(First posted 6/23/2013) In early 1995 Volkswagen started running a very appealing lease special in my area: a new Jetta, for $199/month with nothing down. I’d never had a new car, and at the ripe old age of 26 I figured this was my due for the last few years of hard work. So I ventured down to the local dealer, in Redwood Shores, and kicked a few tires…
My history notwithstanding, I’d convinced myself that I could stick with a car for a full 48 months. I also liked the looks of the newest Jetta a lot, and ads and magazines touted a lot of improvements over the older model. Driving it pretty much sealed the deal; although VW’s new crossflow 2.0-liter four-cylinder wasn’t going to take over the racetracks anytime soon, it pulled eagerly, the car handled well and was very quiet inside. I wasn’t thrilled with the selection of colors on the lot, nor especially with the sort-of-paisley pattern velour upholstery; however, the dealer said he did have a transition model, in red, and would I like to see it? OK, sure. He pulled it out of the garage.
Back then, VW often started a new model year using last year’s leftover parts, so while technically a 1995, this one still had the ’94 interior fabric (which had a much nicer pattern) and the black rub strips on the body instead of the normal body color strips on the ‘95s. He also told me I could have it for $180/month with nothing down–$19 per month less than the advertised special. So I said sure, sign me up, and then verified the details with the salesman.
Ten minutes later I saw the paperwork and the smile turned upside down as the sales manager showed up and started apologizing profusely: There had been a “mistake” and I’d have to put $1,000 down. Uh, no, that was not the deal as far as I was concerned. It was $180/month, no down and no more. It turned into a bit (OK, more than a bit) of an argument on the showroom floor since I refused to be taken into a private office, causing several potential customers who were watching to walk out. After about 20 minutes and a half-dozen customers leaving, I got the deal I was promised. It was completely ridiculous, and I never returned to that mega-dealer, although over the years I had six or seven more cars that could have been serviced there.
Anyway, I was now the proud owner of a VW Jetta GL with exactly 22 miles on the clock. Bliss. Yes, new cars depreciate. No, they are not the wisest way to spend your money, but I’m sorry–it’s a great feeling to drive a brand-new car off the lot. So what did it have? Well, the GL was the base model, and mine was a manual-transmission car. Above it in the range were the GLS (with more features standard), and the six-cylinder VR6. The GL made do with somewhat homely hubcaps (the first pic is of my actual car), although alloys were optional. Power locks and A/C were standard, but not power windows. A sunroof, decent tape deck with AUX input for your Sony Discman (!), nice seats, a huge trunk, attractive design inside and out and a good warranty were all icing on the cake.
ABS it did not have–I had a moment of panic on my second day of ownership; I locked up all four wheels at 60 miles per hour on the 101 when I realized a little too late that traffic ahead was stopped. I didn’t run into the car in front of me, but I sure was sweating after that stop! I do not ever want to be that guy that has to go to a body shop with a hundred miles on the clock.
These cars were all over the Bay Area in the mid-to late-90’s, and black was probably the preferred color (and I admit it looked great that way). These were also VW’s first models exported to the U.S. from their new plant in Puebla, Mexico. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with that or, more likely, it was just VW’s “engineering”, but the car certainly had more issues than I was used to or would have expected from a new car. The shift linkage literally came apart after the second month, after which I somehow McGyver’d it back together at the side of the road. The A/C failed twice during the first year, and the toe settings out of the box were so bad that the insides of the front tires wore down to the cords within the first 10,000 miles.
These issues let me try out most of the other nearby VW dealers for service, since I had vowed not to return to the one I got it from. It seemed that I was not alone in having issues, as I encountered many other recent owners with weird maladies. One particular annoyance: I received a recall notice that instructed me not to use the supplied jack under any circumstances and to see my dealer for a replacement. Well, I tried every dealer, and everywhere the replacement jacks were on back-order for several months. This irked me to no end, as they kept selling new cars that presumably had an updated jack in the trunk, but I suppose that’s the way of the recall, at least as VW was concerned back in the day. Several months later a new jack finally arrived in the mail.
There are lots of people out there with their own VW stories, and there are also many who never have issues. Issues aside, I did like the car. It always started, drove well, got excellent gas mileage (and my girlfriend approved). It’s weird (and I have no real research to back this up) but I think a lot of the people who have stick-shift VWs (and I think VW sells a greater proportion of their cars with manuals than do their competitors) are more likely to put up with their issues and faults than owners of VW automatics. I believe it’s because many people who want a manual are more involved with their cars than those who drive automatics (assuming their car offers a choice). The driving feel and sense of solidity of a small VW is generally superior to that of, say, a Corolla or a Civic (and I hasten to add that I do not dislike either the Corolla or the Civic).
As with the other cars I had, I drove it a lot–down to San Luis Obispo regularly, to Los Angeles a few times (it being the car I had when my Dad passed away; he never had a chance to see it, which upset me), and to Lake Tahoe for winter sports. I’d always have the chains with me in case they were needed, but this is the car that made me swear that I was done with chains after one of them broke, scratching up the fender and destroying a hubcap before I got the car stopped with the chain wrapped around the front CV joint. Although most of the damage buffed out and the replacement hubcap was not a large expense, I decided I was done with that hassle.
Speaking of buffing out, my buddy Don is a big fan of washing his cars. Me, not so much. Anyway, I think he was tired of riding around in my usually somewhat filthy car and suggested we wash and wax it. We were both quite surprised when during the wax process all of our rags turned pink very quickly. This is when we realized that VW did not put clearcoat on their solid Tornado Red paint, nor did sister company Audi on their cars of the same color. Kind of strange, and they’re probably among the last cars out there not to be clear-coated, I’m guessing. It’s one reason why red Audis and VWs tend to look faded/chalky much faster than those in other colors.
I never did replace the hubcaps with alloys, but I did add a Neuspeed P-Flow intake, as well as a chip. It sure sounded better, but I am not convinced it really added any power, at least nothing noticeable. The chip did require the use of premium unleaded, but it cost only around $1.25 per gallon back then, so no biggie.
In the end I realized I had been kidding myself; although the payment was low, I didn’t want the car for the full term. So I eventually sold it, for $12,500, after 33,545 miles and a bit less than two years of ownership. My buyout cost with VW Credit was just over $12,063, so I got a few hundred dollars back from the whole deal even though I went way over the mileage allowance (how is it that I still have all this paperwork to reference?). It’s a good thing I sold it before the lease term was up; otherwise, I would have been on the hook for the extra mileage.
What amazes my wife and me is that periodically, VW still offers a Jetta lease for that same $199/month. In a few years, when our daughter is old enough to drive, we may well have another one.