Famous last words: 1992 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 16v

I have always really wanted to like Volkswagens. Flat-brim hatted “stance bruh” culture aside, VW is one of a very few mainstream car manufacturers that consistently cranks out interesting products. The various generations of Golf GTI and Jetta GLI, Corrado, Scirocco, their seemingly wonderful TDI diesel powerplant and many other offerings would seem to establish them as a true enthusiast company…if it weren’t for the fact that every one of their cars I’ve ever attempted to own has been absolute garbage. One of the most heartbreaking was my 1992 Jetta GLI, the ultimate A2-chassis Jetta with the wondrous 2.0 16V powerplant, lovely Recaro interior, factory BBS wheels and lots of other car nerd-loving goodies. A friend of mine offered it to me in late 2013 for the low price of $1000; it had been sitting for a while, but was in remarkably nice shape. At least it seemed that way. Oh, how wrong I was…

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I anticipated an uphill battle, so I loaded up the parts shotgun and started blasting. It had been sitting for some time, so a new timing belt, tensioner and water pump were the very first things done to the car. One of the tires had blown its sidewall from sitting, so it got brand new Kumhos. The ignition switch had been bypassed because it would no longer start the car, so that was replaced. The shift linkage was rebuilt. Motor mounts were replaced. Vacuum hoses were swapped. Spark plugs, coolant temperature sensors, you name it; I did it all, because this car was COOL, and I wanted to get in and drive as much as I could after all the work!

Naturally, it wasn’t meant to be. The new ignition switch did nothing for the starting issue; a seatbelt sensor in the driver’s door (?) had shorted out and kept the car from starting. So, it was bypassed, and the car cranked to life! Except it was now spraying fuel everywhere underneath the car; the beloved Bosch CIS fuel injection system’s whopping 60psi idle pressure had apparently taken out one of the lines to the fuel filter. So, I replaced the fuel filter and all of the hard lines with brand new parts. Then, the fuel pump housing started spraying fuel all over the place! The metal screws that threaded into the plastic pump housing had rusted and cracked the housing…wonderful. So I took the whole thing apart, JB Welded the absolute crap out of the crack and mounting parts, let it cure for a week, and got it all back together. It started up and ran great, at least until it blew out the main fuel line that ran to the engine…

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That was pretty much how my entire experience with this car went. When it was running, it was a blast to drive, with sharp handling and plenty of power. But it was perpetually developing some kind of problem, and refused to stay fixed for more than a few days at a time. After the fuel leak situation was finally sorted, the starter went out. The starter was fixed, then it seized the rear brake calipers. The rear brakes were serviced, then it blew out the brake lines. The brake lines were replaced, but the master cylinder had gone bad. The brake situation was rectified, and then the passenger window got stuck all the way in the down position. I opened up the door and propped it up with a 2×4 piece of wood until a new window regulator came, at which point the driver’s side failed. It didn’t stop there; I could keep going for another paragraph, but my point has been made. It was a maddening ownership experience, to say the least. Every part that failed was replaced or upgraded with something better; Black Forest Industries and Techtonics were probably able to pay their entire staff for a month with all the money I was spending…

Eventually I decided to cut my losses and put the thing up for sale. It was finally running and driving extremely well, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I was constantly in fear of another expensive failure looming around the corner and couldn’t enjoy the brilliant driving experience one bit. To add insult to injury, the aforementioned VW scenesters harassed me with criminally lowball offers (read: “$800 cash today bro”) and I struggled to sell the car until an angel smiled upon me with a trade offer for a 1991 Mazda Miata that I almost immediately accepted. I was very clear to its new owner about all the problems I had experienced, but he seemed happy enough since I had fixed pretty much everything. I was pretty far upside-down monetarily in the Jetta relative to its value; thankfully the Miata was worth enough that I came close to breaking even when I sold it, allowing me to wash my hands of the whole thing as much as I possibly could.

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More than anything else, it was a real shame. The car looked great and was excellent to drive, but it ruined me. My past VW experiences hadn’t been much better, and this 1991 Jetta GLI was the one that broke me. In theory, I would love to own a Corrado, Scirocco, A1 Rabbit GTI, or any number of other cars that VW has produced. On paper, they’re excellent cars. But the Corrado in particular has its own legendary reputation for unreliability, and my time spent with this Jetta convinced me that it’s just not worth bothering with any VW, regardless of their supposed merits. Don’t even get me started on the newer ones I’ve had to work on!

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4 thoughts on “Famous last words: 1992 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 16v

  1. That’s a shame. I owned a 1989 version of the same vehicle brand new. I loved that car and it ran like a champ. I traded it years later for a 1996 Audi A4. It only had 70,000 miles on it, babied all the way. I found out later the new owner blew out the transmission trying to race it. I still think fondly of that vehicle, the way the Recaro seats griped you around turns. It was always a pleasure. I’m sorry you’re experience was so abysmal.

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