Ask MF: Obsessed With MINIs, But Can’t Buy Yet

This question comes to us from MotoringFile reader Shawn Brandt.

What do you recommend for someone who is hopelessly obsessed with MINI’s but one is currently out of financial reach — even a decent used one?

Like many Americans of my generation, my first exposure to MINI was the remake of the film “The Italian Job”. From that point on I was hooked. The more I learned, the more I desired. Not every car can appeal to, and sync up with, a personality in a way that MINIs do.

I was headed into the summer after my second year of college. I had a great internship all lined up and very little responsibility otherwise. This seemed like the best time to replace my old rusting Jetta which was continually failing state safety inspections. After a couple months of research, I found my match. She was a 2006 Cooper S hatch, essentially styled with the checkmate trim edition, sans checkered decals.

Years following, the job market wasn’t what I had hoped for as a structural enigneer, especially for a recent graduate. Despite that, I married my college sweetheart and decided to take any job I could find. At one point my wife and I had two jobs each and only about an hour of mutual free time each day, but we were making it work.

We managed to fit in a vacation that first year together. I was excited to take the MINI on its first road trip: Pennsylvania to South Carolina. We’d travel 500 miles and 5 states. It was awesome. Never had a long drive been so stimulating. As we got close to our destination I started to notice the tiniest decrease in power. I couldn’t sleep all night. I had no idea what the problem could be.

The next day I searched for the closest MINI dealer. It was more than a 100 miles away. I thought that maybe a BMW dealership would be the next best thing. As I drove it to the closest one, the car began to have less and less power. This BMW service center read the computer and took it for a spin, only to tell me that they have no idea, but it should be ok to drive from South Carolina to Pennsylvania.

Taking their word for it, I let it sit until it was time to leave. We drove about 60 miles before it dropped to a top speed of 30 mph. Then it went down a 15 mph limp. We were in the middle of nowhere. Basically no closer to home, and no closer to a MINI Dealership for help. There we sat, broken down, and low on cash.

GPS and cell phones were our only friends out there. We got AAA on the phone and a flat-bed on the way. Destination: Hendrick MINI, Charlotte NC. 120 miles away.

We had never met a group of individuals so kind as the folks at Hendrick. As soon as we pulled in, we immediately felt as if it were at a home away from home. Even though it was closing time for them, they were eager to make things better for us. They offered to find us lodging and called in favors from friends. Shortly after arriving we had keys to a 2010 Cooper S service loaner and a new city to explore. They even took the time to diagnose the issue after closing.

The news was not nearly as nice as their southern hospitality. We had a cracked catalytic converter, messed up water pump, and a bad pulley. An estimated 4 days for parts to ship and a $2000 bill, even after a piece of s&*t 3rd party aftermarket warranty. The service advisor had done everything she could to reduce the bill and the wait. With my MINI all fixed up and credit cards getting heavy, we set off for home. She was back to driving like a champ.

A few months went by and the search for a real job was turning up nothing. Bills from our unwelcome excursions were still weighing down on us. Something had to give. With still a couple years left on my car loan, and the cost of ownership never seeming higher, the MINI was the first on the chopping block. I loved that car more than anyone should love a giant cluster of metal, but my options were slim and the choice was obvious.

I traded her in for a good deal on a Honda Insight hybrid. That’s right, Honda. And yes an “economically powered” Insight. While I was cutting costs, it also seemed like the right time to cut fuel consumption. At first I was slightly distracted and consoled by fuel saving technology and only having to buy regular unleaded. That quickly wore off. The Honda is a good car, but she’s weak and painfully boring to drive.

Not but 3 months later I received an offer for an incredible job as a bridge designer. Soon after that, life and responsibilities began to snowball. We bought our first home. Student loan repayments kicked into action. Then the wife got a good job too! Then all the excitement leads to a little bun in the oven! A little girl, due in just a few short months! We couldn’t be more thrilled.

While all of our progress was good and fulfilling, I couldn’t help but miss my MINI. I’d think about her every day I drove to work and with every MINI that passed.

A couple months back, I was out of town on business. My coworker, who is well aware of my obsession, decided we should stop by a MINI dealership since we were in the area. As we came near the dealership, I begin describing my old MINI. At one point, we were stopped at light. As I continued talking, I saw a dark blue MINI with a grey top and that distinct, u-shaped strip on the front. So I pointed it out and begin to say, “Oh, it looks exactly like tha…” then it hit me. “THAT IS MY MINI!”

I immediately recognized the spoke pattern and, dare i say, a ding in the hatch door? As she passes in front of us, memories start rolling in. Only the good ones. What are the chances? Why the hell did I let her go. Had I known that I only needed to struggle for 3 more months with crappy jobs, I would have never given her up.

Now, its a completely different story. Mortgage payments and a baby on the way. A MINI is still just a little out of reach. Naturally a Countryman ALL4 would be next on my list considering child seats and safety. Not to mention the cargo and added security during our northeastern winters.

If things would have just happened a little differently, I would still have my MINI. I would make it work for car seats and cargo. During my time with that car I never wanted anything different. I would have been happy driving it until the day I die.

I don’t blame MINI or my particular car for what happened to it on that unlucky road trip. It was just a freak chain of events that unfolded in the perfect storm of automotive misery. The kind souls at Hendrick MINI did a lot to ensure that I never look down on the brand. I still maintain contact with that service advisor and consider her a friend.

My wife and I were at the Otto’s MINI grand reopening this past Friday. I don’t know why I torture myself like that. My obsession is a sickness and there is only one way to make me well. Unfortunately the remedy is just not in the cards for me at the moment.

Thanks, Shawn, for writing in. Now everybody give him a hand. How can Shawn scratch this itch?

  • I’m sure a local club would be happy to have him even if he drives a Honda.

  • b-

    I am in the same situation, kind of.  I am an R52 owner but I really want an R59!  I guess I will have to wait about 2 years before I will be able to swing one.  MotoringFile staff, will the R59 be around in 2-3 years?

    • based on what i hear from our local dealership, they can’t keep the roadster in stock. if one was to disappear, my bet would be on the coupe.

    • Yes.

  • Lewis_p

    Aim lower on the model….instead of an S get a Cooper

  • JbkONE

    Are you kidding?  By buying a MINI of course!  Look, there are lots of used MINIs out there.  They aren’t cheap and they cost a bit to keep going.  Get yourself a standard Cooper (yes, I said Justa-) and you’ll have a couple less headaches to worry about and it’ll be much cheaper.  They’re just as much fun to drive (though not as quick off the line) and you’ll have a MINI.

    Get a hardtop and buy a child seat that fits.  Not all seats will fit the Cooper hardtop, but some will and getting in/out of the car isn’t as bad as it seems at first.  Just remember, many people do this everyday – you don’t need a suburban for a child.    A used Clubman will have that extra side-door making it easier to get kids in/out if necessary, but costs a bit more.

    The 05+ models have better transmissions than the earlier Coopers.  I’d say you could probably get yourself a nice model for less than $10K.  I just found a 2005 for about $10K on Autotrader with 60,000 miles: seemed like a good one (ACK but it had an automatic).  If you shop and deal, you can do it.  Stay away from the early CVT autos… not sure about the 05-06 ones.

    Get active and befriend MINI club members who work on their own cars 😉  I do all my own maint and I’d be willing to help a club member in need.  And keep $500 in a repair account at all times – parts for these aren’t cheap.

    That said, don’t get car-poor (or house-poor for that matter).  Since you’ve got a new Honda, you may not be able to sell it yet.  If you can’t buy one, just get active in the local club and ride along on their drives.  I’m sure you can find a passenger seat to ride in if you get to know the people.  Wear a MINI shirt, they’ll know you belong 😉  Take your wife and get her hooked so she’ll let you buy one.

    And it looks like an insight starts at only $2k less than a Cooper.  Why can’t you have a MINI again? 

    Heck, if you’re looking at new, you could get a Certified used one for less than you paid for the Insight and it’ll still have a MINI backed warranty.

    • Great advice. Only addition… Stay away from all CVTs period.

  • vmmvmmm

    I know how you feel.  I recently had a cylinder blow and had to completely replace the engine in my 2005 Cooper S.  When I first heard the news, I just stored the car in the garage and planned the best way to sell it off for what I could get for it.  But as time passed, I just couldn’t live with the decision to let it go.  I was without it for a little over a month, but a couple of weeks ago went ahead and had the engine swapped for a low mileage used engine.  I’m glad I did at this point.  The bill was a hard one to swallow, but in the end, I felt it was worth it.  I love driving that car, I’ve had it since it was new, and the experience has been joyful.  Not perfect, but joyful.  I don’t think that kind of a relationship with a car could be duplicated with anything else on the road – at least not for me.

  • Vanmini

    shawn, Not sure where you are located, but check out car sharing programs like Zip Car in major centres.. in vancouver, there are 3 compnaies vying for car on demand business and the one in my neighbourhood that wins is the one with the MINI. ( there is an R56 Cooper S in their stable right now)

    I found my MINI on craigslist, it’s orginal owner has since sold the Audi A5 he replaced it with and gone back to a MINI. it’s like the Mob… once you’re in, you’re in for life. Lets MOTOR!

  • chad

    join the local club. that is for sure.

    then do the math on the trade in. you may be suprised. if not, make a plan and work toward getting the MINI.

    it’s not clear whether you feel the child seat is an obstacle- it does not have to be.

  • Dr Obnxs

    Start saving money. Set up an automatic transfer of a couple hundred dollars or whatever into a savings account that goes in after every paycheck. You will feel the transfer less than you think. Pretty soon, you’ll have a decent down payment saved up. And if some emergency comes along, having the ready cash will be quite the relief.

    Resist the temptation to just go from car loan to car loan. We all see the shiney and new, and it’s hard to resist the seduction of a new car with a payment that isn’t that bad… But really, paying later for what we can’t afford now is a national desease, and a bad one at that. It’s all fine and good while the paychecks are coming in, but if something bad happens, one’s pooch is proverbially screwed.

    Anyway, after a bit of time, you will be able to move over to whatever car you want, in a way that costs you less than you are paying now for whatever you’re driving. That is a step in the right direction for sure!

    To keep costs of ownership down, find out about local independant MINI service shops. While the cat is an expensive part for sure, it’s very durable and shops sometimes have used ones available, or you can hook up with someone in a club to get one that was removed and is in good shape. The water pump and pulley fix shouldn’t have been more than a few hundred dollars. Learn to turn a wrench as a lot of this stuff is really easy (easier than designing bridges, that’s for sure, it just takes a will to learn!)

    As far as future car models, my wife’s 08 Clubbie has gobs of low end grunt compared to any of the Tritec engined cars. (My 02 MCS pulls away at higher RPM no problem though….) We still do family trips in it with two kids who are now 7 and 5! We live in hills and still get about 36 mpg combined. While the Countryman S All4 sounds good on paper, you get a lot of body roll for that extra size, and the motor is working noticably harder to lug the extra weight around. It’s got about 70% of the MINI driving feel. And it’s more expensive and gets worse gas mileage.

    So the answer is simple: Save, plan and network. You’ll be back in a MINI in no time.

    • JbkONE

       “Resist the temptation to just go from car loan to car loan. We all see the shiney and new, and it’s hard to resist the seduction of a new car with a payment that isn’t that bad… But really, paying later for what we can’t afford now is a national disease, and a bad one at that.” Good advice.  Thanks.

      • hfred

        Agreeing with Dr Obnxs; as a schoolteacher, I “paid the bills” for 40 years, driving whatever we could afford on monthly payments. With some scrimping and vowing not to make car payments again, I finally saved enough to pay cash for a car I could love: a 2007 MCSm, custom designed by me. It’s a lot more lovely when you really own it.

  • Adam5

    My first exposure to “The Italian Job” was shortly after I had purchased my MINI in 2003. Checkered Flag MINI in Virginia Beach had a little get together at the dealership, a brief drive to the local theater, and a sneak preview of “The Italian Job.” It was such an exciting movie experience. Everyone cheered when Charlize Theron quickly parallel parked her classic Mini and then during every other great MINI scene in the movie. I just knew then that this was something special that I was getting into. There have been some ups and downs over the years. I can relate to getting stranded. I took a trip from Connecticut out to Toronto for a four day weekend in 2007. My MINI had some issues on one of the first days we were there. We had the car towed to MINI of Toronto on a Friday so we had to wait until Monday, our planned date of departure, for a diagnosis. It ended up being a problem with the power stearing pump cooling fan. I couldn’t say enough about the service I got from MINI of Toronto. $1200 later we were back on the road. 128,xxx miles later, I’m still enjoying every minute of motoring. It’s so much fun chatting cruising down the curvy back roads with fellow MINI owners. I don’t know if I could ever part with my R53, but I’m looking into getting a second MINI sometime next year. The money is tighter these days for me too. I have a mortgage now and other bills that I didn’t have nine years ago, but I’m sure I can find a way to get in another MINI.

  • Shawn this is a great story. I wish you luck upon getting back into the MINI Community however if you have read any of the comments on here you do not have to necessarily own a MINI to be apart of the community. That’s what is unique and wonderful about MINI Motorers and the MINI Mindset. Just a bunch of fun loving, life living, down to earth people who come from all different walks of life however share that one special thing in common. Love for MINI. This is just not found anywhere else. What Auto Company throws and event like MINI Takes the States? Not even BMW themselves does anything here in the U.S. along these lines. Shows you that the love runs deep through everyone who is involved from owners to the very people that work hard everyday to help the brand continue to grow and make it a great one.

  • Aurel

    have you tried finding out about leasing? it’s significantly drops your monthly payment and in 3-4 years when the time comes that you can buy out the car, your financial situation might be better.

    • Dan

      I agree, that could be a good option. We went with the MINI Select program, which has lease-like payments and no mileage restrictions. We understand the risk of a balloon payment at the end of the loan, but we’re comfortable with that.

  • Ivebeenmarriedninetimes

    A) Get rid of the Honda;

    B) Get rid of the Wife;

    C) Marry the Service Advisor;

    D) Buy a MINI with employee discount;

    Problem solved!!      🙂

  • lex76

    Autoshare here in Toronto allows you to rent a mini for 1 day at 6 dollars (not sure about price)

    That could be a solution if you want to drive a mini but cant afford one! 

  • Kurtster

    I just sold my Cooper S for just under $8k and it was loaded with everything including NAV, cold weather, sports, premium, intake, exhaust, pulley reduction and much more. You can definitely find them out there.

  • Joao s

    You’ve put a smile on my face.

    Actually i’m struggling to maintain my R53 (best car i had till today) due to the crisis that affected Europe.

    I saw my self in parts of your history.

    MINI will never be a rational choice! That is what’s make this “giant cluster of metal” so special!

    Good luck.

  • JakeKayak

    I feel your pain…became interested in the MINI when Rover announced they were going to produce the “new” version.  I saw the first ones come to Canada in 2002 and always wanted one, but was financially constrained with starting a business, having a house build, going through an International adoption, and graduate studies.  Finally, last year I picked up a clean 2004 Cooper S from the local MINI dealer.  It was the best one I could find considering the mileage and year, has all the bits I wanted (sunroof, heated seats, harmon/kardon, auto climate).  I did pay a small premium purchasing from the dealer and questioned my purchase a month afterwards when I found a small oil leak.  Had it checked out and was advised not to be concerned…just keep a close eye on the engine oil level. Took the car in  a month ago for a comprehensive, complimentary spring inspection. I feared the worst, but was very pleasantly surprised when the dealer informed me that if I was fastidious, I could replace the rear wiper blade!  For an eight year old car with 90,000km I had expected some problems, given the notorious reputation of these vehicles.  So far, so good…not only do I not have any regrets (or car payments), I thoroughly enjoy every time I drive my “S”. I find it fuel efficient, easy to get around town, accessible for my son, and practical for running errands. Sure the newer ones are “better”…but I think I would be hard-pressed to getting a newer MINI even if I could afford it.  This version is a charmer.  Don’t rush…just wait until you can afford to spring for a good, clean older one. 

  • Aaron

    My 2006 MCS R53 is very similar to your old one. Space Blue with Silver roof. I didn’t get the checkmate package and went with my own custom options, but I still drive the car today and it is still under 60K miles. I had a child and she fit in an infant car seat (Graco). We plugged that car seat into a Graco stroller frame which collapse-folded and fit in the boot. At 9 months, she switched to a Britax Advocat (biggest child car seat on the market), which fits comfortably in the back seat without blocking the rear view. We got a Baby Jogger City Mini stroller, which also folds up handily and fits in the boot. My daughter is now coming on 3 and a half, and she loves our car. She has a toy Mini that I got from a recent trip to London and when she brought it to show and tell at school, I overheard her telling her teachers that it was “just like our car!”. She points out other MINIs on the road…

    Bottom line – you can manage having a new baby in a MINI hatch. We’re a one car family and it’s worked for us for over 3 years. We’ve packed travel cribs, stroller and duffel bags with clothing for trips to the grandparents and it was fine. We’re now looking forward to baby #2 arriving and have decided to give it a go by buying a used 2002 Honda Civic to help us get us through the first year. Once the car seat turns around to face forward, there’s no reason the family of 4 cannot fit in the R53 and we’ll be back to enjoying the twisties and my daughters will be back to pointing out the other MINIs on the road.