BMW/MINI Sued Over CVT Failures in Early MINIs

It’s well known in the MINI community that the CVT automatic transmission used in the early R50s was — how shall I put this delicately — kind of a pile of crap. I don’t think anyone would dispute that it was a terrible transmission with a notorious reputation for spontaneous, premature failure and extremely expensive repair costs. Those issues are well known and oft mentioned on WRR. I don’t think anyone would dispute the reputation the CVT earned for itself, but the law firm of Baron and Budd is alleging more. The national law firm has filed a class action lawsuit against BMW claiming that MINI’s parent company knowingly cut corners on these early CVTs in an effort to rush the car to market, keep up with its explosive demand and keep its asking cost as low as possible.

Baron and Budd attorney Mark Pifko summarizes the case this way:

BMW marketed the Mini so aggressively that people were lining up to get their hands on one when they first hit the streets -some people waiting almost a year, but what BMW promised with the Mini, a premium car for an unheard of price, was too good to be true. Sadly, over time, owners of the first generation Minis have found that their vehicles’ transmissions just don’t last. Given the safety concerns reported to the NHTSA, it’s particularly appalling that BMW has carelessly concealed this issue from the public. With a car that’s not much bigger than a golf cart, people need to know about the potential risks of transmission failure, which could leave them exposed to collisions, stuck in the middle of intersections, or suddenly without power to the wheels while at highway speeds.

The main crux of the lawsuit alleges that BMW cut corners on these transmissions in order to keep the cost of the cars low and keep up with the rabid demand for the new MINI. Spontaneous transmission failure is definitely a substantial safety concern. One which the NHTSA had indeed received complaints about. Whether or not BMW was actually and knowingly negligent in its development of these transmission units or in its relationship with its supplier is now for the courts to decide.

MF Analysis: While I have absolutely no legal expertise with which to evaluate the case being put forth by Baron and Budd, I do find their principle assertion interesting. The case is specifically about the CVT automatic transmissions, which in the early days of MINI, accounted for less than 50% of US sales and even less in the European market. I can’t help but wonder if this case was put together under a very US-centric assumption that the CVT was the primary transmission choice for the MINI, rather than the option. It leaves me further curious that if there was any corner cutting on the part of BMW, that it may have been in a rush to provide an automatic transmission option to the otherwise complete car, not in the rush of delivering the car as a whole, as the case seems to state. It’s splitting hairs, but isn’t that what lawsuits are all about?

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Where is that line between the growing pains of a new car platform and poor engineering? BMW and MINI were obviously eventually aware that the CVT was problematic, as it was later replaced with a more conventional torque-converter transmission. The question for the courts now is who knew what and who is at fault. Was it the transmission supplier? Was it BMW? Did BMW know they were terrible transmissions from day one? We’ll keep you posted as we learn more.

[Source: Baron and Budd]
  • RakSiam

    If you can call 5 years “shortly” then, yes the CVT was replaced shortly after its intro. I have an 06 Cooper with the CVT. Pretty sure the 07’s were the first ones with a new automatic.

    • Are you sure it’s a CVT? Perhaps I’m thinking of the mid-cycle update for the Cooper S auto. 

    • I’ve double-checked and the CVT went away during the ’05 refresh. Remember, CVT is not short of automatic. It’s simply a type of auto trans. 

      • This is not true.  ALL first-gen Cooper models with the automatic option use a CVT automatic.  That is all 2002-2006 Cooper hardtops and all 2005-2008 Cooper convertibles.  The only 1st-gen with a traditional non-CVT automatic was the 2005-2006 Cooper S hardtop and 2005-2008 Cooper S convertible. 

        • KMS – Brett Anderson

           Filip, you are incorrect.  You are looking at the 6spd Aisan automatic transmission.   All Cooper S, from start of production (2002 MY), had a traditional automatic transmission, not a CVT.  Originally a 5spd unit, then upgraded to the 6spd Aisan, which has it’s own issues.  The CVT was in the entire production of the base Cooper as you state.

        • KH

          Flip is correct. There was no Cooper S automatic variant until 2005 and that one got the Aisin 6 speed planetary gear automatic transmission.

  • The same thing needs to be done with power steering failures.

  • Anonymous

    BMW will have no issue walking away from thus unscathed. The issue lies with the supplier. I am sure BMW will show evidence that said supplier and said third party tester verified that the transmission was up to par, the other thing for BMW is that they offered a warranty and that warranty took care of problems for what they felt the car should perform to as such.

    In the end no one wins but the lawyers. The CVT was always known to have issues- anyone that still bought one- caveat emptor. Every CVT has issues, the concept is flawed.

    • Exactly. Using a giant rubber band to push a car along is a bad idea. Anything above about a 500cc scooter on a CVT is just asking too much of that kind of mechanism. That is, if you’re not going to make that band easily replaceable. Nissan has had lots of issues with theirs and I bet we’ll start hearing about issues from Subaru in the next couple years.

    • Gary

      Yep, I’m sure whatever costs are incurred by BMW from this action will be recouped in the form of incremental upward revisions to the 2013+ pricing structure for new vehicles.

    • Hoover

      We’ll see.  If, after becoming aware of the issue, BMW continued to put a product into the commercial stream that endangered consumers (i.e., if anyone was seriously injured as a direct and proximate result of these failures after BMW became aware of them) then they won’t exactly walk away unscathed. My guess is that they have already been sued due to this. Sure, the lawyers win in this case–but hopefully the consumers will, too.

      I don’t buy into the caveat emptor argument here.  Should we expect the average consumer (not a Motoringfile follower or WRR listener) to walk into a dealership knowing that CVTs are bad?  No.  They will walk in, tell the Motoring Advisor that they want a MINI but can’t drive a stick.  They would have been told about the “automatic” option.  They may event be impressed that it is a CVT, without knowing how the system operates. I think MINI built in false “shift” points to make it feel like a traditional auto. Consumer is happy.  They get to drive a MINI with a new fangled transmission.  They may  be told that Nissan has used them for years, to instill confidence.  What a shock when their beloved MINI dies an awful death, and they are faced with the decision of paying $$$$ for the same POS transmission. If BMW/MINI knew these suckers would fail prematurely early in the production cycle, then I think they should ante up. Had the consumer known the nightmare  facing them down the (short) road, they certainly would not have bought the car.

      • It is now common knowledge that the MINI CVT was not a good transmission, but not at the time. “Buyer beware” certainly applies to those early CVT Coopers still in circulation today, however.

  • I want a car that lasts a long time but they only warranty it for 4 years.  I don’t know that they can be held responsible for transmissions that fail out of warranty even if they were subpar.  How long are they responsible for making a car last?  Just playing devil’s advocate here but as long as they were replacing under warranty, it seems like their accountability ends at some point.

    • Gary

      Agree, and that may be the reason why it’s such a rare occurrence for BMW/MINI to extend the warranty coverage on a really expensive but fundamentally flawed component (and the list of examples is long).  With a warranty extension, they’re forced to eat more of the near-term costs.  Without warranty extensions, the consumers must pay the cost for their repairs and the eventual cost of any litigation is in the future and can be amortized over several years.

  • TheOfficeMaven

    Ha! Someone really needs to sue MINI over the faulty electric power steering pumps in their 1st generation MINIs as well. There are a huge number of complaints about them on the NHTSA website. Mine nearly killed me when it failed while I was going around a hairpin corner at speed on a twisty road. Oy!

    • Jason

      I don’t blame customers for wanting a reliable car but pretty soon everyone is going to sue everyone for any type of problem with their car and then car prices will raise because of this and the customers will wind up paying for it anyhow.  In the end like Michael said the lawyers are the winners and every other costs gets passed on to the public.  When you buy a product nothing is perfect, I don’t care what the brand is or device.  

  • Chris T.

    What’s with the comments defending Mini here? I just had to get my transmission replaced on my ’05 Mini with 75k miles… I don’t think it’s “normal wear and tear” for a car’s transmission to go out after that amount of time. And when these transmissions fail outside of the warranty Mini does nothing to help the consumer out. It’s up to the consumer to foot the 7k+ bill if they want it replaced. 

    Why would I buy another Mini or recommend it to someone after that?

    • Which comments are you referring to? I’m re-reading them and don’t see anybody trying to say it was a good transmission or that MINI shouldn’t have done a better job. Hell, I’ll say it again. It was a terrible transmission, and MINI should have done better. But let’s also not pretend that this sort of thing is unique to MINI in the slightest. Every manufacturer goes through issues, makes mistakes, or has problems with their suppliers. What matters is what they do about it. If this legal proceeding uncovers that BMW had prior knowledge of faulty engineering (which it probably won’t), then I hope they have to pay out the nose for it.

      As for warranties, being on the hook for repairs outside of warranty applies to every company. And while it really sucks that you had a failure at 75k miles, why would you expect them to pay for it? 

  • Evan

    The Midlands 5speed manual was also victim of criticism and rebuilds. The CVT was just bad. I don’t think BMW knew how bad it really was. The interesting thing about the R50 is how Rover had done a lot of the engineering and then when BMW took it over, there was a lot of car that needed to be spruced up to meet BMW’s standards. I wonder when the decision to do the CVT and from whom was made. It had to have met minimum performance and endurance standards.

    I wonder what the actual number of CVT failures is. Then compared to Midlands manual failures. The early MINIs certainly had their issues. But it’s not every car that was affected. There are numerous instances of manufactures having trouble with cars that don’t end up with recalls. How about the 4 speed auto transmissions in Chrysler minivans. They were horrendous. But there isn’t a class action lawsuit about their many early and persistent failures.

    The affected MINIs would be the R50 from 2002 to 2006 with the CVT and the R52 from 2005-2007 with CVT. Is it under 50k units?

    • KH

      Most of the car’s mechanical design, including the drivetrain, was done by Rover. BMW became involved halfway through the design. Any fundamental decisions would have already been made. I do know BMW was not heavily involved in engine design – that was mostly an observation/advisory role.

  • Glangford

    As with many lawsuits, this may never get to trial.  The strategy may be to file suit, see if you can goat BMW into a settlement. 

  • Aurel

    I am probably one of the few that actually liked how the CVT felt and performed. However, I did trade in the car prior to the warranty expiring first and foremost because of the horror stories I was reading at the time about it. Although the failure I don’t think is as common as people made it out to be. Is there some sort of official statistic out there about this?

  • Head Honcho

    I had a 2002 with the manual and that fell apart at 5,000 miles.    I had them buy it back under lemon law.   When BMW was unwilling to help me upgrade to an S to get away from that transmision I went or the cash back and moved on.      The manual had issues of premature failure also.   Anything going on there?

  • Now, how about we work on the superchargers and their “irreparable” leak that forced many of us to purchase remanufactured superchargers

  • Gordo

    I think many CVT failures could also be attributed to a lack of maintenance.  If you google CVT failure, you will find a ton of posts from owners who had never changed the fluid until it failed.  I am not sure why it was not done, as it should be part of 30K mile service (Service 1 or 2).  Given the nature of the CVT transmission and the stress placed on the steel belt, I can absolutely see why they would fail as the fluid breaks down.

    One interesting survey would be to find out the failure rate for properly maintained cars.  Of course, challenge is those owners are probably not the vocal ones.

    For the record, I have a 2003 Cooper with CVT.  I have owned it since new, I changed the fluid every 30 – 31K miles per the service manual.  81+K later, it is still running fine, never had any transmission related problems.  That is not to say I like how if feels, it is one transmission I will never own again, but the rest of the car is so good that it makes up for it.  My service advisor has suggested that I may want to trade it in when it had 50K on it, he said the failure rate is in the single digit, but the repair cost is so high that most owners do not want to risk it.  So I could be playing with fire here, but I have no plan to trade the car in the near future, if it fails, I would just junk it.

    Has anyone here had CVT failure with regular fluid change?

    • Marc

      I agree with Gordo.  I owned a 2003 Cooper with the CVT and had no problems with it and clocked over 100,000 miles on it.  The key was that I had the fluid changed on a regular basis despite the advice of my dealers service rep.  The rep kept insisting that the fluid was a lifetime fluid and did not need replacing.  I contacted Mini at the time to get their response which was – change the fluid on a regular basis.  

      Now the electric power steering pump issue – that was a poorly designed fiasco that BMW should be held accountable for.  Mine failed at 65000 – fortunately I found a company that does rebuilds and by passed the dealer who would do nothing for me at that time.

      • Gordo

        I am very lucky that my dealer service advisor actually promote regular fluid change, he probably saved my Cooper from premature death. 

        At least for the 2003, CVT fluid change is clearly documented as part of the 30K mile Inspection.  If MINI removed it in later production years to cut maintenance cost, then shame on them and the legal action would make sense.  ZF, the manufacturer for the CVT, recommends fluid change every 28K.

        Can ’04 – ’07 owners verify if CVT fluid change is still being published as part of Inspection 1 or 2?

    • KH

      It’s because there is no maintenance interval. The transmission says “lifetime fluid – do not replace” right on it, daring you to service it! (At least that’s the case for the 6speed S auto, probably is also for the CVT.

  • Ecebsen

    I have an 06′ S with an automatic. Had problems shifting while still under warranty and now at 80k miles it needs to be replaced. I had to talk with my Attorney General and to the BBB to get it replaced under warranty. Also the DPSM radio needs to be replaced for the 3rd time. Will never buy a Mini again, have had way to many problems.

  • Dave

    I would bet this wasn’t their “first” choice for an auto tranny. 

    The “Bean counters” will screw it up every time…… 

  • My wife’s ’04 MC had the CVT replaced nearly right out of the box, under warranty, as it was part of the batch they put the wrong fluid in.  It’s still doing OK, just now around 65K.  

    • KH

      I wonder what the common failure mileage is. I seem to hear most about them failing before 80K. Is it a dumbbell curve – if your CVT hasn’t failed by 100K miles, you’re probably good until 175K or more…?