Our Cars : MINI First – reliably reliable

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

MINI First

There’s been lots of MINI talk in these pages over the past couple of years. Maybe longer – but it seems that you, my wonderful readership, have lots to say one the subject of the latest generation of car to wear the badge. Some is good. Some is bad… but very little seems to be indifferent.

In the midst of all of this, we’ve been running this MINI First, and all I can tell you is that it’s quietly, effortlessly and economically building up the miles. No fuss. No histrionics. And certainly no sign of any troubles, whatsoever. But then, when I bought this car back in December 2011, the expectations from all those around me was that there should be absolutely no problems from a brand new car, who’s parent company symbolises premium manufacturer.

So, what is the MINI First? Available since 2009, the First has been the company’s entry level model – as the MINI One had obviously become too luxurious and expensive. It’s a model that I remember calling for when I used to write for Modern MINI magazine – a basic, stripped out model that could be bought for a headline price. And it has to be said that this was pretty much delivered with the First. Early models were powered by a 1.4-litre engine, but this was soon replaced by a detuned 1.6-litre (still putting out the same 75bhp). List price in December 2011 was £10,989 and basics such as metallic paint and air conditioning were on the options list.

But on the upside, you still ended up with a well-engineered car that was lacking equipment and had not been de-contented, a very important difference. The deal I haggled on was to throw in those two extras for free – which my MINI Dealer, Wollaston, gladly did.

What’s to report about the car, now we’ve been running it for 17 months and have racked up 17,000 miles? Very little really – it handles its 40-mile daily commute with ease and continues to average 45mpg. At 70mph it’s ticking along at 2100rpm and that is clearly a big factor in its reasonable economy.

There have been no faults at all and the car still feels as tightly screwed together as the day it left Cowley. I managed to blag a quick drive of it today and still find myself impressed with the super-direct steering, agile handling and chunky gearchange from its six-speed ‘box. The ride quality is a bit of a revelation, too, but that’s clearly down to it riding on 195/60x15s shod with Michelin Energy tyres – a much smaller size than people are used to these days.

Does it feel like a stripped out economy special model? Well, in reality, it’s not really one of those at all. Yes, it’s lacking luxury equipment, but all of the essentials are there, and I only really notice how simple out MINI is when jumping back into it after riding in someone else’s (inevitably better equipped) car.  The other aspect that really delights about this car is its engine – yes, it’s a simple old 1.6-litre with a pretty low specific output, but it’s smooth and torquey and only really gets breathless above the UK legal limit. And it makes you realise just how much of a compromise in terms of refinement and power delivery even the best diesels are…

You’ll have no doubt noticed that we’ve not really succumbed to the customising bug. And rightly so. The core of this MINI’s appeal (and why I bought it) is its honesty and lack of pretention. So, there’s no black room, chrome bling, or oversized car-park unfriendly wheels to worry about. Much of the exterior brightwork you see on other MINIs is missing and, other than the grille surround and door trims, that’s your lot. Having said that, I have fitted a factory chrome exhaust tip (an eye watering £47) as the naked pipe sticking out from under the bumper looked like a Kwik-Fit special and upgraded to MY13-spec flat wiper arms and blades, which makes a huge difference in terms of performance.

And I ditched the bloody awful wheeltrims that came with it, resisting the temptation (so far) of buying alloy wheels – instead just fitting some simple centre caps.

So, there you have it. For all those doubters, you can buy a well-made, reliable and well-priced MINI. Forget the politics, try not to dwell on the past and rejoice in the fact that Britain’s cheapest (when I bought it) brand new car has turned out to be pretty good on all counts. It’s been fun so far and I’m now looking forward to seeing just how much they can improve it on the replacement model, due late this year. It’s going to have to be damned good to beat this one.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

33 Comments

  1. Great piece Keith.

    I’ve ordered a Clubman so your positive ownership experience is very encouraging (and yes, that’ll be 4 cars this year for the McGowan household – the other half is threatening divorce…).

  2. Unfortunately no – couldn’t get a completely comfortable driving position, which was then causing back & shoulder pain so it had to go.

    Changed to a new Chevy Aveo and it’s been great, but as someone who takes pride in their motor I’ve just not enjoyed it.

    The depreciation hits have been miraculously light, but I know that luck can’t be sustained so I’ve gone with the Clubman – a car I’ve always liked the look of and will stick with for a couple of years 🙂

  3. Those steel wheels look great on it, very matching for the Mini. Being lighter and more compliant (due to the 60 profile don’t run-flat rubber) they surely add to the ride quality.

    My Maestro currently is shod with new Michelin Energy tyres and they really are great. Quiet, comfy and even a noticeable drop in fuel (well, err LPG) consumption.

  4. How do you find the driving position Keith? I’ve only ever driven one (a Cooper), which was a friend’s company car and I could not get comfortable in it at all. I drive a DS3 and can drive it for hours without needing a break.

  5. I have long legs and a short body, and in most European hatchbacks, have the seat in its furthermost rearward position – and even then sometimes struggle for legroom. The MINI on the other hand has oodles of rearward travel, and I can get VERY comfortable in it.

    To prove it, I drove 1200 miles in a day in a Clubvan recently, and had no issues whatsoever…

    http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/facts-and-figures/drive-story/blog-not-so-mini-adventure-florence-and-home-in-a-day/

  6. Big de-tuned engine, ridiculously high gearing – it’s not a Mini, it’s a modern-day Renault 5GTL…

  7. This bare car and the van are the pick of the range i think,i cant put my finger on why im just not a fan,maybe the other models just annoy me, but that colour and wheels suit it a treat.

  8. I’ve driven a few MINIs recently and I have to say I really like them.

    I totally agree on your point about the ride quality. It mirrors my experience with BMW’s 1 series which I hated because of its awful ride quality, mainly due to the fact that the two I’d driven had been up-specced with M Sport suspension and stupidly big wheels. I drove a basic 118d with standard 16″ wheels recently and it was a different car; well balanced, comfortable and with all the poke you need in the real world; I could have driven it forever. Sometimes the base model really is the better car.

  9. Maybe we should have gone to Wollaston instead of Elms, and perhaps my experience of potential MINI buying might not have been so tainted Keith? Of the handful of ‘normal’ MINIs (the hatch) Elms had in stock, *all* used, all were Coopers. The One wasn’t a model they wanted to talk about and the First was non-existent. Deals? As I said before, there was nothing offered whatsover, and as we didn’t want to talk lease or 3%+ finance they simply couldn’t be arsed to try to sell.
    Add to all this that the only hatch they had in the showroom was a used Cooper S with stained seats and muddy footprints on the seat back and in the back of the car, I hardly call the whole thing a pleasant experience.
    We left feeling that if that’s how they treat potential buyers then we don’t want to be on the end of their after sales and service.
    As I’ve said before it was all in all a surreal experience and far removed from how BMW projects the MINI brand.

  10. “Britain’s cheapest (when I bought it) brand new car” Really — I don’t believe £11k was the cheapest car on the market in December 2011. Show me the evidence, Keith.

  11. DoctorD.

    Might have been a play on words – Britain’s cheapest car (that’s made here), not necessarily the cheapest car on sale in Britain….

    No doubt Keith will clarify…!

  12. Keith,
    My Mini was 100% reliable (pug engine/gearbox are great) NO DPF or DMF hastle either. Economy was good at 58 give or take in normal use…saw 75 once…but I cant drive like that day after day
    The interior of mine was so fragile…maybe mine was a Monday morning with a hangover build.
    Once bitten twice shy…

  13. My Cooper D bought new in 2007 is coming up to 6 years old and 60,000 miles now, I’m still very happy with it. For everyday use forget sports suspension and wheels larger than 17″ I have the standard setup on 16″ wheels and the ride is firm but acceptable. A cooper S loan car I tried while mine was in for a service was very bumpy and jittery.

    I’ll happily buy another when I come to change.

  14. The silver steel wheels and centre caps look good Keith… takes me back to cars of the early 70s – stick with it!

  15. I have to say that in 12 years since its release, I have never even sat in a MINI never mind driven one.
    This has not been due to choice or a deliberate attempt to avoid it, but none of my friends or family own one so the opportunity has never presented itself. From what I am reading here, that is something that is going to have to change fairly soon.
    I have owned six (and still have three) classic Minis and derivatives, all of which are great fun, and it sounds like this one might not be much different

  16. ” What’s to report about the car, now we’ve been running it for 17 months……..There have been no faults at all….”

    Not doubting the merits of the MINI First, Keith, but keen to put an MGR slant on things – surprise, surprise!! I’ve now covered over 14,000 miles in my June 2003 ZR. It’s only fault has been a failed nearside electric window mechanism and even this may have been ‘encouraged’ by icy weather and the postcards my daughter dropped into the door cavity!! Yes, the car had been well looked after when I bought it (and even better since!!!) and has only covered a total of 43K miles. Still, not bad for a ten year old!!

  17. My neighbours have a 2012 Olympics special edition Mini and a 2011 3 series, guess which one gives them all the grief?

    Yep the 3 Series.

  18. Being an ‘old boy’ and confirmed Alfaholic I despised the BMW mini thing for the first part of its life but then because we needed a four seater for grandchildren ferrying the Bini came into the frame.
    Cooper Clubman Chillipack diesel and all that. Black and white. Love it to bits. Love the little door (which is on the right side for practical use). Love the genuine 58.4mpg. Faults? It’s too noisy at town speeds and the ride is harsh on the run flats. But hey – it ain’t a perfect world!
    The great thing is there will only be a couple in the station car park so finding it in the dark is easy. I don’t mind being a good samaritan and helping people find their blobby cars though!

  19. @24 – Strangely, the first time I test drove a MINI, it reminded me of my old 916 Alfa GTV….

    I used to not be a fan. I don’t hide my dislike for bmw and audi. Thought this was more iPhone than BT Viscount.

    My mindset changed though. It is NOT built as per the Mini of old. The economies of manufacture mean that a cheap car cannot be built in the UK (the original wasn’t making a profit, as Ford found! Sanderos, Pixos and even 500s are built in factories in lower cost countries), and it isn’t a radical packaging exercise – the iQ, A Class, A2 were and were slow sellers.

    However, looking at it as a sports hatchback it made more sense. Incredibly fun to drive 2+2. More Celica than Aygo.

    I’m not sure how Keith managed to get a First with thrown in AC and paint. When we went to the MINI showroom (which was like some car-themed nightclub), we had to wait (!) for a salesman. He talked us into looking at a ‘One’ with pepper pack. Interior chrome etc were pricey extras. The things seemed to sell themselves, they’d have no interest in throwing in freebies to guarantee a sale.

    By the time it was totalled up, it was up at D segment hatchback money.
    We walked away.

  20. @22: “Very reliable – ’til the camchain snaps…”
    That can be said about the classic mini too:
    Very reliable, water-proof and rust-free, ’til it rains…

    But that’s will, in that case, probably be categorised charm…

    Driven the MINI on occasion and I must say I like the car a lot. I just can’t get used of the train station clock sized speedo in the middle of the dash.
    And for my taste, it didn’t get any better in R56, because they had to reserve place for a navigation screen, but that’s in the eye of the beholder.
    Reason enough for me not to buy one, since I have to look at it every second I’m driving the car.
    If there was an aftermarked dash with a nice 4″ speedo, I’d be the first one the buy it and the car to fit it into.
    But, again; that’s me…

  21. My comment 21 – ok, it’s not really relevant! When I read the title, however, I just thought the reliability comparison was interesting….

  22. 70mph at 2100rpm in a 1.6 petrol – surely a misprint? HJ reported the same gearing when he tested the R56 Cooper diesel.

    http://www.honestjohn.co.uk/carbycar/mini/cooper-diesel-r56-2007/?section=road-test.

    Still, the First is a nice car, more true to the original spartan Mini ethos as others have already commented. Would be interested to know what percentage of sales this model accounted for. Suspect it was low and most buyers went for the Cooper (for a slightly higher monthly PCP payment).

  23. 70mph at 2100rpm in a 1.6 petrol – surely a misprint? HJ reported the same gearing when he tested the R56 Cooper diesel.

    http://www.honestjohn.co.uk/carbycar/mini/cooper-diesel-r56-2007/?section=road-test.

    Still, the First is a nice car, more true to the original spartan Mini ethos as others have already commented. Would be interested to know what percentage of sales this model accounted for. Suspect it was low and most buyers went for the Cooper (for a slightly higher monthly PCP payment).

    Re comment #27 complaining about the large central speedo – you have seen the speedo in the original classic Mini, haven’t you??

  24. Got my Mini First 2 weeks ago, cherry red with Cosmo black interior,1000 miles on the clock today and so far I totally love it! It’s my second Mini (had a 2003 Cooper S), was afraid I would not like the 75bhp engine, instead it’s great nippy and economical on gas. I would really recommend it.

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