars too” doesn’t mean you LOVE cars like I do. There’s something in your life that you love, and I’m sure you’re willing to pay a premium for it, whether family, food, wine, cars, house, etc. Liking something is far different than loving it. My wife loves to drive her MINI, but doesn’t love or even like cars. Every other car before the 2 MINIs were just moving blobs for her, so that’s why we’re committed to MINIs for her.

    @Stephanie, what kind of car? How many miles? City or highway? Towing or not? Those all make a difference in wear and tear on the vehicle, and thus repairs needed. I do thank you for understanding that I’m spending money where I see the most enjoyment and pleasure, while I’m also saving it where I don’t see the need to spend. But one last thing perhaps I didn’t say in the article was that this is the FIRST out-of-pocket expense for this 5-year-old car. MINI has covered everything else: oil, brakes, transmission fluid, etc. whether under warranty or the maintenance plan that comes with it from the factory (or our extended maintenance plan). You could add the $900 we spent on the plan too if you like, but again, this is the first out-of-pocket expense on this car.

  • Your wife spends 4500+ hours in her car per year?! That’s over 12 hours per day, 365 days per year. Does she sleep in the car?

  • In your wife’s case, might it be better to lease a mini rather than buy them?

    I know that normally it’s not a great choice, but with an expensive car that has fairly expensive repairs not too long out of the warranty period, it might not be such a bad idea.

    Although you said she drives it a lot, and I know leases have certain mileage limits, but if you know this ahead of time, you may be able to increase it.

    Just something to think about.

    I’ll keep driving my 15 year old civic until it dies, and then probably replace it with another one. I’m quite fond of them.

  • @Jenny, funny enough my wife and I discussed leasing a MINI as an option since she only drives about 10k miles a year. The car is just her commuter, with some side trips, while my truck is our long-distance cruiser (due to the room, comfort, etc., not for the mpg).

    With leasing a MINI (or BMW in fact), the benefit is you stay covered under the warranty, you pay nothing for maintenance (included for 3 years/36k miles) and you’ll turn it in most likely before it needs new tires. I would hate having a monthly payment and tracking mileage, but it takes the risk out of owning the car.

    Ultimately it depends on how long we hold onto this MINI.

  • Our car is a 2002 Acura RSX with about 130,000-140,000 miles on it, mainly city. So an 11 yr old car (bought in 2001). We have never spent the kind of money on repairs/maintenance (in total) that you are talking about spending here (other than an extra set of tires, which you probably haven’t had to purchase yet). I think probably the best way to save money is to learn about cars, and what ACTUALLY needs to be done and when, not just what the dealership/maintenance guide says “needs” to be done. My main frustration with owning this “fun” car is all the time I would spend getting it repaired! If I ever have to spend a day at the dealership or other car shop, I am going to be pissed! Honestly, if it ever happened more than once or twice every couple years it would probably send me over the edge.

    It’s funny though, most of the cars you mentioned, I always think “Who the funk would buy that piece of crap?” And I guess there are people out there that think they’re fun!

    FYI, my understanding is that timing chains (not belts) are supposed to last the life of the vehicle, so the fact that yours already needed replacement would be a good clue that MINI does not make quality vehicles.

  • The MINI Cooper S is a real blast to drive – this from an 10 year owner of a 1997 BMW 328i with 268k miles on the original transmission.

    However, I don’t expect the MINI S to last as long or be as reliable. But you can say that about the new BMWs too.

    Here’s a few important things to know about the 2007-2010 (R56) MINI Cooper S:

    – Serious timing chain reliability issue, and if it breaks it can lead to catastrophic engine failure requiring expensive rebuild. Google “MINI R56 timing chain death rattle” or “MINI R56 timing chain problems”. Various reasons have been given: low oil levels (timing chain and tensioner need minimum level to operate properly), ALWAYS, ALWAYS,ALWAYS be sure to have enough oil in your R56!; improper part/improper installation of part when built (especially on earlier years) requiring replacement with part that was upgraded in Oct 2010; or fatal design flaw of the Prince N14 engine that BMW/MINI won’t admit. This problem also plagues Peugeots that use the same engine jointly developed by BMW/Peugeot.

    -Carbon buildup on the intake ports/valves. This is a common problem with DI (direct injection) engines, such as the one in the R56. Granny driving/short about town trips in which the engine doesn’t reach and maintain high operating temperatures cause the most buildup. Spirited freeway driving will lessen the buildup. It CANNOT be prevented or cleaned by using higher octane gas or additives because the fuel does not flow over through this area in a DI engine. The official and most effective method is using a specialized Carbon Blaster (with ground walnut shells) – from a MINI SA “For the 2nd Generation direct injected S models the procedure is to do a “carbon blasting” which entails removing the intake and cleaning the valves. No parts involved, just a straight 2.0 hrs of labor.” There may also be a recent software update to help prevent the carbon buildup: http://www.northamericanmotoring.com/forums/r56-hatch-talk-2007/228892-sw-update-to-address-carbon-build-up-on-intake-valves.html

    -Reliability problems with the High Pressure Fuel Pump (HPFP) has resulted in MINI extending this part’s warranty to 10 years/100,000 miles.

    -Recall on auxillary water pump for fire hazard: http://www.motoringfile.com/2012/01/15/mini-usa-announces-water-pump-recall-affecting-79000/

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