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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?
PS: If you’re in the UK and picking up a new car, consider Insure 4 a Day’s 1 Day Insurance offers and deals.
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