At the ripe old age of 21, I finally threw in the towel and decided to buy (well, lease) my first brand new car. I’ve always obsessed over cars, and have owned a ridiculously broad selection, ranging from a Fleetwood Brougham to a Mazda Miata and everything in between, but sadly my mechanical aptitude only went far enough to get myself injured. So when I got hit with the final repair bill for my fourteenth used car–no, that’s not a typo–I snapped. With over a year left of undergrad, not to mention grad school, the anxiety induced by surprise $300 to $700 repair bills every other month just wasn’t sustainable: who will give me a ride to the shop? What will I drive to work and class in the meantime? How will I pay for this?
Back in high school, I didn’t mind spending ridiculous amounts of my income on cars, and I had the free time and resources to deal with it all. But at 21, asking your single parent who lives across town for rides to the shop on a semi-regular basis begins to elicit some very heavy sighs, if not a straight up “no”. My friends were equally swamped with work and school and hardly had time to spare, either. It was clearly time for something new and under warranty, but it had to be very cheap.
I always saw Volkswagen as a premium brand, so I was surprised to find that their $149 monthly deal on the manual transmission Jetta S was the cheapest new lease on the market. It included a down payment, of course, but my trade-in would cover that easily. The Nissan Versa lease was priced about the same, but (putting aside its ungainly styling) it came with crank windows and without a radio, making the larger, vastly nicer driving, and better-equipped Jetta the obvious choice.
Of course, things never end up being as cheap as they are in ads, so when I went to Williams Auto World to test drive the Jetta and get the paperwork started, the price ended up coming to $195.45 per month after taxes and fees. Still, that was peanuts for a brand new car, especially considering I had sometimes spent that much on some of my used cars in a single week. It fit my budget, and I manually shifted away in a brand new gunmetal gray Jetta S the same night (I wanted red, but this being a loss-leader special of which only two were in stock, none were available).
This process might sound routine to some of our older readers, but to a young college dude from a somewhat lower-middle-class background, this cheap-but-new car was incredible: that smell, the perfect interior, the huge weight off my shoulders from never again having to worry about getting to work or paying for repairs. As it worked out, the lease ends the same semester I’ll finish my grad program, so I may never have to have carry that anxiety again (until my car obsession inevitably resurfaces in middle age and I buy another old Fleetwood, of course).
For the stripper stick-shift special, the Jetta drives very well. The suspension and steering are very German–somewhat firm but never harsh. Having driven almost all the competition, this is actually one of the most of comfortable and stable riding compacts on the market. The doors close with a solid thunk. The A-pillars are as thin as it gets these days, the visibility is amazing and best of all, it strikes the perfect balance of contemporary and classic with its no-frills, three-box styling. Some call it bland, but I like the idea of a brand new car that could easily pass for a 2005 model which, in my book of humility, is a plus in this stage of life. I didn’t buy it so people would know I had a new car, I bought it so I wouldn’t have to drop hundreds of unexpected dollars every month. Yet, despite the old-school styling, it still has the only two modern conveniences I need–an AUX plug for my iPhone and keyless entry.
For as much hate as it gets, the archaic 2.0-liter engine is downright charming in how utterly basic it is. Open the hood and it looks like 1993. So much SPACE. No huge plastic engine cover. No ridiculous accessories or motors. Just an honest to gosh 4-cylinder engine. 115 horsepower. A delightfully raspy exhaust note similar to a ’98 Honda Civic with a rusted out tailpipe. Coupled to the excellent shifting manual transmission (albeit with gear ratios clearly geared towards fuel economy), power is fine around town, but it’s deathly slow on the highway. Combined with no cruise control, freeway driving any distance further than about ten miles can become irritating. At least it gets an incredible 42 MPG if you go 70 or, in other words, slower than any other Michigan driver ever.
A few months after purchasing the Jetta, I lined up a new gig as a delivery driver for a popular Chinese restaurant that pays shockingly well. Compensated in straight cash, I consistently average $17.00 an hour combining tips with base pay and delivery fees–easily enough to cover the car payments and my various other bills, even while working part time during school. The Jetta is the perfect car to deliver in–small, nimble, not flashy, but not an unreliable junker that puts my job in jeopardy either (I’ve seen that all too many times). With 27 MPG in the city, my gas expenses hardly cut into the pay at all. I removed the hubcabs for now, partially for protection from the endless curb-scraping and suspension-snapping speed bumps that come with delivering, but mostly because, well… I really like the look. I feel it fits the car well and, it’s probably in my mind, but I’d like to think I get fatter tips when the car looks a little crappy and broken-in. And yes, using it as a delivery vehicle violates the lease in just about every way, but I’m committed to purchase at this point. The buyout price is a measly $9,000, and the 36-month term is finished right when I complete my Master’s in HR Management and will easily be able to purchase it, possibly outright.
We’ll see how reliability pans out, but the car has 6000 miles and has only needed a new key fob covered under warranty (broke the first month) . I’ve heard the endless horror stories about how Jettas self-destruct in every way around about 80,000 miles, but with the archaic-but-robust motor and manual trans, I can theoretically avoid the maladies of the typical 2.5/auto combo that people seem to have the most trouble with.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. With the endless slog of transporting thirty-two orders of Midwestern Chinese food across the city on the daily, then heading to the library to crank out endless term papers, so far I couldn’t ask for a more stable companion. If I were 40 years old and had a fifty mile commute to an office every day, the lack of cruise control, tall fifth gear, and tractor-grade passing power would make me hate this car. But for my station in life as a 20-something student trying to make it day by day in a relatively compact urban area on the cheap, it couldn’t be more suited to my lifestyle and budget. So thanks, Volkswagen, for continuing to build no-frills, solid-driving base-model cars… even if no one else actually buys them.