Ex-Curbside Classic: 2003 Volkswagen Golf – What Makes You Think You’re Something Special When You Smile?

You may not believe it, folks, but there was a period, circa late 2007, when I questioned my devotion to my ovoid Sable. It began after my sister had returned from college and then promptly gotten a job in Manhattan, leaving the hatchback to my father (technically, it was his, since he’d paid for it). I contemplated selling the Mercury, but let’s just say my experience with the little German car made me a born-again member of the Church of Tauriianity. 

The MK4 Golf and Jetta arrived in the Unites States in 1999. Compared with their predecessors, they  supposedly represented a huge step up in quality; they also featured much nicer interiors and far cleaner and more upscale exteriors (which actually have aged quite well) than their older counterparts.

And who can forget this ad? It’s quite humorous, and also features the actor who would play one of the many beloved characters on the Fox comedy Arrested Development–which, by the way, has been resurrected, but that’s probably a story for a different blog.

The North American MK4 was offered with quite a few engine options: The base 2.0-liter; a 1.9-liter diesel; a 2.8-liter V6; and a 1.8-liter turbocharged version for the GTI. Do you think we’ll ever again see a non-performance V6 offered in a C-segment car? I think not. But this was a car marketed to the young, most of whom wanted either a practical small car or a pocket rocket.

My sister was headed off to college in another state, so my dad wanted to get her something much more suited to Massachusetts winters than her current ride, a rear-wheel drive 1986 Toyota Cressida (I wish we’d kept that car; if my recollection is correct, though, it had some sort of terminal disease.) She immediately fell in love with the hatch, on which we got quite the deal since it had been a salesman’s car with very low miles.

Throughout the year, her nearly new hatch, equipped with the base 2.0-liter engine, shuttled her from Massachusetts to New York and back during student breaks, but otherwise it sat still–or so we thought…

My initial impressions of the car were very good. Being 16 years old at the time, I wasn’t allowed to drive this newest addition to the Snitkoff fleet since my birth, but that didn’t stop me from being a critic. The steering wheel and shifter felt indestructible to my touch; what’s more, the orange-reddish hue of the interior lights delighted me after I’d become so accustomed to the bland green illumination in my 1989 Taurus wagon. The base eight-speaker audio system (whose tweeters were built right into the side molding!) were a sonic revelation to my ears. Supportive seats that I actually didn’t sink into impressed my butt, and possibly my genitals: Hey, at the time I was a teenager driven by hormones.

The passenger experience with the car in motion also proved satisfactory. This car felt nothing like mine; it let you experience the road instead of shielding you from it, and could maneuver around traffic with ease. The cabin was quiet, too, and front-seat passengers had great visibility of whatever they wanted to look at. The doors offered up a very pleasing thunk when they were shut.

But, times changed. While my sister was off pursuing her degree, my Taurus left us and I acquired the Sable. I graduated high school and soon went to Albany, to pursue my own post-secondary education. Four years passed, and I became a more seasoned driver as between semesters I plied the New York State Thruway, among other things.

As 2007 came to an end, my sister’s desire to move to The Big Apple was realized when she got her first job. She quickly moved downstate, after which the Golf became a nice driveway ornament. When winter break came around, I began to ponder the idea of ditching the Sable and taking the Golf back up north with me. But there were a few things to consider.

By now, it was a heavily-used car. Both my dad and I were surprised to see 75,000 miles on the odometer. Where the hell had she been going all those years?

Nevertheless, I decided to leave the Sable behind and take the Volkswagen to SUNY Albany when I returned there in January 2008. My mind kept calculating how much money I could pocket if I sold the Mercury; certainly enough to pay for a lot of beer, after all.

Soon, questions surfaced: Why was this four-speed auto so jerky? Where was the power I thought it had? Why was the highway gas mileage inferior to the Sable’s? Sure, I could parallel park it with ease, but for me, that was hardly solace enough.

Then came disaster. One March night, I was enduring a blizzard in our dank college apartment when my dad called me with devastating news: My uncle had succumbed to the cancer he’d been fighting for years. The sound of his voice convinced me that I needed to be at his side as soon as possible, so I hopped in the Golf and started heading south on I-87.

It had to have been around 9:00 PM, and the road was completely deserted. No snow plows were anywhere. The normal rules of the road vanished, and soon it became a struggle just to stay straight amidst the snow and sleet. I couldn’t see a thing. The Golf wanted absolutely nothing to do with the snow-covered interstate, and it fought me every mile. Going over 40 mph seemed like asking for a death sentence, and a fast-moving tractor-trailer nearly rear-ended me. Astounded as to why this behavior would occur–and terrified of going any farther–I decided to turn back to the Capital.

After somehow getting back to my apartment in one piece, I examined the German compact. Ice had started caking on the car almost everywhere, but that wasn’t the problem. One taillight was out, and the other was extremely dim. No wonder that trucker barely saw me; I must have looked like a snow mound. Dejected and depressed about the situation, I went right to bed. I headed out again the next morning as soon as I heard the roads had cleared.

After saying my goodbyes to my beloved uncle, it was back to school–only this time I returned with the Sable. And that was pretty much the last time any of us drove the Golf extensively. As you can guess from these pictures, we decided to sell it shortly after. It was an easy decision in view of several costly repairs it would need within a short time frame, including a new antenna, the aforementioned brake lights and a misfiring cylinder. All of these were corrected by the local (and very pretentious) Volkswagen dealer, for an astoundingly high sum of money. Oh yeah, and the rubber weatherstripping was coming loose and some buttons had fallen off the radio. It was time to give our problem to someone else. I absolutely love this picture; my Sable, lurking in the background, looks like it just knows that it won the war for my heart. In truth, it was parked in that spot waiting for a much-deserved wash.

We sold the VW extremely quickly, and for a price that made my dad laugh all the way to the bank. The buyer? An older teenager who’d just crashed his Sentra. He had to have that “V-Dub.” We did not.