Remember the days when VW still held clout as a maker of “cult cars?” The iconic Beetle comes to mind immediately, though VW had a reputation for building practical-yet-quirky cars that lasted them well into the 1990′s. The second generation VW Golf and Jetta, also known as the A2 generation, were arguably the last of the “old-school” VW’s (in the nineties, VW would descend into chaos by moving most of their factories to Mexico). Sold from 1985 to 1993, the A2 Golf/Jetta can be a damn fine vehicle. That said, one that hasn’t been maintained well can turn your wallet upside-down in a heartbeat.
The A2 platform debuted in 1985 as the successor to the long-running A1 (VW Rabbit/Jetta) platform. The Golf, available as a three or five-door hatchback, was complimented by the Jetta – usually a four-door sedan, also available as a rare two-door coupe. They were built in three different factories: one in Mexico, one in Pennsylvania, and one in Germany, with model year and trim level usually determining origin. VW enthusiasts generally claim that Mexican and USA-built cars are inferior to those of German build, though there are good and bad examples from every plant.
On the outside, the A2 Golf and Jetta design has aged pretty well. The styling is surely a product of the 1980′s, but not as dated as many – and the moderate restyle that was trotted out in 1990 greatly modernized their look. I’ve noticed that they’re not as prone to rust as many of their Japanese counterparts, though they are far from totally immune. The interior is largely the same as other vehicles from the era, with cloth or velour seats, and lots of hard plastic and vinyl. Higher-spec trims, like the GTI and GLI, received special seats, steering wheels, and trim – some even got excellent Recaro brand seats. The factory stereo is mediocre, with tiny 4″ speakers typical of the time. Interestingly, a friend of mine in high school had a Jetta with a cassette tape deck that would play tapes backwards at varying speed…believe me when I say that New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” is pretty terrifying in reverse.
Mechanically, a handful of options were available. A 1.8 liter four cylinder is the engine most left the factory with, though some versions had the option of a more powerful 16-valve engine, later enlarged to 2.0 liters. Diesels were also available (in both turbocharged and non-turbo variety), and are sought after for their incredible gas mileage, though power is heavily sacrificed. For most drivers, the standard 1.8 engine is more than adequate, and can return upwards of 30 miles per gallon when driven carefully. Transmissions were strictly a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic; the automatics are best described as “garbage” if not babied for their entire life. Avoid them.
Owning an older VW is a polarizing experience. They are available in two flavors: good, and downright evil, and they do not take well to poor maintenance. The cost of parts is similar to any typical Japanese brand, provided one orders from the right parts house. Strange problems occur; on many cars, it is found that the coolant gauge reads backwards, due to a cheap and easy to install temperature sensor. The outer door handles seem to break on almost every car; I can almost guarantee that if you buy a used A2 VW, within a year, you WILL have a door handle inexplicably break off in your hand. Luckily, they’re easy to replace, and don’t require removal of the door panel…almost as if they were designed with a limited lifespan. The passenger side mirror glass will sometimes display a bizarre trait of deteriorating to an unusable opaque black on many cars. In addition to these faults, I owned an A2 Jetta that blew the horn fuse every single time the horn was used. I could never figure it out. Such bizarre problems seem to be the norm for many A2 VW owners.
On the used market, the sporty GTI and GLI models tend to hold their value quite well, due to the extra performance equipment included on those models. However, if you don’t care about any of that stuff, the lower trim levels are perfectly adequate, though the large variety of aftermarket performance parts available and the associated VW “do it yourself” community makes it possible to modify any basic A2 Golf or Jetta into a serious performance vehicle. There is also a wealth of general maintenance information available online, including step-by-step guides with pictures, making maintenance foolproof for even the least auto-savvy owners.
The prevailing anecdote for the A2 Golf/Jetta seems to be that something little will always be wrong with them, no matter how much money is spent trying to get them to 100%. Well-maintained examples are cherished by their owners, adding to VW’s significant brand loyalty. But some cars seem to plague their owners forever, never managing to overcome their electrical quirks, or worse, becoming victims of sloppy or incorrectly performed maintenance. Beware weird electrical issues, as they can be a pain to chase down, and avoid cars that have been poorly maintained or neglected unless you are willing to devote some serious time to work on the car.