My wife and I were on the search for a fun summer car. I had my eye on some sort of convertible, as we used to run the ’71 Scout without the roof in the summer. I looked at a few cars – but after driving a MK3 Cabrio, that’s what I wanted.
The first one I drive was a well-ragged out 5-speed. The dash was lit up with warnings, and the shifter was all sloppy. No thanks. A look on the Kijiji classifieds found what looked like a nice one 550 KM away, in Mahone Bay. We went to look at it, and found a good, solid ’98 Cabrio. Originally an American car, the body and underframe was in excellent shape. It started well, and sounded healthy enough. The transmission shifted OK. Really, the car drove very tightly for the 160 K miles on it. The engine and transmission felt a little loose, down to a bad motor mount. It had a rebuilt title. Apparently, someone had stolen it, and sideswiped another car, and the low value of the car caused the insurance company to write it off. I couldn’t find any issues, so we discussed a price with the owner, and it was ours.
On paper, the 2.0 litre engine looks laughable – single overhead cam, 115 horsepower, but in reality it works really nicely. It is a little rattly at idle, but the bloody thing pulls evenly from stop to redline…it doesn’t run out of breath at all. The engine looks all the world like a 2.2 Chrysler engine, but works a whole lot better in my limited experience. It also gives over 30 MPG on the highway, despite being geared low. The ABA and related engines seem to have a reputation for being durable – I read somewhere that they were engineered to be turbocharged, with the older ABA engines having piston cooling jets – like the bigger diesels that Cat and Cummins make.
The transmission isn’t quite as good – it shifts OK, but is slow to engage when cold. There are a ton of miles on it, so I can’t complain too much. The car feels like it weighs two tons or more – very solid and fun to drive with sharp handling. Brakes, too are pretty good…they grab well.
We both love driving the little car. Most everything feels pretty good for a 20 year old car, and well over 80 percent of things work. There is some wind noise, with it being convertible, but no rattles or clunks. When I bought the car, I replaced the water pump and timing belt, motor mounts, and brakes. That tightened it up a lot.
The Mark III cars have had a bad reputation for durability, and this one had its share of issues. There had been some water get in the door lock pump motor, so that was replaced. What’s a door lock pump motor? Well, unlike most other cars, these VW’s had a central locking system based on a vacuum/pressure system. The motor runs one way to suck the locks down, and the other way to push them up. Once replaced, they worked OK. The cruise control doesn’t work…apparently the control module fails. Again, the cruise control is different to everything else I’ve seen – it relies on an air pump mounted behind the front fender to pressurize an actuator that acts on the gas pedal under the dash. Rube Goldberg at its finest. The car also has an ongoing issue where the speedometer will start bouncing and reading slow. A replacement cluster was ordered, but it didn’t help. I still haven’t figured that one out. The worst issue, by far, was the heater ejecting greasy bits of foam out of the vents. We just chalked it up to being old at the start, but after a while we lost our heat.
A bit of research told me that the annoying foam was most likely off of the blend door, and it could no longer force heat through the heater core, leaving us with no heat. We drive the car from May to October, so this wouldn’t do. I started pulling the car apart on a Friday night, and by lunchtime Saturday I had it all apart – about 8 hours. There was lots of extra brackets there to keep the body solid. I was able to replace the foam with a better quality type foam board. The fun part was trying to get the thing back together with all of the wiring hooked up correctly.
It went together almost without a hitch, aside from the transmission not shifting. A bit of hunting later, I found the transmission plug to the fuse box was not plugged in. Got that done and it’s been fine.
My mother and father spent some time driving the car the first year we had it. In 2014 they took it while we hauled the camper to Prince Edward Island and we stayed in the same campground, and toured around. She and Dad liked it so much, they bought one themselves…a green 2001 model that needed a bit of body work. It was mostly in fine shape, but the front fenders were rusty. We lucked into a good parts Jetta, and swapped the front clip off of it onto the Cabrio.
I kind of like the result. Unique. It’s funny though – Mom likes the white one nicer, while I prefer the green one.
Despite having a few issues, we’ve had a lot of fun with these cars. For not a lot of money – $3200 for mine, $33o0 for Mom’s – we’ve had a ton of fun with them. Last year, 2017 – we did a Maritime tour around PEI, NB, and NS without an issue. They’re easy enough to fix, and easy to get parts for – we have a good VW dealer in town that sells German aftermarket parts. I can’t see us getting rid of it any time soon. Too much fun!