COAL: 2002 VW Jetta GLI – The Doppelgänger

Back in 1999, I was absorbed in my consulting work and my tiny fleet of automotive toys (well, one car and one motorcycle). The IT industry, while not quite the party like Prince’s eponymous song, was still one hell of a ride. Y2K and the dot com boom were in full swing, and it seems like anyone who could pick up a book on HTML could bill themselves out as a web developer for a hundred bucks an hour or more.

The consulting company I was working for (you know, the one that was acquired three times) hitched their wagon train to a niche web development platform called ColdFusion, whose main hallmark was ease of learning. Unlike other web development platforms, which were largely code-driven, ColdFusion was tag-based, which meant that it looked just like HTML. This allowed us to take minimally skilled (and low paid) HTML developers and turn them into web application developers, and do it quickly, which at the time was an incredible competitive advantage.

Were these applications created by rookie programmers any good? Not really, but they only had to work well enough for us to deliver: Once turned over to the customer, maintenance was usually not our responsibility, or if it was we would charge extra for enhancements, so we came out ahead either way. Besides, technology was advancing rapidly in those days, so anything we delivered was expected to be obsolete and replaced within a few years anyways.

While I was working for probably a dozen different clients and projects, the one I had the greatest fondness for was one of the smallest: A little mail-order truck accessory catalog company with a quirky name: Stylin’ Concepts. Much like our little consulting company company, Stylin’ Concepts was in the right place at the right time, capitalizing on the SUV boom and truck customization fad. They also had catalogs for sport compact cars and PT Cruiser accessories, capitalizing on both of those fads as well. They wanted to get into the web in a big way, and I was excited to be working in the auto industry again, even if very tangentially. web site, circa 2002

In the year 2000, several big things happened: The dot com bubble started to collapse, I married my wife Kristen (and her Plymouth Neon), and soon had a son together (as detailed in my last COAL). By 2001, the consulting firm I was working at was in deep trouble, as web work had dried up faster than spilled gasoline. Out of desperation, I spoke to the owners at Stylin Concepts (who I had gotten to know fairly well) about going to work for them full-time. They agreed, and handed me the reins to their nascent web development team.

I decided to reward myself for surviving the dot com bust and soft landing by getting myself a new car (a trend that will repeat itself in future COALS). However, things were different now. Whereas before I was renting an apartment and had a roommate to split all the costs, I now had a wife, mortgage, a son and two cats, so my disposable income dropped considerably. Also gone was the 600F2, which in any case seemed to reckless to ride now that I had a family to be responsible for. In short, I needed to economize.

Economize, while hopefully maintaining my high standards. After my experience with the A4, I was hooked on German engineering. And if you are looking for an economical German car, that really only leaves one choice: Volkswagen.


Luckily, VW had just released the perfect car for me: The MkIV Jetta. Stylistically, it was (and remains) a knockout. It was a big departure from the boxy MkI through III models that preceded it. I still remember the first time I saw it on the iconic “Synchronicity” TV commercial. It had many of the contemporary Audi styling cues, in a smaller, more affordable package. I was hooked.

But the real draw was under the hood: A compact car with a 6 cylinder engine. By 2002, V6 engines were all but extinct in compact cars. A few years earlier, GM had offered their 2.8L V6 in various J cars (Like the Cavalier Z-24 and Cadillac Cimarron), and there were a few other oddballs like the Mazda MX-3 from the 90’s. But by 2002, VW pretty much had the 6-cylinder compact car market to themselves. The only thing holding me back was 12V VR6 engine. I specifically waited for the mid-2002 model year and the 24V VR6 before pulling the trigger.

In Volkswagen’s infinite wisdom, the 24V VR6 was available in two different Jetta models: the GLX and GLI. The GLX was better equipped, but was available only with an automatic. The GLI was available only with the 6-speed manual.

The six-speed was a requirement, so that meant giving up some of the GLX-only niceties like power seats and Climatronic. But hey, at least I had a stick shift. I would soon come to regret this trade-off.

After 2+ decades of shifting only 5-speeds, I could never quite “figure” out the six-speed. It was almost like learning to drive again. On the face of things, the six-speed appeared to be the logical culmination of the decades-long “more is better” approach to manual transmissions starting, with the appearance of domestic 4-speed manuals in the 60’s, followed by five-speeds in the 70’s and 80’s.  However, I quickly found out that one can have too much of a good thing.

The gears seemed unnecessarily closely spaced, to the point where several seemed to be redundant. The joy of shifting quickly became drudgery. I tried various shortcuts: short shifting from 1-4 (hey, it worked for the C4 Corvette), starting in second, using only the odd gears, but nothing felt right. Plus, what was the point of paying extra for all these gears only to skip half of them? So most of the time I dutifully plodded through all the gears.

At the same time, my short 10 minute commute had morphed into a 30+ slog in frequent stop-and-go traffic. This, combined with the aforementioned 6-speed pretty much cooled what I had previously expected would be a life-long love affair with the manual transmission.

The inconveniences of the six-speed continued to grow. In early 2003, our family of three grew to four with the birth of our second son Ryan. Kristen couldn’t drive a stick shift, so transfers at the preschool meant schlepping kids from one car to another, rather than the more simple solution of just switching cars.

The Jetta was not exactly the mini A4 that I had hoped for. What I missed the most was all-wheel drive, especially now that I had 200 hp. under foot. The traction struggled to keep the front wheels from spinning, especially on rainy or snow-covered surfaces.

This is not to say that the Jetta was a bad car: It was actually a nice car, and probably the best I could do given my self-imposed limitations of the time.

I must say that even though the MkIV Jetta and GTI are universally derided for poor build quality and reliability issues, mine never gave me a spot of trouble. If felt solid and well-built. I had no windows drop into the doors due to glass regulator failures. The VR6 was trouble-free: It didn’t seem to have ignition coil failures and oil sludge problems that the 1.8T suffered from.

No, my problems with the Jetta were of the “its me, not you” variety. After being spoiled by luxury doodads like premium sound, Xenon headlights, and automatic climate control, giving them up felt like a step back. I know, these are first-world problems that anyone driving a decades-old beater would love to have deal with, but what can I say, I’m particular.

In closing, I’ll leave you with another iconic Jetta commercial (man, VW was really at the top of their advertising game back then)