I will just tell you my experiences with my 2004 R53 built in November 2003.
I have loved this car since I have gotten it. However, in my euphoria, I overlooked the fact that I was buying a BMW…and that could mean BMW super premium parts and labor prices. Add to the fact that there was no guarantee that your garden variety foreign auto mechanic would be versed in repairing a car make that was only available for two years in the U.S.
Nevertheless, this car has been extremely reliable for me. True, there were a couple early problems (A/C, tie rods, coolant reservoir, electronic locks, muffler hanger), but these were taken care of under warranty.
Since then, here are the repairs I have had to do: left and right rear wheel bearings, brake pads and rotors all around, recharged A/C, driver’s side electric window motor, surpentine belt, plugs, wires, alternator, battery (my original battery lasted 8.5 years), power steering pump and cooling motor. This later repair is a known weak spot on the R53 and has been investigated by the NHTSA. There are things that can be done to reduce its rate of failure. All of repairs I did myself except for the alternator.
I did mixed driving and put low mileage on it during the first 4 years. After that, I changed jobs and have been doing lots of highway driving. The car has 134,000 miles on it. I have found it extraordinarily reliable for its age and mileage (OK, I’ve never owned a Corolla…). I have not replaced the clutch after all of this time (knock on wood…).
Oh, I forgot to mention the wheel speed sensors and the brake wear sensors. I’ve replaced two of each. I don’t know how handy you are or want to be, but any idiot can replace these and consequently save gobs of money. If you haven’t before, it really doesnt’ hurt to learn about your car by getting your hands dirty. There is lots of advice available on MINI-specific forums (MINI2.com and North American Motoring…but remember, advice is cheap), and many online parts outlets so that you don’t have to pay full price for quality parts. AND, in my car, the ABS light has been coming on for 20 min on occasion and then going back to normal. This is supposedly due to the connection between the seat air bags and the computer. I think it’s another first generation quirk.
Regarding the snow, I have found the car to be OK in the snow. Not poor, not excellent. My car has ASC (automatic steering control) which you need to toggle off in some snowy conditions to enhance traction. I have not used snow tires, but I live in NJ. I’ve looked a bit at snows, and you can get them in 15 and 16 inch for this car. OEM MINI alloys are surprisingly easy to find and relatively inexpensive on eBay.
Gas mileage is fair to midland with the R53 - I get a little over 30. But compare that to the jeep. In my opinion, the MINI is more practical in general. I regularly carry my full-size road bike, but if you need to, there are dedicated trailer hitches available for your toys.
OK, I’ve said enough.