Should I dump my Element for a Mini Cooper?
June 16, 2011 4:18 PM   Subscribe

I've got a 2003 Honda Element, which I love and have recommended to others. But I miss good gas mileage and the fun of driving a sporty car.

I'm in no hurry to switch, but I've been intrigued by the Mini Cooper, loved the way they zipped around in that Italian Job movie, know they get good mileage and are fun to drive, and have even noticed online how many people (strangely!) narrow their car choices to Element vs. Cooper. Seems a weird pairing. But I'm looking for recommendations. I do use the Element a lot for hauling big plants and home-improvement stuff, so I'd have to re-think that. I'd be looking for a used Cooper of about the same value as my Element.
Is the Mini Cooper's fun and economy worth the sacrifice in space/hauling capacity? Can I still haul some stuff?
Is it true that earlier Coopers (2003-06) are somehow inferior to later ones?
How long can I expect a Cooper to last? (I'm now a pretty staid driver.)
If my Element has, say, 63,000 miles and I buy a Cooper with the same mileage at about the same price/value, am I screwing myself? (Assume I buy and sell with cash from/to private owners.)
What haven't I thought of?
posted by fivesavagepalms to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total)
The cooper engine has improved (both power and efficiency) over the past few years. I've got a 2004 cooper S, and it is a *blast* to drive. I often describe it to people as being like driving an amusement park ride. The more fun I make the driving, the worse the gas mileage is, of course. There's a surprising amount of room if you drop the back seats down, but still not much compared to larger cars. I actually hung onto my old vehicle (a chevy S10 pickup) because I occasionally want to move large amounts of stuff. If I were buying a new car today, I'd be tempted by the Clubman S, which has noticeably more room than the regular cooper. If you're likely to be transporting more than one passenger, the added room makes a difference. It's a very tight fit to put four adults into a Cooper. My car is 7 years old as of last month and has just shy of 90K miles, and I've only had a few problems. One thing is that parts for the Mini and dealer service is expensive. Particularly runflat tires, which don't last as long as regular tires. (The Cooper S (at least the older model) has the battery in the back of the car to make room for the turbocharger (supercharger? I forget) under the front hood, which means no room for any spare tire in the back. Thus, runflats.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:39 PM on June 16, 2011

Buy a Mini and also a $1000 Toyota pickup truck to use when you need to haul things.
posted by twblalock at 4:40 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a 2003 mini and loved it...except for maintenance. Because they're a BMW brand you are kind of forced into the BMW ecosystem for repair and maintenance issues. Even minor things cost way more than other cars I've owned. Some third party garages now advertise that they work on them (which wasn't the case when I had one).

That said, it was a total blast to drive, it was an exceptionally comfortable car for up to 2 people, and because of the shape and fold down seats there is a surprising amount of room to put stuff. I will probably get a newer one for my next car.

I'd imagine the Element and Mini are niche enough that they have a similar depreciation curve, so if you're seeing corresponding prices between years then you probably wouldn't be screwing yourself.
posted by uleekunkel at 4:50 PM on June 16, 2011

I had a 2003 Mini Cooper, but had many problems with it. (I think three of my questions to ask mefi were car problems with this car). Total blast to drive. Now I've got a GTI, which is also really fun to drive, but certainly lacks the go kart, handles like it's on rails, awesomeness of a Mini.
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:18 PM on June 16, 2011

I have an '08 Clubman S (and just got rid of an '07 Cooper cause a car seat was just too cramped) and it's a real joy to drive. There's noticeably more room in the clubman than the regular cooper, especially if you drop the back seats down. I haven't had any maintenance problems on either of them, but both still relatively young.

You might be able to get a decent deal on a used Clubman as their blue book values have diminished since the introduction of the Countryman.
posted by Jacob G at 5:35 PM on June 16, 2011

As a fellow Element owner looking for practicality but also wanting a sportier drive, I'm thinking of test driving a Kia Sportage.

I haven't driven it yet, but you might take a look.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:28 PM on June 16, 2011

A little over a month ago I sold my 2004 Honda Civic and bought a 2011 Mini Cooper S.

While it's true that the Mini is a kick to drive most of the time, it does have it's shortcomings. The boot is ridiculously small. The gas mileage is a step down from my Honda. The ride, on less than average roads, is rough.

It's too early for me to tell whether or not I would do something like this again, but I figured that I'm 41 and the time was right for a little mid-life crisis car.
posted by FlamingBore at 8:09 PM on June 16, 2011

why not look for a sub $3k miata in your area, and keep your element? best of both worlds is owning two cars with distinct purposes.
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 9:27 PM on June 16, 2011

I've been intrigued by the Mini Cooper, loved the way they zipped around in that Italian Job movie
The modern Mini Cooper is nothing at all like the cars in that film, except for the name. The original car was a ball-tearing roller skate with number plates that was only built to allow them to be raced as production cars under the rules of the day. The current model is a bland imitation and not substantially any different from the rest of the crop of small front-wheel drive cars on the market. The Cooper badge is a badge only.

If you want something fun and economical, I second Bohemia Mountain - buy a Mazda MX5/Miata either instead of or as well as your current car.
posted by dg at 10:13 PM on June 16, 2011

Heh. Thirding Bohemia Mountain here. Mazda Miatas can be found in high quality condition for $4-5k, and are one of the best-driving cars ever made. Plus, they're a convertible, and I have never met someone who didn't love top-down driving when the weather is right. You already have a pretty solid practical, go-to-the-garden-center-and-pick-up-the-kids car. Get something small, fun and cheap.

Okay, let's break this down into more detail. If you're looking for a "fun" Mini, you're going to be looking at the Cooper S, simply because the Mini Cooper does not have that much get up and go to it. Used Mini Cooper Ss of the vintage you're looking for, something in the 2006-2008 range, I gather, and those run you about $16-20k these days, with 2008s in good condition going for $25k. They'll also be out of warranty (unless they're certified pre-owned and those run north of $25k), which means buying your own, because as has been mentioned previously, BMW cars (which the Mini technically is) are expensive to fix. Personally, I wouldn't get one, simply because the cost of upkeep and the straight-up cost of the car is rather steep, and you can get much better cars for about the same or less.

Like what, you ask? Well! That all depends on what you're looking for in a performance car (and what your tolerance for wrenching is). If you're just looking for something small, sporty and fun, it is literally impossible to beat the dollars-to-fun ratio of a used Mazda Miata. They're everywhere, parts are dirt cheap (we did a complete motor swap on the one we have for maybe $2.5k after the old motor spun the crankshaft bearings), and it's easy to work on or find someone else to work on.

If you're looking for something that's got some serious zoom to it, there's a serious sale going on with used sports cars from the when-new $35k range entering the used market. Mazda RX-8s can be had for about $20k with low-ish miles (about 25k miles), Nissan 350Zs go for about $18k with 50-60k miles, and Honda S2000s with about 50k miles are about $20k.

Now, if you're not afraid to get your hands dirty and do a bit of wrenching, there's a massive performance deal that I'm surprised more people haven't taken advantage of. The Ford Mustang V6 (doesn't matter if it's the new one or the previous model, previous generation models can be had with about 50k miles for $17-18k) has always been the better handling of the two engines by far, with a nearly-perfect weight distribution and still a decent amount of kick, and a price way below what it's capable of. Spend a few grand on shocks/springs/sway bars and a Ford Racing supercharger (all of which are things which any reasonably experienced individual can install at home), and it will outperform Porsche 911s all day long.

Stepping into the realms of "crazy but worth it", I have to recommend some choice BMWs, but not Minis. Early previous-generation BMW M3s (called E46s after BMW's internal model code) can be had for about $16-20k with something around 100k miles on them, and if they've been treated right, should still be pretty damn rock solid machines. E36 M3s, the generation before that (and considered the best mix between performance and comfort in the M3's history) go for about $10-11k at 100k miles. Also, the original generation M Coupes and M Roadsters go for about $15-20k, depending on mileage. Also lumped in here are old Porsche 911s and other sports cars from the 1980s or earlier.

Really, though, despite the fun of digging through the frankly amazing bunch of fun used cars that can be had on offer, I'm gonna boil it down to two suggestions. Either get a Mazda Miata, or a Honda S2000. Both are amazingly fun to drive convertibles, and about as reliable as the Earth going around the sun. Both are cheap to own and fix, and can be found in good condition without much effort. Look before you buy, have a factory-certified or dealer mechanic do a used car inspection before you buy, and enjoy driving it. :D
posted by Punkey at 12:37 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

However, on further reflection, if you want something a bit more practical than a 2-seater convertible, might I recommend a Honda Civic Si? Recent models can be had for about $18-20k with 20-30k miles, and they're miles more reliable and cheaper to run than a Mini Cooper S. They're also quicker cars, with 200 HP on tap from the 2.0L VTEC engine. Also very highly recommended is the VW GTI (by more than just me, the Mk5 GTI won car of the year from just about everyone). $18k will net you a model with between 20-30k miles, and it's an amazing car all around. Both of those are cheaper to buy and run than a Mini Cooper S, and more practical to boot, with better seating and trunk space, and are just as fun to drive.
posted by Punkey at 2:00 AM on June 17, 2011

Hey, thanks much to all. I'm re-thinking the whole thing. I had no idea the Miata could be had so cheap. I love Miatas. Uh-oh.
Thanks a lot.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:00 AM on June 17, 2011

I've been intrigued by the Mini Cooper, loved the way they zipped around in that Italian Job movie
The modern Mini Cooper is nothing at all like the cars in that film, except for the name.

Be aware that the movie was remade with prominent promotional linkage to the modern Mini Coopers. Comparison to the original may be superficial in both cases, but they were still portrayed as zippy.
posted by dhartung at 11:47 AM on June 17, 2011

You might want to check out the new Ford Focuses, believe it or not. Take one for a test drive.
posted by arimathea at 8:54 AM on June 25, 2011

I'm on a work trip right now and National didn't have anything of interest in the Emerald Aisle so I picked the newish Ford Focus they had on the lot.

It's better than I would have anticipated, but after driving the Mini for two months I miss the handling and pick up while I'm trying to make a move on the expressway.

If I were choosing between the Mini and the Ford the Mini comes out way on top.
posted by FlamingBore at 6:26 PM on July 13, 2011

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