The last bill was nearly $1,400, for damage done to the front end in a D.C. parking garage.
A month before that, we paid about $2,000 to fix a faulty fuel pump and an electrical system that tended to drain batteries … quickly.
And two months earlier, we spent around $2,500 for the repair and mostly replacement of an exhaust system that was so ridiculously noisy and smelly … it was exhausting.
Maintenance of our 2001 Mini Cooper coupe, indigo blue with white top, has become expensive. We haven’t had to fix it too many times in its 11 years of service. But not a single repair job in that time has been one that anyone might reasonably call “cheap.”
That painful fact has weighed heavily on our consideration of a new Mini as a replacement car. We’re not the same people we were 11 years ago. We aren’t as easily enamored as we were of small and cute today as we were in 2001, when the small, cute, fast and reasonably fuel-efficient Mini Cooper hatchback stole our hearts and wallets.
So much has changed in that time, including the Mini’s competition. Even Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai are offering worthy competitors to the BMW-sponsored Mini nowadays. Every company in the car business has improved its game in terms of styling, overall quality and road performance, especially in the small-car segment.
You want cute? Take a good look at the Fiat 500. There is hardly anything cuter in that subcompact size starting at that price, $15,500. And if you want a fancier, faster Fiat 500, there’s the hot little Fiat 500 Abarth, starting at $22,000, with a 1.4-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine (160 horsepower) linked to a standard five-speed manual transmission.
The jury remains out on how the Fiat 500 and its Abarth derivative stack up against the Mini Cooper models, which carry a price tag about $6,000 higher, model per model. But I’m willing to bet that routine repair costs for the Fiat 500 won’t come near those of the Mini.
Ditto the maintenance costs of equally worthy rivals such as the new Ford Focus, the Mazda3 and the Chevrolet Sonic. The bottom line is that the marketing phrase “German engineering” just doesn’t get it anymore.
The truth is that I can get all the small-car performance and pizazz I want in a Dodge Dart SE sedan, based on Fiat’s Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform, starting at $15,995. I can get a fully loaded Dodge Dart Limited, replete with a 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine and all currently available electronic infotainment services, starting at $19,995. With those kinds of product options, I have some serious thinking to do before choosing another Mini, which is expensive by comparison.
Unfortunately, for those of us easily separated from our money, especially in the arena of automotive retail, there is little rational about car buying. My wife, Mary Anne, and I have been “test-driving” a bevy of 2012 Mini automobiles, and we find ourselves still smitten with their cuteness and cleverness. We especially like the 2012 Mini Cooper Clubman S hatchback, which we drove on several long tours around Virginia.
The Clubman S runs with a 1.6-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (181 horsepower). With its standard six-speed manual gearbox, it pulls 27 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg on the highway from its 13.2-gallon gasoline tank. It is zippy as all get-out and handles quite well on straight runs and sharp curves. But it has a drawback reminiscent of our 2001 Mini: The darn thing requires more expensive premium-grade fuel. That’s increasingly a non-starter for us — that, and the Ghost of Car Repair Costs to Come.
We like the 2012 Mini Cooper Clubman S. It has four side doors and a rear hatch, which nowadays make much more practical sense to us than the two side doors and rear hatch on our aging and increasingly costly-to-maintain Mini Cooper coupe. We like the look and the feel of it. But the world has changed. The competition has changed for the better. This time, we won’t be swayed by looks and the supposed prestige of “German engineering.” All major car companies have great engineering nowadays, especially in the rapidly growing small-car segment. This time, we’re going to really shop around.
Bottom line: Small cars, increasingly in demand because of scarily fluctuating fuel costs worldwide, make up one of the most competitive segments of the global and North American automobile markets. Don’t be trapped by catchy slogans and outmoded ideas about “prestige.” Look for quality, safety, performance and fuel economy. Shop around.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent marks for all. But you can get the same performance for less in the Mazda3, Ford Focus, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Veloster.
Head-turning quotient: It definitely is one of the cutest small cars available today.
Body style/layout: The Clubman is a five-door (four side doors, rear hatch) version of the three-door (two side doors, rear hatch) Cooper coupe. It is a front-engine car with front-wheel drive and is available in three trim levels — base, S and the John Cooper Works high-performance version.
Engine/transmission: A 1.6-liter, 16-valve gasoline-direct-injection in-line four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing is standard (181 horsepower, 177 foot-pounds of torque). The engine is linked to a standard six-speed manual transmission.
Capacities: Seats five people, with tight fit for rear passengers. Cargo capacity with rear seats up is 9.2 cubic feet. More usable space is available with rear seats folded. The fuel tank holds 13.2 gallons of gasoline — premium is required.
Mileage: It varies with road and load. Keep in mind that you are running with premium. Our real-world mileage was 22 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway.
Safety: Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front, solid rear); emergency braking assistance; four-wheel anti-lock brake protection; electronic brake-force distribution; electronic stability and traction control; and front and rear head air bags.
Price: It starts at $24,900, with a dealer’s invoice price of $22,410. Commonly selected options — onboard navigation with backup camera, Bluetooth and other infotainment hookups, sports package — can raise that price to $28,900 for the buyer and $26,010 for the dealer. Add a $700 destination charge for the buyer.
Hint: I intend to seriously shop around for the best deal on a small car. I humbly advise that you do the same.