Congrats on being financially stable...especially in this economy. Your story resonates with me.
I, too, had never bought a new car...I just am not (or wasn't, at least) a "car guy." Cars were just something to get from A to B. My last car was a Honda Accord. I bought it for a few grand and planned to drive the wheels off it. Well, I was able to put 100k miles on it and then she had to go out to pasture.
So, off to Carmax, etc, I went. Two things happened: 1. Nothing really "grabbed" me, and, 2. I did some number crunching and it started to make financial sense to buy new with the kind of cheap financing out there now. Oh, and look into the Mini Lease program...heck of a deal. On the downside, make sure you're sitting down when you talk to your insurance agent. All my previous, used (read: high mileage) cars only cost around 150 to 200 bucks A YEAR to insure. Of course, on these cars, there was no point buying collision insurance. With a new car --any new car that you finance-- you're gonna have to have collision insurance in addition to liability. Long story short: my insurance is now about 1200 smackeroos. I'm 39yr old guy with good driving record and no previous auto claims. Keep in mind, though, that a Mini is likely considered a sports car by the insurance companies. It's sorta like how porsche squeezed the back seats into the 911, etc., just to make it a so-called 4 seater (yeah, right) because two seaters are more expensive to insure.
Back to the buying decision: I NEVER thought I'd buy a Mini. Frankly, I always thought they were just a silly trend. Still, on a "what-the-heck" whim, I test drove one. SO MUCH FUN!! Seriously, dude or dudette, if you don't want to buy one...DON'T test drive it. Because, once you do, nothing else will make your heart go pitter-patter.
Of course, this may be the difference between us that will keep you relatively safe from getting you hooked on a Mini: I'm a die hard manual transmission guy. In fact, I lament that there are fewer and fewer stick shifts out there. Honestly --and please don't anyone take offense-- buying any sports car with an automatic transmission seems, to me, like giving up a lot of the fun of having a sporty, agile car in the first place. You ask about fuel economy? You'll get better city mileage with a manual. I've only had my new Mini for about two weeks, but I've found that when it comes to mpg, Mini seems to under-promise and over-perform. I'm getting around 29 city. I just took a 3 hour trip (Louisville, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio) and averaged 35.7 on the interstate --going around 70 to 80 mph. Not too shabby at all!
Being such a new owner, I have no info for you on maintenance and longevity. All I can say is that you can tell this is a sound, well-made car. Just open and close the door, for example. It's solid. Open and close the doors on other, less expensive brands and you'll see what I mean. It may sound silly, but you can really tell a lot by that kind of seemingly mundane thing. Look for the little touches and details that indicate the amount of thought that went into making the Mini. Notice how the windows go down about a 1/4 inch when you open the door and, when you close it, they go up again. It's a way to provide a better seal and reduce wind noise (also, there's no pressure spike in the car on your ears). I first saw this feature in a BMW 850. I'm guessing, therefore, that the Beemer influence doesn't hurt either.
Okay, this post is WAAY more than I intended to write and -undoubtedly- WAAY more than you wanted to read. Apologies. Worse, it sounds like I'm a salesman. I'm not. I'm just a new owner who, for the first time, gets excited about taking a car trip. Maybe that'll wear off; but, for now, I haven't taken a drive wherein a smile hasn't shown up on my face.
Best of luck in your search. The salesman with whom I worked was quick to tell me that you're either a Mini kind of person or not. There really isn't an in- between. He's probably right; so, maybe a yes or no decision will be as easy for you as it turned out to be for me.
One last thing: Consider a manual transmission. If you don't know how to drive one, learn! You don't know the fun you're passing up!