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Automotive Finances & Money

Why our next car will be the least reliable brand in America

For the 10 or so years that MINI has been in the U.S., it hasn’t won any awards for reliability. In fact, it’s been at the bottom of the reliability lists for years. But our next car will still be a MINI Cooper, and I’ll explain why I’m OK with that.

As much as I’ve complained about the costs of owning a MINI, both due to some unreliable components and also due to high dealer and parts costs, my wife can’t imagine driving another vehicle for her daily 40 mile commute (which lasts generally 1.5-2 hours roundtrip here in D.C.). And I agree that the car suits her perfectly. She only drives it during the week, and very rarely if she goes to visit friends by herself on weekends, so it’s averaging just 12,000 miles a year so far. It’s 5 years old now, which means it’s out of factory warranty and maintenance (I’ll explain the difference), but I negotiated an extended maintenance plan at purchase 2 years ago for half price…and it has definitely paid for itself.

Why should anyone be buying a MINI Cooper?

If a car is so unreliable, then why in the world would I put my wife in one for a highway-only commute every day? Good question!

Obviously, part of the answer is emotional, so I’ll get that out of the way first. My wife has owned 2 MINIs so far (both used. The first one she knew about, but the second was a surprise birthday gift to replace the first). She wanted one many years ago, but we thought we would have kids, so we thought it would be impractical. It’s now about 6-7 years after that first used MINI purchase, and children are no longer in our plans. And now after owning 2 MINIs, I know it wouldn’t be a total problem if we DID have a kid or two (because my vehicle will always be a bigger one like a truck or SUV).

So the emotional piece is that my wife absolutely loves the MINI brand and experience, including going out with fellow MINI owners in the region for events. And for me, knowing that the best part of her work day is the drive to and from work in her MINI (she enjoys the car, not the traffic) is enough for me to stick with the brand. Also, while the run-flat tires are very expensive to replace, they’ve “saved” her more than twice now and gotten her home from work without needing to pull over on the highway and change tires or wait for a tow truck. I feel very comforted in knowing my wife is safer with these tires. If it were my own vehicle, I would opt for regular tires and have a spare, but that’s just me.

Ok, next up is the logical portion of the answer. While it’s obviously illogical to choose a brand or model that consistently scores very low on reliability, we’ve never been stranded and MINI has programs to cover you very well if something happens. In fact, when we purchased our first MINI (not from a MINI dealer, mind you) and it wouldn’t start after owning it just a couple weeks, MINI sent a flatbed truck to take it 40 miles away to the closest dealer, free of charge. Turns out it was just the battery, which they replaced for free and offered to bring the car back.  A MINI is a MINI to them, regardless of how you purchased it, and MINI wants all owners to be happy.

The MINI Factory Warranty and Maintenance Plan

Ok, so here’s the logical part for me. The factory warranty for MINI is 4 years/50k miles. That covers stuff that breaks that shouldn’t have, just like in any of your cars, and we’ve used it on both MINIs from things ranging from a dashlight to the CVT transmission (first MINI) to the fuel pump, timing chain, etc. on the newer MINI. Every time, MINI always gives us a free loaner, and with the newest dealership now less than a mile from our house (although it will be moving north in a few months), I don’t even ask for a loaner when it’s just a day or less of work. I walk home and get my exercise!

But the other big deal here is the MINI Maintenance Plan, which is 3 years/36k miles. What is this maintenance plan versus the warranty? Well, the maintenance plan pretty much handles everything replaceable on the car like fluids and belts, but also brakes and bulbs. Pretty much with the combination of the warranty and maintenance, the only thing you’re responsible for is gas and tires (including rotation and alignments). In fact, as I write this, our MINI is getting the front brakes replaced under the extended maintenance plan for “free”. The rears were done last year, also free of charge.

Keeping that “no cost to you” idea in your head, here is what we’re going to do for our next MINI…

Leasing our next car

While I’ve become a proponent of owning your car for the long-term until it becomes too costly to maintain, and I’m doing so with my truck, in the case of a MINI (or most German brands like BMW or VW who have a maintenance plan), I might recommend leasing the car. You get more car for your money and, unlike domestic and Asian brands, if you do a 3 year lease, you should have nothing out of pocket. By the end of the lease, you should still have enough tread on the tires if you drive it properly, so the next owner will deal with the tire replacement. And then when you turn in the car, you can take advantage of new technologies, including safety and fuel-efficiency, that are available 3 years later.

Granted, having a monthly payment on something you won’t own at the end seems silly, but if you negotiate the price and terms, and it’s a vehicle that you absolutely want, but know you won’t want to own once it’s out of warranty or end of lease, then leasing makes sense. However, there are risks to leasing such as going over mileage and insurance implications, but there’s a reason that a large majority of BMW “owners” actually lease their vehicles rather than own. European cars tend to be costly compared to domestic and Asian brands for a number of reasons, so those who can afford the luxury versions tend to lease knowing the cost of ownership out of warranty is higher…and also the technological advancements change rapidly in European cars.

For us, I’m waiting for the next MINI redesign. It’s expected that the next MINI will be based on the BMW 1-series platform, and will hopefully have better ergonomics and technology inside, but still have the true essence of a MINI (no, I don’t consider the Countryman to be a true MINI, even though it was a pleasure to drive for a week). I’m also hoping for a diesel model. Why diesel? Well, MINI requires 91 octane, and diesel prices hover between 89 octane and 93 octane and sometimes higher or lower, but diesel vehicles tend to have more reliable engines and much better fuel economy. There’s already a diesel Cooper (CooperD) in Europe, but it hasn’t been brought here yet.

We’ve considered getting a new MINI now, or when the maintenance on ours runs out this summer, but we’re going to try to hold out until we get more concrete news on what’s coming in the next major redesign and when they’ll be available. Yes, we could be throwing more money into ours before then, but I’m expecting it to cost less than a monthly payment on a car that is basically the same as what we already have. That’s the reason I haven’t traded in my Honda Ridgeline for a newer model; they just haven’t changed it since my 2006 model came out.

So overall, we’re waiting for a major change in the platform before we make a decision. The maintenance and warranty plans, along with our average mileage and MINI’s reliability, all lean towards a lease in our case. I know, I know, there are many of you who will still question why I would be so stubborn and not make a logical decision to stay away from MINI (i.e. get a vehicle that tends to be more reliable), but I’m not the type of person to think of a car as an “appliance” to get me from point A to point B. When friends ask me for advice on a new car, I don’t just spout out the best-selling or most-reliable car in a segment; I dig into what they like, what they need and how they feel about car ownership because this is a big purchase and you should be happy when driving your car.

About the author

Clever Dude

7 Comments

  • I’m delurking just for this. I picked up a 2005 MC just out of factory warranty, but looking good otherwise (it was thoroughly checked before I purchased). I loved it, absolutely loved it. Then, the problems started. In 3 years, I had over $13k in repair bills, had to refinance the car just to get money to pay for repairs, ending upside with a car I now resented. Only about $2k of these were standard wear/repairs (I only drive about 8,000 miles a year), the rest were things like engine mounts, the transmission (twice), the clutch (twice), etc. And nope, it wasn’t my driving. It got to the point where my repair guy (not the dealer, but Mini certified and totally reliable) was giving me serious discounts on the labor and loaning me his own car out of pity. As soon as I repaired the clutch the last time (2 days past it’s 1 year warranty), I went back to a Honda. Moral of the story? Only buy new, barely used or lease a Mini.

  • @Jen, I hope you’re not the one who bought our 2005 MINI! The CVT transmission was known to be horrible in it. We never got to the point of replacement, but we had to take it in at least every 6 months to reprogram the computer for the transmission control. Hearing your story makes me very glad to have dumped that car, even though I miss the color combo we had. I know the next owner’s father (he bought it for his daughter as a graduation present) was going to buy the extended warranty and maybe maintenance, so hopefully it all worked out for them. You’re absolutely right to get a MINI when it’s in its warranty period and/or buy the extended warranty, but I’ll add to it to research the model year on forums and other sites like Consumer Reports to find out major problems people are having.

  • I knew to get the manual transmission, so that was one less worry. The absolute kicker in this whole story? I thought I had turned down the extended warranty, so I just kept paying and paying. Then, cleaning out the car paperwork in my file cabinet, after I got rid of the Mini….you guessed it. An extended warranty that would have covered the majority of the repairs. The dealer had just tacked it on as a freebie, and I’d forgotten. I found it a year after it expired, so no retroactive refunds for me. Usually, I’m really good about stuff like this, so it’s like some big cosmic joke. Ah, well, I won’t be doing that again!

  • Oh, sorry, just noticed the Consumer Reports comment. I did my CR due diligence, but their results were skewed by the 3 year/50 mile warranty thing. Owners report that they have no major issues, very little out of pocket money spent on car repairs, because it’s still covered. Once it’s past that period, whammy!

  • Dang, I thought it was bad when I bought new run-flats due to a punctured tire on the first MINI then realizing later I had bought the tire warranty. Yours takes the cake!

    I think in your case the forums would have given more of the story rather than consumer reports, and I’m surprised even with a manual that you had so many transmission problems. I think we had an engine mount issue in our 2005 also, but I can’t remember if we repaired it before selling.

    Granted, Honda, Toyota, etc. have problems and recalls as well (Honda is not known to have the best transmissions, especially in Acuras), but repair costs tend to be less (than European brands) and don’t hit as many owners. I’ve been tempted to buy a used Mercedes SL or S-class, but there’s a reason a 6-figure car has depreciated to the $30k range in just 5 years.

  • I’ve never had a Mini Cooper, but it was an option at one point. It is true they are a bit pricey, but you are not the first one to actually point out that they are very safe. The tires I believe are the most interesting. Run-flat tires have kept a good friend of mine who owns a MINI, “safe” as well. The next time I purchase a vehicle, I will definitely take the MINI into consideration. I hope your wife enjoys the MINI for many more years!

    -Summer

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