COAL: 1988 VW Jetta GL – Oh Mk2 How I Miss You.


Perry’s CC on the mk2 Golf inspired me to answer the cries to write another article to follow my ’59 Beetle COAL.  I wanted my next piece to be something other than a COAL but I guess it will be one anyway. This time it is about the car I miss more than any other I’ve sold, my 1988 Jetta.  In many ways it was the epitome of a CC; a once-common sedan, in a common trim level, with a common drivetrain and which its owner loved.

As you may know, my roots are in the air-cooled cars and it took some time for me to warm up to these blasphemous, engine-in-the-wrong-place, liquid-cooled Volkswagen imposters. My first was a total beater ’87 Jetta I purchased for $300 in 2006.  I was almost 21 years old and it was actually my first car ever with a radiator.  It was a total beater, pretty much the engine, trans, brakes, tach and fuel gauge worked. Everything else was either broken or missing but it ran, it really ran and I turned out liking driving it more than I thought I would.  A few months later I moved up or rather, back to a mk1 1984 Jetta GLI and while it was a blast to drive, the time it sat idle outside with a blown head gasket with the previous owner was not kind to it and its reliability suffered, so I decided I would rather have another mk2 as a daily driver.


I found this ’88 on Craigslist in Knoxville for $1800.00. It sounded perfect, but there was one small problem: I only had $1100 and hadn’t sold the ’84 yet. I was honest with the seller and told him this. His response was “cash talks,” so a friend of mine drove me (in a 2001 Jetta, still reliable well over 200k–another one for the VW naysayers) the 4 hours to go look at the car. After one drive, I handed him the cash and got a title in return. I knew I’d made the right decision once I nestled into the Recaro bucket and clicked down the highway at an easy 80mph with the windows up and cold air blowing out of the dash.


I’d never owned a car with such a luxurious feature as air conditioning and the car had 301k on it when I bought it. After talking with the owner and having him hand me a sheet of paper detailing how often he serviced everything and showing what fluids to use, this did not scare me at all. He was meticulous with the maintenance which is something I will admit is key in keeping a German car reliable. The brakes had been upgraded to 4-wheel discs from an ’88 GLI, as were the front Recaro bucket seats.  It also had the near bulletproof 1.8 8-valve engine and 5-speed gearbox combo.  Being an ’88, it was the first year for the Digifant fuel injection system: a vast improvement in driveability and reliability over the more mechanical Bosch CIS (Continuous Injection System) of the previous years. I’ve owned both and prefer how the ’88 ran.  It was always smooth as silk and no matter how I drove, it never got less than 30 mpg.  That includes a trip where for nearly 300 miles I did 100-110mph and later climbed West Virginia mountains.

I love how these mk2s drive and it’s interesting to me that many of the comments I read on Perry’s write up criticized these cars for the same reasons I like them. They are a bit austere. However, I like that in a car. It’s a Germanic thing. You get just what you need and nothing more. The engines do have a rumble and a bit of a growl to them and again that’s a feature I didn’t mind at all. These cars are about driving, not gadgets or how space-age the dash and interior looks. My complaints in that department are minimal and I will echo that the headliners do not hold up of course that was a common problem with many cars from that era. My biggest peeve regarding the interior is that the armrests in my car’s door panels disintegrated, leaving nothing but fabric covering that space, meaning you couldn’t really use them any longer.

Over the next three years I put nearly 50k on my Jetta, driving it to Florida a few times, Mississippi once, South Carolina to visit friends a few times, a friend’s wedding in West Virginia. Ask anyone who knew me when I had this car and they will tell you that they were not easy miles. I recall a conversation at a VW show where someone said, “Your car is just an 8-valve right?” and friend countered, “Oh, don’t worry, you can rest assured that Adam always uses all eight of those valves to their fullest potential!”

The problems I had with this car were minimal for a 20-year-old car with over 300k. The first was the right front CV which was clicking when I bought the car, so that was no surprise and at around $60, it was the most expensive repair I had. I had the thermostat stick open (which didn’t leave me stranded, just cold for a couple of days) and that was $12. I had to replace a plastic coolant hose flange with a metal one from an earlier car as well as an o-ring in the fuel pressure regulator, which only cost a few cents.  That’s a pretty good track record if you ask me. I know people with Hondas that were less reliable and more costly to maintain.


In the summer of 2010 my automotive ADD was kicking in and I wanted to branch out and do something I never had before and own a car that didn’t have a VW badge on it: an E30 BMW. While I love my liquid-cooled VWs, selling one of my air-cooleds was out of the question, so the Jetta had to go to make room for the BMW. So I sold it, knowing as it left my driveway that I was going to regret the decision, despite the fact that it sold for $500 more than what I paid for it.  While the 1987 325 coupe that replaced it was a blast to drive, it was not as trouble-free as the Jetta had been and this proved to be a severe disadvantage a few months later when my life took a sour turn and my income took a dive. If you go back to my Beetle COAL, it was around this time that I put that car into daily service. I sadly sold the BMW in early 2011 and it remains the one car I actually lost money on. As I said, I went back to my air-cooled roots for some time until I briefly drove my mom’s old ’85 Jetta. However it just wasn’t the same and I traded it for something I thought I needed, a Ford Ranger.

I just couldn’t keep away from the mk2s and a few months back I bought one as a project, one that I had always wanted, a 1992 Jetta GLI 16v with the 2.0 16v and in the rarest color, Dark Teal Metallic, with the same hip hugging Recaros my ’88 had. It should be on the road again soon with the help of a good friend; look for it in a future COAL.