Saying goodbye to my MINI and hello to a Mazda 3

My MINI meets its replacementI am definitely sad to see it go, but this was definitely time to let my MINI go: it had started experiencing a string of various failures that kept it in the shop for most of December and cost us an arm and a leg. If there is one thing we've learned from Paula's MINI, it is that once they start needing repairs, they don't stop for quite a while. So, we embarked on a quest to find something relatively inexpensive yet decently appointed to replace it.

My initial thought was to get a 1-series BMW -- which I am fairly confident I would have loved -- but two factors deterred me: first, I really feel bad rewarding the company that caused us all the reliability misery with our MINIs (I love BMWs but I don't think that gives them a free pass to screw up anything they want)... Second, I on such short notice, I'd like to spend a bit less money!

We both love the size and practicality of the MINI, so a small hatchback was our ideal car. Preferably one that is relatively well appointed (hint: where the interior trim doesn't look like it is made out of recycled garbage bags). Still, it is surprisingly hard to find such a thing in the US: hatchbacks are rare and small cars are mostly associated with cheap cars. Also, after the painful reliability experience with our MINIs, we were definitely attracted to the reputation of Japanese manufacturers and the trouble-free running that our friends with Japanese cars appear to be having. So, after a fair bit of research, I picked the Honda Civic Si as a first candidate and the Honda Fit as a backup choice.

It only took one visit to the Honda dealer to find out that the Civic just wasn't going to work for me (even with the seat on the lowest setting, I basically have the sun visor in my face all the time), plus it had rather unremarkable trim and ergonomics. The Fit was fine but pretty basic... Time to find some other candidates. So, the next round was the Mazda 3 in its multiple incarnations (from the sedan to the hatchback and MAZDASPEED 3). This time, we were far more successful and, while I think that the MAZDASPEED 3 would have been the most enjoyable to drive by far, we rapidly zeroed in on the hatchback in Grand Touring trim. Realistically, a highly-strung turbocharged performance engine (as in the 'speed 3) doesn't have "long-term reliability" written all over it. A quick test drive in a manual Grand Touring did give us an idea of what to expect (in short: comfortable, very competent but lacking the immediacy and agility of the MINI) and we set about actually getting one in the configuration we want.

As it turns out, finding a 5-door Mazda 3 Grand Touring with a manual transmission is somewhat of a challenge! The Mazda stock system only listed five of them in Texas, all in Austin. A bit of negotiating and a dealer trade later, the car was in Houston and we were on our way.

One thing we did learn here (from the stock levels of the cars we looked at and the trade-in valuation of my 6-speed MINI) is that a manual transmission is a colossal resale liability in this age. Since people apparently are looking for couches on wheels rather than actual cars, nobody wants to be in control of anything anymore. In the future (and in a slightly different cost bracket), I think that we'll carefully have to look carefully at semi-automatic gearbox options like the VW/Audi DSK 'box (a double-clutch hydraulically-actuated manual 'box that combines the responsiveness and control of a manual with the ability to be "automatic" for the proles). That's for the next car, though. Right now, we got out from under the reliability cloud with the MINI and have a car that, while not as much fun as the MINI, does meet our needs and is pleasant to drive.

Plus ├ža change...

After spending an eye-watering amount of money in the shop this past month (my MINI needed a total clutch system replacement, thanks to the dealer's ham-handed work in the past, plus a harmonic damper failure disabled it while driving in the middle of the night -- yeah, that's the kind of dead car experience everybody wants!), I went and looked back at the last time I complained about the godawful unreliability and expense of these cars...

Funny, it was nearly exactly a year ago... Well, I guess that MINI is the grinch. There is no doubt that this has been the most frustrating pair of cars we have ever owned. For all the wonderful design features in the MINI, no amount of preventive service seems to be enough -- they just break at the most inopportune moment and, when they go, they go big! No little niggles here: my harmonic damper failure went from asymptomatic to total engine management failure in under a mile. I'm on the second clutch at under 50,000 miles... How can anybody drive one of these things for more than a couple of years and keep their sanity?

More importantly, how am I to ever trust BMW with any of their other cars? The logical car as a step up from the MINI would be the 1-series but do I really want to repeat this colossal fiasco, just adding 25% to the purchase price? I grew up in a BMW-driving family. One of the earliest family pictures of me as a baby is on the hood of the family 1600ti. I learned to drive in a 2800. I've owned a few BMWs of my own over the years. There is no other car brand whose products feel more familiar... But I really feel like the company has failed me big time.

Grinch, your name is MINI!

Our MINIs are conspiring to make the holidays suck: mine went in for service earlier this month and ended up costing a freaking fortune in small repairs, now Paula's has decided to puke out all its power steering fluid. Awesome! Just what we needed, more repair bills!

For all we love to drive our MINIs, I am getting pretty tired of their proclivity towards multi-thousand-dollar repair bills. It isn't like they break all the time, but they break often enough and expensively enough that they make the idea of owning a 10 year old Korean shitbox sound like a bargain.

MINI: How user-hostile engineering isn't just for software

When I hear of "user-hostile engineering," I think of DRM schemes and other ways in which software developers implement a behavior directly opposite to the user's wishes, usually to enrich or placate a distinct entity. In the case of cars, I suppose that one would think of engineering things with a short lifespan to keep the manufacturer's maintenance business going or something like that... Well, MINI seems to have one-upped that kind of behavior and gone to a whole new level!

It isn't that they are deliberately under-engineering the cars, either: both our MINIs are delightful fun cars. Paula's has been pretty buggy (from the cosmetic rattles and squeaks everywhere, to multiple major component failures well before even making it to 50,000 miles) but even that is excusable. What isn't is the way the BMW/MINI engineering staff appears to have deliberately combined fragile components (e.g., control electronics) directly within key, hard-to-replace, expensive systems. It isn't that they deliberately went out of their way to hurt the user but, as in the case of software DRM, they appear to have only taken the interests of a different party into account: their supply chain management.

Let's look at some real examples from Paula's MINI:
  • The thermal switch for the auxiliary cooling fan failed... But it is embedded into the auxiliary fan unit itself -- which, apart from costing hundreds of dollars, requires complete disassembly of the bumper, air conditioning condenser (thus, all the system purging issues that go with that) AND radiator to replace. All this for a simple sensor failure!
  • The air conditioner compressor clutch failed... But it is not available as a separate part -- you must replace the complete compressor with clutch attached, meaning another system purge, disassembly, etc.
  • The power steering pump control electronics failed... But they are embedded into the pump assembly itself (which was otherwise perfectly fine) and -- you guessed it -- the only replacement part is the complete unit, which requires taking the power steering system apart.
I could go on... I'm not complaining that they designed things that are hard to work on or hard to get at (although the supercharger on the Cooper S does get in the way of a lot of engine accessories) -- that's par for the course in modern cars... What they did is combine what usually are separate parts (fragile sensors / electronics and high cost / very labor-intensive to replace mechanical units) into components with the combined high failure rate and hugely expensive replacement cost of each. Where in cars I have owned in the past -- yes, other BMW products -- the failure of delicate electronics meant simply replacing the electronics (quick and, for the most part painless), here, these failures trigger complete subsystem disassembly and replacement. I'm getting pretty freakin' sick of paying for five or ten hours of labor because a simple control part failed.

It isn't like they don't know about the relative reliability of these parts. It isn't like they absolutely had to cram them together for packaging (I will admit that the MINI's packaging must have been pretty challenging to engineer but, still, this isn't the first small car ever). It is simply that they decided that streamlined assembly is worth more than system reliability or affordable ownership. Or, in plain terms: "screw the user, this will save us five bucks!"

At this point all I can say is that I love the cars but I really have no intention of ever buying another MINI and anybody considering owning one longer than the warranty period should seriously question their choice... Which, considering how good the car is otherwise, says how badly they screwed this up.

Houston roads strike again

Paula's MINI has suffered at the hands of Houston roads once again: after under 10,000 miles since replacing the broken strut mounts with urethane-clad K-Mac adjutable ones, we noticed handling oddities and serious front tire wear. Well,sure enough, the new strut mounts got trashed, too! Instead of the bushing giving way, this time it is the actual metal plate that seems to have suffered a stress fracture (on both sides of the car). So, we're going back to the softer stock parts and replacing the insanely hard factory struts with Koni FSD ones. The ride is a lot better, now we just need longevity...

2005 MINI update

With all the talk about the red (2002) MINI Cooper S, I haven't had an opportunity to give an update on the '05 car. Now that it is out of the break-in period, I have been able to open it up a bit and drive more spiritedly. Overall, I have to admit that the new gearing and engine tweaks are quite a step forward (although fuel economy has been a bit worse than the '02 car). The overall character of the car is more of a street-figher, it gets up to speed faster and demands quite a bit more shifting for any particular usage pattern, but it is a lot of fun. The limited slip differential is a gem. I'd never driven a front wheel drive car with one, so I had no real expectations, but it definitely is a must-have option. It pulls the car's nose around corners very impressively and -- with a little left foot braking -- you can really toss the car around. You also don't bog down under traction control anywhere near as often as with the open diff... Yum!

More on the MINI upgrades

After a bunch of head-scratching, it appears that we've found one reason why the handling still isn't right on the red MINI: the front lower control arm bushings are also pretty worn, so there is some play under cornering loads. We're still looking for beefier alternatives, so I can't say what it'll be like once that's taken care of -- but I can say that pushing the car to the limit with the worn bushings ain't pretty... I have to say that the stability control system in full swing is quite interesting, though : it kicks in (pretty late -- the car was well out of shape by the time it kicked in) with a flurry of loud ABS pump action that should be a signal to even the most ham-handed that they are doing something really wrong. I'm not sure that it had a whole lot of effect, but it was impressive-sounding nonetheless. :-)

MINI upgrades

Paula's MINI sustained some damage to the front strut top bushings (the rubber doughnuts around the strut bearing) and some minor strut tower deformation after bottoming out over especially deep Houston road damage last month. So, we took the opportunity to take it to BMS and get some K-Mac camber plates and swap the rear anti-roll bar for a stiffer one. I picked the car up this evening and -- with the limited driving time to try it out, it is quite interesting in that the ride is better than stock and the turn-in character of the car is actually quite familiar (despite the rear bar being set on the hardest setting). It seems quite effortless -- which, without back-to-back comparison with the stock 2005 car, either means it is better and without quirks or it is still tamer than it needs to be... I didn't get to push it really hard, so I can't say how it does when the limits are explored but I'll have to test that soon enough. The camber plates with fairly conservative street settings (1.5 degrees negative camber) are definitely a good choice for daily driving -- it is immediately clear that you can lean on it quite a bit more on turn-in before the front tires are overcome. The rear anti-roll bar is what I need to figure out more carefully. I wasn't able to get the car rotated under trail-braking as I was hoping for but I don't have enough data to tell what's going on. Mind you, tame may be a good thing: it is a daily-driver, after all. We'll see...

The answer is... Peugeot?

I have a base model Peugeot 206 as the rental car I got in Amsterdam. I had the choice of a VW Polo or the pug... I think I made the wrong choice, I'm afraid. It isn't anywhere near as much fun as I remember Peugeots to be -- but then I don't think that it is fair to compare a base model 206 with the 205GTI of old... This is just cheap and tacky. Also on the subject of tacky, it is pretty clear that protectionism is still hard at work in Europe: I probably saw a dozen Japanese cars in my whole three hour drive through Holland and Belgium. I don't know that people would put up with quite the tackiness of this rental car if the Japanese were allowed to compete head on. Certainly, the base trim level on US Hondas and Toyotas is better than this.

Bigger, bigger, bigger

Reading James Healey's review of the new BMW 3-series (linked from Autoblog), I feel a great deal of frustration with the way everybody seems to criticize cars -- and many other products -- along the lines of "yeah, this is great, but I really want you to make it like the next model up." The opening paragraph of the review tells us of his satisfaction that the 3-series is finally bigger. Well, "bigger" already existed -- it was called the 5-series! Over the course of a decade, BMW have basically shifted their product line up one size increment -- to the extent that they now need to introduce a new 1-series to fill the gap vacated by the increasinglly tubby 3-series. Obviously, BMW didn't do this just for fun -- they listened to customers who have been clamoring for more room, more features, more everything. Granted, I will admit that the new 3 isn't an old 5 in every way (it is cheaper than the old 5, for one -- but more expensive than the outgoing 3), but the question remains whether this new car, called the "3-series", fits within the original concept (at least how it evolved recently)? I'm reminded of The Innovator's Dilemma where existing technologies ride an ever-upward curve of sophistication until they either get undercut by new disruptive technologies or "outgrow" their market (become too powerful/sophisticated/expensive to remain relevant in the marketplace). Is this is what is happening here?