When last we left off, the 1990 Honda Accord had given up the ghost due to a broken timing belt, and that left me without a car. Of course, I didn’t need one. I completed another year of school at the out-of-state college, where I didn’t have use for a car, before returning home in the summer of 2013, having decided to finish my education back home.
Which meant that I now did need a car.
That same summer, my mother traded her 2005 Nissan Murano SL for a lightly-used 2012 Sonata Limited 2.4-liter. Let’s just say that the Chevrolet dealership at which we bought the car was about as sleazy as they got…but she wore them down so much haggling that she came away with a highly-optioned car for the price of a mid-level Sonic.
When fall came and classes started, I commuted with the Sonata every day, first dropping my sister off at school, then my mother at work, and finally making the trek to campus. This was my first introduction to Bluetooth streaming, which was nicer than the CD that was stuck in the Accord, or being held hostage to the few radio stations I listened to in the Murano. All in, I put about 60 miles on the car a day, and that’s if I didn’t have to run any errands. Except that I usually did. Since I had the family car, my mother (justifiably) wasted no time in sending me to get the groceries, or use my lunch break to meet the plumber, or whatever it was that needed doing and required a car to do it. This arrangement was tiring, but my mother didn’t seem to mind. The car would otherwise have been sitting at her job all day, and she was doing a lot of overtime since they weren’t limiting it and she was paid hourly.
Mom didn’t mind–until I had a couple of accidents in the Sonata. Both involved not taking enough caution on icy roads and rear-ending people at stoplights. The first time, I was taking my sister to school when I hit a woman in a first-generation Honda CR-V. Thanks to her spare tire, both cars came away undamaged, and she let me go without calling the police. The second time, my mother was in the car and I collided with a Ford Escape that had a ball mount protruding from its towing hitch receiver. It punched a nice round hole into the Sonata’s front bumper cover. That driver also let us go without calling police or filing insurance. The same afternoon, my mother told me that she couldn’t risk me driving the Sonata anymore, since it was our only car and we were on a tight budget. So that was the start of a depressing two-week period in which Mom dropped me off at the college, very, very early, and picked me up very, very late. As we got into the second week of February, I figured my mother would acquiesce and hand back over the keys, since she didn’t like driving, but that’s not what happened. Instead, she called me one day and said, “You need to buy a car. Soon.”
I had about $5,000 in savings, and champagne taste on a beer budget. The true enthusiasts among you would staunchly disagree, but bratty me at that age didn’t think that I could find anything nice (read: flashy, showy, or new) for that price, and so I dragged my heels. Then, Mom took matters into her own hands one Friday afternoon and said a family friend of ours knew the general manager at a new-car dealership, who had a car that fit my budget perfectly. It was a 1997 Volkswagen Jetta, a car that I knew absolutely nothing about. I vaguely remember my Aunt Crystal buying a discounted leftover Jetta of that generation at the start of the century, but that’s it. And my mother proceeded to me a low-resolution picture of the car, which was allegedly a fresh trade. It was black and seemed to be in decent enough condition. Mom said we were going to look at it the first thing Saturday morning, and her tone meant that she would brook no arguments.
The next day, she and I set off for Norman, which was about 30 minutes from where we lived in Oklahoma City, and pulled into a Nissan dealership. One of the managers, Danny, immediately greeted us, and walked us outside. Now, many non-luxury franchise car dealerships have what we would call a “cash row.” These are the cars that customers trade in terrible condition, or with really high mileage, or (in the case of the Volkswagen) that are rather elderly. Either way, no bank would issue a secured loan against one of these rides, and so they get tucked into a space off the visible path for either low-budget or thrifty buyers paying cold hard cash. More often than not, they are advertised on venues like Craigslist and more recently Facebook Marketplace, which are places that cash buyers frequent. This is where we found the Jetta, parked among some pretty sorry company that included a Ford Aerostar with less paint than rust and a first-generation Dodge Durango, on which not a single panel was free of large dents.
I immediately noticed that what had looked like a black car in the photograph was actually hunter green, a color that I would later learn was called “Sequoia Green.” The paint was pretty faded across the hood and roof. The door handles were also beginning to lose their rubberized black coating. Inside, it was a light beige color, and surprisingly was well-equipped. It had a full leather interior (no cloth for this entitled boy!), a power sunroof, power windows and locks, a nice aftermarket head unit, keyless entry, and a few other niceties. It also, only had 95,000 miles, which was below average for a then-14-year-old car.
I would soon learn what a curse that low mileage actually was.
Danny presented the keys and I settled into the driver’s seat. It was pushed all the way back, and when I held the release lever to pull it forward (since I’m of average height, it did not yield.) This left me somewhat uncomfortable, but not enough that I couldn’t reach the pedals or the steering wheel. The Jetta was, of course, an automatic, which was too bad because I couldn’t drive a manual at the time (I can, now) and the presence of one would have allowed me to disqualify it on sight. Once the mirrors were adjusted, we began our test drive, which really consisted of a loop on the frontage road alongside the dealership. The car drove well enough not throw up any (literal) warning signs, I suppose. I would like to say that I did due diligence and asked questions about the car, or conducted some rudimentary research on that model beforehand, but I wasn’t invested in the idea of buying a squared-off, weird-looking teenage German vehicle, and so didn’t go out of my way to get to know it. Nor, unfortunately, did I test any of the car’s functions other than its basic ability to go and stop.
On the way back in, Danny actually pointed out the car’s previous owner on the front drive, who had come in to get some final pre-delivery work done on her new car, the one for which she’d traded in the Jetta. She was a middle-aged professor at the University of Oklahoma, who had bought the Jetta brand-new and driven it a mile each way to/from campus each weekday, hence the low mileage. “It’s such a good little car! The A/C blows nice and cold!” she said, since that’s an important feature in the searingly hot dog days of summer here.
My mom, however, was more impressed with the car than I was. In her mind, she later recounted, it looked and felt solid, had a lot of nice options, and should have been good on fuel, since it was borderline subcompact. She quietly asked me if I liked the car, and if I thought we should get it, but gave me a withering look that meant there was only one right answer to that question.
“Let’s see what we can do for a deal,” I said tentatively to Danny.
We settled in at one of the desks, and Danny immediately cited his $3,500 asking price. Mom balked (evidently, she didn’t think it was that nice) and that began a rather passionate back-and-forth, during which time I just sank into my seat and crossed my fingers, hoping they wouldn’t come to a consensus. But they did, and it was $2,800, inclusive of all fees. The car was mine. All I had to do was sign some papers, and buy it.
Now, here’s where your author’s manipulative genius comes into play. I knew I probably wouldn’t like the car. I also knew that my mother would probably coerce me to buy it anyway, because it let her off the hook of playing an unpaid Uber driver. So, I went into my banking app the night before and transferred most of my money to a different account than the one my debit card was tied to. This is why, when Danny went to swipe my debit card for the $2,800 amount, it was declined. “Uh,” I faltered, “let me check my account.” I then pulled up the account with the money in it. “Yep, the money is here.” I took a beat before then piping up with, “I bet they have a low daily limit on my debit card, like $1,000. Yeah, I remember reading that somewhere.”
I had hoped this would put a giant wrench in the purchasing plans, but it didn’t. Danny made a big show of considering all of his options before he turned back to us and said, “Tell you what, kid, I like you. So here’s what we’ll do. If the $1,000 goes through, I’ll let you take the Jetta home today, and you can call us in two weeks to process the rest. How does that sound?”
Damn. I think Danny thought I didn’t actually have the money, despite what my phone showed, and was trying to give me a couple of weeks to come up with it. Pity he was so nice, although anyone who is that cash-strapped would probably have trouble coughing up another $1,800 even given an extra fourteen days. But, now I didn’t have a choice. This was happening. I reluctantly surrendered my debit card for the second time, and of course the $1,000 purchase went through without a hitch.
Five minutes later, I found myself driving up I-35 in the little green sedan, a 30-day temporary tag affixed to its trunk. I thought that detail was particularly embarrassing, because who the hell buys a fourteen-year-old Jetta other than someone who obviously has to? I didn’t want people to know I’d just bought the thing. On the highway, the Jetta seemed pretty heavy and reluctant to travel quickly, but I attributed it to being a small underpowered car.
Except…this was a VR6, a detail I would notice only once I got home and gave the car a proper look in the driveway. The Volkswagen “VR6” moniker, I learned, essentially denotes an inline-V hybrid layout. That’s because while there are two banks of three cylinders, they are only 15 degrees apart, rather than the usual 60 or 90 degrees. This makes the engine look like an inline-six engine with staggered cylinders, and gives it a far more compact profile than a traditional V6. It also means that both banks of cylinders share the same head. It’s probably the only way that Volkswagen was able to fit a six-cylinder anything into the Mk.3 Jetta’s stubby nose. Volkswagen Group currently sells a larger 3.6-liter VR6 engine in the Atlas crossover, and uses this narrow-angle architecture in other areas, too. The W8 from the B5 Passat was architecturally two 15-degree VR4 units joined at the crankshaft and separated by 72 degrees. Likewise, the W12 engines in some Audi, Bentley, and Volkswagen products have been 15-degree VR6 engines, 72 degrees apart. And the famed Bugatti W16 is a pair of VR8 engines alongside each other. Alternatively, you could consider it two W8 engines joined end-to-end. My lowly Jetta, however, just had a 2.8-liter 12-valve VR6 making about 138 horsepower, and although that’s not much, it shouldn’t have been as slow as it was.
More on that later.
The first day that I took the Jetta to school, I discovered that the cruise control didn’t work. The controls, which were incorporated into the turn signal stalk, simply didn’t do anything. I found this annoying, but not enough so to crawl under the dashboard and check for a spent fuse, which was probably the culprit. Across the next few days, I also saw my fuel gauge drop rather precipitously; we’re talking about a quarter a day. I knew this was a small car, but unless the gas tank was the size of a thimble, it was getting horrendous mileage. Sure enough, the digital trip computer calculated a whopping 11 miles to the gallon. I’m fairly certain the aforementioned 1964 Impala my dad owned could do at least 12.
That said, I actually found myself falling for the Green Goblin a bit. Just a bit. It felt special. Even for someone who was not at all familiar with Volkswagen or the Jetta, and even as it descended into disrepair, you could tell that this was a premium, mature compact car for its day–nicer than the Chevrolet Cavalier, Ford Escort, or Dodge Neon, and more ceremonial than a contemporary Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic. I liked that. I also liked fun touches like the “La Cucaracha” seatbelt chime (so called because its three notes approximate the melody to the Spanish folk song by the same name), and the two-note horn (a chirpier note for lock/unlock responses, and a more-authoritative one for the actual horn function on the wheel). The things I didn’t like were the cramped armrest, which could barely hold a box of Skittles, and the vacuum-operated door locks. For whatever reason, a lot of European cars in the 80s and 90s employed a central vacuum pump to activate/deactivate the door locks electronically. The Jettas was in the trunk and was allegedly infamous for having its air lines crushed by heavy cargo therein, which is probably why mine were so slow to activate. And then there were the cupholders. This was during my depressed, chubby phase, and the cupholders in the Mk.3 Jetta were tucked so far under the center stack that they could hardly hold a McDonald’s child-size cup…not exactly a benefit when you want to drown your sorrows in a 44-ounce root beer on the way to yet another boring lecture.
And then there came the day, about a month into ownership, when the Jetta let me down. I was on my way to campus–well, pulling out of the driveway–when I got a noticeable cut in power and the check-engine light came on and then began flashing rapidly. I did not know this at the time, but a flashing CEL indicates an active misfire, which is when at least one of the cylinders isn’t actively providing any power, and is likely dumping unburnt fuel into the exhaust system. Nursing it to the nearby AutoZone revealed this fact, and when I went to leave and take it back home, it started driving normally again. The CEL, however, remained lit.
Of course I relayed all of this to Mom. Of course. And of course I tried to lay the blame for these problems at her feet. After all, I reasoned, if she hadn’t pushed me into buying it, I could have found something more reliable, and that didn’t guzzle fuel so badly. But she came to the rescue. Mom waited until the Friday that we were supposed to remit the rest of the payment, and then called Danny. She let him know that the car was having “serious issues,” and just wasn’t worth $2,800. She also relayed that once she got off work, she and I would come up to the dealership personally, because this was unacceptable. I don’t know exactly which words were exchanged, but the end response from Danny that day was a resigned, “Find out exactly what’s wrong with it, and we’ll see what we can do.”
Great. Except, I didn’t know what was wrong with it, only the symptoms. So my errand that Friday, since I didn’t have class, became to drive to a Volkswagen dealership and pay for an inspection. This amounted to an hour of labor at about $110 and change. For convenience, I went to the VW dealership in Norman, which was relatively close to the Nissan one we’d bought the car from. What they gave me was a list so long, I didn’t fully comprehend it, but the gist of it was that only three of the six cylinders were working much of the time. And the technician also noted that most of it was down to parts that had dry-rotted because the car didn’t have enough miles for them to have been replaced through the normal maintenance schedule. Hmm. That explained the terrible fuel economy, and the lack of power. I was just learning all of this when Danny called. It was 7:00 PM, and Danny wanted to know where we were. I told him I was at the VW dealership getting the inspection done, and that my mother would drive straight to the Nissan dealership from work and meet me there.
When we got there, Danny, Mom, and I all sat down and I furnished the report, zeroing in on the misfire issue. Danny walked off and made a call to his service manager, who was already off for the day. When he came back, he presented his offer. For the original asking price, $3,500, he would fix all of the critical issues on the Jetta. I’m not sure that we clarified what those were. Mom balked. The issues probably only amounted to the $700 difference in the two prices, so it wasn’t really a deal. Further haggling ensued, and at the end, Danny agreed to fix my Jetta for our agreed-upon price of $2,800 total, rather than discounting it because of the issues, and then escorted me to the swipe machine so we could process the other $1,800 and close out the transaction. “What about transportation while it’s being fixed?” My mom asked. Danny told us he’d provide a loaner.
And that led to me driving a previous-generation Nissan Versa hatchback with low miles for the better part of a month. I’m not sure why it took so long to fix the Volkswagen, but I wasn’t complaining. The Versa wasn’t by any means a nice car, but it was newer, and it had an AUX jack. The day the Jetta was finished, Danny had one of the unoccupied technicians drive it the 30 minutes to my house, and collect the Versa to take back with him. I found a whole bunch of oil soaked parts in a box in the trunk. There are two people in the world my mother doesn’t trust, and they’re lawyers and car mechanics. She had told them to give us back all of the old parts, purely to make sure they actually changed them. I don’t remember specifically what was replaced, but I know it included a head gasket, a full set of spark plugs and wires, the distributor, the accessory belt, and the oil and filter. But, for all we knew, they had been donated by a completely different car.
Then again, surely they had fixed something. The Jetta became much more responsive once all six cylinders were reporting for duty. It was even spritely. And the fuel economy just about doubled. However…by mid-March, as it was at this time, the weather becomes humid and stuffy in Oklahoma. It’s when you’d start using your car’s A/C. Remember when the previous owner made a point to tell me that the car’s A/C blew nice and cold? Well, it did. When it could be bothered to–which was only some of the time. One minute, I’d get a nice cool breeze, and the next minute I’d have to roll down the windows because what was coming out of the air vents had about as little “chill” to it as an active volcano.
A family friend of ours attempted to help me recharge the A/C system with one of those cheap recharge kits, to no avail. It didn’t seem to be consistently holding pressure. I called a few shops to see about having a leak test done, and whatever the prices for that were, they had made me balk–even though by this time I had a full-time web developer gig that paid quite a nice salary, and was still getting some scholarship money from school.
Then, one fine afternoon in early May, I had just picked my sister up from school, and we were moving along at a decent clip on the I-44, amid the start of rush-hour traffic. The next thing I knew, an ear-shattering BANG! emanated from the Jetta’s hood, and tons of vapor and steam spewed up into the air while the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree. I pulled the Jetta over to the shoulder and my sister and I stepped out. The problem, which I’d thought might have been tire-related, became immediately obvious. There was an ever-growing pile of water underneath the engine bay, and the decorative trim between the right fog light and indicator had flown away, due to the force of the blast. There were also some ominous pieces of metal strewn across the roadway, which I severely hope didn’t puncture anyone’s tire.
My insurance company dispatched a flatbed tow truck, which took the car to a nearby Volkswagen dealership; meanwhile Mom or someone else came and picked up my sister and me. The next day, we got a call from the VW dealership, who had agreed to evaluate the car free of charge, that they knew what the problem was. Upon arrival, I encountered an old high-school classmate of mine, who we’ll call P. I didn’t know him all that well, since we ran in different circles. Honestly, I remember him being a bit of a class clown, but not in any harmful or mean-spirited way. At this stage in his life, P was a service technician at the VW dealership and had been since we graduated. It was he who told me that my A/C compressor had seized and then exploded. This threw shrapnel into the radiator and fan blades, and was responsible for all of the coolant I saw. He then showed me to the car, which was on a ramp. Sure enough, there was a cylindrical module mounted near the bottom of the engine, or part of it. Most of the housing had blown apart (these were the pieces of metal on the road). The only part that was left was the part that bolted to the car, and the compressor’s broken piston rod hung limply from the assembly. The radiator and A/C condenser both had massive holes, and even the horn had been busted. The Volkswagen dealership wanted a princely $2,000 to fix the whole thing. P, however, said he could do it for $150, plus the cost of parts if I took it to his house. He said I could buy the parts myself, and then deliver the car and the parts to his house.
I thought this seemed like a good idea, right until P sent me the list of parts, which included a new A/C condenser, A/C compressor, radiator, hoses, mounting brackets, horn, accessory belt, and a few other items. The lowest price I could find? $800. Yikes! Among other things, the parts for the VR6 engine were quite a bit more expensive than the gasoline-I4 or diesel options for that year, somehow. I also tried to order the cheaper fan assembly from the contemporary VR6-powered Golf (which included a version of the Golf GTI), only to discover that it was not the same fan in my Jetta VR6. I asked P if there was a way we could do this cheaper. He said that we could nix the A/C compressor and condenser, and install a bypass pulley. The bypass pulley would allow the accessory belt to maintain the correct tension, since it drives the A/C compressor, which wouldn’t be there. This came to a more-palatable $300, or thereabout. So I had the Jetta moved from the Volkswagen dealership to P’s house. I also told him that I wanted to help, so that I could learn, which he enthusiastically agreed to. It seemed that P really like the idea of teaching someone else a part of his trade.
So, about four days later, when all of the parts came in, P and I set about fitting them to the Jetta. This was my first exposure to the famed VW Group “service position”, wherein some of the company’s products require removing the front bumper and bumper iron just to get to key maintenance items or to conduct costly and unexpected repairs. Everything went together without a hitch, and we completed the task in a single afternoon. I got to drive home in my newly-repaired Jetta, which I appreciated quite a bit more all of a sudden. I didn’t even miss the A/C.
And then…I did begin to miss the A/C. As June melted into July, I realized that I really didn’t want to sweat through my clothes if I didn’t have to. I was working full-time and had no real living expenses; there was no reason not to upgrade to something newer. And so that’s what I did. In fact, I went and got a brand-new car in late July, before either of my parents had ever done so. As for the so-called “Green Goblin,” it was relegated to a spot in the unused garage and driven very sparsely until I parted ways with it a couple of years later.
But either way, I really had liked the admission to “VW culture” that my Mk.3 Jetta had afforded me, and that colored my next purchase decision.