If cars really do have souls, this Jetta's was just a bit spiteful
Love-hate relationships are complicated.
If that's stating a bit of the obvious, let me elaborate. In the summer of 2004, I was in need of a new car. My old Nissan pickup truck was on its last legs and money was tight, so it was time to look into something used. My dad actually found this 2000 Volkswagen Jetta for me, and suggested I come test drive it. "It had only 28,800 miles on it," he said, "and for US$12,000 it's a pretty reasonable deal."
Dad himself had a 1999.5 Jetta GLX, one with Volkswagen's VR6 engine. He loved it. So, at his suggestion, I drove three hours to meet him at the dealer's lot and took the 2000 model for a drive. It handled well, the interior was way ahead of its class, the Monsoon audio system was at least as good as a lot of aftermarket systems I had heard, and it just felt right. It clearly wasn't VR6-powered but I liked it, and by the end of the day I had signed the papers that all but made it mine.
So began my relationship with my own Jetta GLS.
Volkswagen redesigned the Jetta for the 1999 model year, giving us the Mark IV body style. It featured a larger, more rounded design than the boxier Mk III. The base wheels increased in size to 15-inch with P195/55 tires. Opinions on the Mk IV design run hot and cold, but to me it looked clean and distinctive - I liked it. On the inside, the leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather seating and the black-over-tan color scheme made the Jetta feel very up-scale for a small sedan. It felt much like a step up over the other small cars I had driven.
My Jetta came with the base 2.0L 4-cylinder engine - the one that Volkswagen aficionados detest. It produced 115-hp and 122 lb-ft of torque and was first introduced by VW in the 1980's. A curb weight of 2934 lbs. - hefty for a car this size - meant its power:weight ratio calculated out to 78.4 hp/ton (US). This Jetta wasn't going to win any races. Gas mileage over time averaged around 25 mpg (US), which wasn't particularly stellar, either. At least the 5-speed manual gearbox added some enjoyment.
Still, this was to be a daily driver, after all, and maybe engine power wasn't exactly the top priority. For the time being, it seemed like I had made the right choice. Besides, the blue-lit gauges looked really cool at night.
And then, the honeymoon was over
The love-hate phase of the relationship began after eight months of ownership. One morning, I started up the Jetta up to go to work, and there it was: the Check Engine Light. The bane of VW owners. The exhaust also started to smell like the fuel mixture was really rich, and fuel economy dropped way off. It turned out that one of the spark plug tips had burned off. This happened a couple of times before I learned that it was best to use platinum plugs with these engines instead of the less expensive ones. Once it was fixed the first time, though, all seemed well.
"Well" until the coolant pump broke, and broke spectacularly, a couple of months later. It was as if it had been hit hard with a hammer. My mechanic said he'd never seen one THAT broken. So, I had the pump replaced, shelled out more money I couldn't really afford, and was back on the road again.
By this time others who had owned VW Jettas, Golfs and Beetles began to share their tales of woe with me. All had experienced problems similar to mine, and more. All except my Dad. He had never had any such problems. "Must've been your mechanic," he said.
After a second bout with spark plug issues, a failed vacuum line, and a bad ignition coil within the first couple of years, the Jetta ended up sitting in the driveway for few months, undriven. It was like a toddler's "time out" while I drove my wife's car to work. The thing was, I still really LIKED the Jetta - when it worked right. It was just that those occasions were rare. After only a couple of years, there always seemed to be something wrong with this VW.
I finally relented and fixed whatever needed fixing, just so it would pass its annual inspection. Since looking for another car was not an option at the time, I then decided to continue to fix what needed to be fixed, and live with whatever didn't absolutely need repair, or couldn't be easily and cheaply fixed - things like a broken glove box door, disintegrated cup holders, inoperable trunk latch and a flapping door insert. It was really an acceptance that the Jetta, no matter how much was put into it, was never going to be perfect and stay that way for long.
I told my mechanic I was buying a new car. One piece at a time. Mostly from him. He didn't laugh.
So, what do you do with an aging, under-powered, less-than-reliable small car?
You take it to the track, that's what.
Not long after the Jetta was back on the road, I started attending "Laps & Lunch" events at Watkins Glen International. These basically consist of a few paced laps followed by lunch in one of the clubhouses. The laps are usually taken during a break in one of the local club's track days, so we get to watch a little racing as well. (More about The Glen in another post later.)
The first of these events was in 2010. Although there were one or two other Jetta's that turned up mine was clearly outclassed in the roster of cars that day, full of Corvettes, BMW's, WRX's and a Lotus Elise. Thankfully, there were also some more pedestrian cars - Subaru Foresters, Honda Accords, even a minivan and an old Chevrolet Suburban - so my 2.0 Jetta wasn't completely out of place. I was slotted right behind the Suburban, and since the old Chevy took the track relatively slowly it masked both my car's own lack of speed and my inexperience at track driving.
This first track day for both me and the Jetta had me hooked. I had discovered for myself the joy of driving a slow car fast, how much fun it is to explore the limits of an under-powered car, and really see what you can make it do. And I had new appreciation for manual transmissions. This would have been a completely different experience without it.
I took the Jetta to two more such events, including a six-lap run the second year. They were a blast every time. While the Jetta struggled to keep up with the faster cars going uphill through the esses and along the straights, it took to the curves at speed eagerly, and working the shifter to keep up the pace was a treat all its own.
These events reignited my interest in the Jetta. I started fixing some things that would have gone un-repaired (who the hell designed the glove box and cup holders, anyway?) and even made a few customizations. My relationship with the Jetta was on the mend.
A long, slow good-bye
It was the third such event, in 2012, that started to spell the end for the Jetta. It began with the exhaust system, which seemed a bit louder than usual on the trip to The Glen but not so loud that it caused immediate concern. Then, halfway through Lap 3, one of the ends the resonator gave up and broke off. Hearing the tell-tale "ting-ting-ta-ting" sound of metal bouncing off pavement, I stopped and I found this:
Once the exhaust had cooled off, I removed the resonator and limped home loudly for an hour-and-a-half. I did my best to gently use the throttle as much as I could, lest I get pulled over for a noise infraction. It was easy to fix, but again my relationship with the Jetta soured, and I never took it to another Laps & Lunch event.
Late the following year, I got more experienced at Jetta exhaust repair when the muffler failed and needed replacement. Not long after that, yellow and sometimes red warning lights lit up the instrument cluster, three or four at a time. The air bag light had long since become a permanent fixture, the ABS system no longer worked, and the brake warning light came on intermittently. Occasionally, the engine would sound like a lawn mower for a few seconds when first started, an indication that it was briefly running on one cylinder. Even the radio antenna failed and began wagging like the tail of a dog, beating itself against the rear window. All were signs of the end, whether I wanted to part with the Jetta or not.
So, with a little reluctance and a 2007 Mk V ready to be picked up, I said goodbye to my 2000 Jetta in 2015. Truth be told, I loved this car. I must have, I drove it for most of eleven years. It wasn't so much about what it was, but what I did with it, the adventures we had. We had a history, and went through a lot together. Isn't that how relationships go?