VW Jetta: Dreck or no?
October 7, 2009 10:43 PM   Subscribe

VolkswagenFilter: I'm going to be looking at a '99 VW Jetta (A4 body) in the next couple days and am wondering what, specifically, I should look for when I'm there.

Specifically, the car's a Jetta GLE 2.0l with 130k miles, the owner is asking $2500, and apparently there's nothing wrong with it.
However, in my experience buying cars, there can be no end of problems that aren't readily apparent. Are Jettas of this vintage any good, and is there anything I should check out or look for?
posted by dunkadunc to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
I agree with The World Famous that you should get the owner to agree to have it taken to an independent mechanic for a thorough look-over (at your expense). Anecdotally, I had a late 90s VW and it was pretty awful.

First stop though, go browse through the forums of a site like VW Vortex to find out the common problems with that body.
posted by Joh at 11:32 PM on October 7, 2009

Look at the Passat (B5 platform, 1998-2004-ish?). They actually have leg room for rear passengers and the same awesome huge trunk. They were made in Germany (not Mexico) and if you get a solid one, it should hold up slightly better than a Jetta. I have a 98 V6 with the (I think) AHA engine type and I'm almost to 115K. Passatworld.com is a good forum, although the main page has been a bit neglected, just follow the forum link.

Note that repairs on German cars are going to be more expensive than for Hondas/Nissans/Toyotas/domestics.
posted by ijoyner at 12:10 AM on October 8, 2009

Aside from the usual stuff to look for on a test drive (harsh suspension noise, brake operation, trans operation, etc) the 2.0 typically has a couple things to look for.

Check the coolant level and make sure it's PINK. VWs take pink propylene glycol (VW G12), not green ethylene glycol coolant. Green coolant in a VW is a sign that it may have been improperly (or cheaply) maintained. On the back of the cylinder head (on the driver's side of the engine right above the transmission bell-housing) is a plastic flange that is a point of connection for coolant hoses and a temp sensor to a coolant passage inside the engine. That plastic flange LEAKS ALL THE TIME. Look for a trail of old pink crusty coolant and accumulation down the driver's side face of the engine and pooling on the transmission. That's a problem that can cause overheating.

Also, take a good look at the vacuum hoses and PCV breather pipes. There's a fat hose that connects the PCV system to the air intake that's often squishy, saturated with oil, and collapsed or deteriorated. Also, the vacuum line that connects to the fuel pressure regulator is pretty flimsy. Make sure it's not splitting. Those are a couple problems that can cause rough-running and a Check Engine Light.

Be sure that the timing belt has been replaced. Also, if it hasn't had the thermostat replaced, it'll probably need one soon.

Oh, and the orange plastic dipstick tube and orange dipstick handle will be broken.

Keep in mind that 130k is a little old. VW years can be like dog years. But $2500 is about what it's worth. It'd be smart to take it to a VW mechanic and have them give it a good once over before you buy it.
Dreck? Ja. Aber, ich liebe sie.
posted by Jon-o at 2:46 AM on October 8, 2009

My wife and I have an '01 Jetta, same body style & engine, which we bought in '04 with 30K miles on it and have since put another 65K miles onto. Overall, it's been (and remains) a good car. We've had a few brake issues: one rear caliper that was already sticking when we bought the car (replaced), and some pulsation from corrosion on the original rotors. Also a failed MAF sensor that was a bit of a pain to diagnose. A rear suspension bushing is currently working itself loose, and causing the occasional squeak. Other than that... tires, a bit of exhaust work, timing belt. It's a comfortable, safe, pleasant-to-drive car.

Be aware that these engines often use quite a bit of oil even when they've been properly maintained. You actually need to check the dipstick every few weeks - you can't forget about it between oil changes the way you can with, say, a Honda.

Make SURE the timing belt has been replaced. Make the seller document this, or at least point out a sticker on the belt cover showing when it was done. This is an interference engine, and will pretty much destroy itself if the timing belt breaks. That belt should've been replaced about 40K miles ago, but some people let it slide because replacement costs at least $600.
posted by jon1270 at 2:56 AM on October 8, 2009

I have a 99 Golf, my dad has a 99 Diesel Jetta.

One thing with these cars, do not buy one if you ever, ever want to drive on a dirt road. They have absolutely no ground clearance. I found that the previous owner had replaced the oil pan (didn't tell me that), when I ripped the oil pan on a rock. I did it again this summer (4th oil pan for this car). Same driveway that got me got my friends Jetta. They are terrible that way.

My 99 Golf has been pretty reliable.

I would have an EXPERT look it over, as I took it to a garage that I thought was good, and they did the once over. But my friend who is some VW ubergenius was going to do a little work for me, and he's like...erm, yeah, this car had a major accident and the wheel is coming off. Cost a lot to fix. I had no idea and apparently the garage I paid to look it over didn't either.

Good luck!
posted by sully75 at 3:43 AM on October 8, 2009

Umpeenthing having a qualified VW mechanic look it over. If you can't take it to an actual VW dealer, at least look for an authorized Bosch shop. While you have it in there, make sure they inspect the transmission. I'm assuming it's an automatic. The VW 01M automatic can be a temperamental thing. Ok...it can be a real POS. It's a sealed unit, so the only way you can tell anything about it (like, if it has fluid in it) is to hook it to the diagnostic tool.

Have the shop also inspect the frame and body and look for any signs that the car has been damaged and rebuilt in any way. $2,500 is right on the cusp of "might have been wrecked/totalled/rebuilt" territory. Ask to see the title. See if it has any notation of having been salvaged or rebuilt.

I more-or-less agree with searching around VW Vortex for more info. You have to wade through a lot of snark and bs, though, to find any actual helpful info.

On the MkIV A4 cars, a couple of common things to look for...
Door lock modules. The door locks are electro-mechanical modules and the circuit boards are prone to failing. VERY prone. The door will lock/unlock just fine and the alarm system will arm. Thing is, the sensors don't know it. Often, you will get in the car, shut the door, and the system will lock itself. Other times, the alarm will go off for no reason. When you open the driver's side door, look to see if the little marker light on the lower interior of the door comes on. If it doesn't, there's a good chance the door-lock module is trash. It's not cheap to replace. Most MKIV owners just live with it unless it really becomes a pain.

Window regulators. The frames that hold the door window glass. This mechanism can fail. The result is your window will suddenly just fall down into the door. There was a recall for this, but your car is too old/has too many miles.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:59 AM on October 8, 2009

Best answer: I owned a new body 99 Jetta GLS, purchased new. (when I bought, the dealer a GLS and GLX. sorry I don't know how the GLE differs). I had it for 5.5 years and traded it in in late 2004 for $4100. It had about 90,000 miles on it.

There were a lot of recalls on my car, and I had the stripped down one! (eg. no window regulator since I had manual windows.) Make sure all major recall work was completed.

The MAF (mass air flow) sensor should also have been replaced. As far as I know, this was never an official recall, but EVERY new body VW of this era had this fail. When my engine light came on at 37,000 miles and I brought it to my mechanic, they told me it was the MAF and they were surprised that it hadn't already failed. I believe they said 25,000 miles like clockwork the MAF dies. VW's response to the widespread failures was to drop the price of the replacement part from $300+ to $37.

Other randomata: as Thorzdad mentions, my door locks failed and I just lived with it. The physical key always works. My glove box broke and I didn't fix it ($300+). My cupholders broke and I didn't fix them ($100+). I carried a package of rear taillights in the car - the left one burns out at a rate of about 5x normal. This is an electrical thing that may or may not have been a recall. Even brand new, the car burned oil - about a quart a month. There's almost no rear leg room, even when I drove, and I'm short.

All that said, if I was 23 again and had the car checked out by a reputable and disinterested mechanic who KNOWS these cars, I would buy it for that price.
posted by peep at 9:33 AM on October 8, 2009

My experience is similar to peep's. '98 Jetta, about 150k miles on it. Engine, transmission, and just about all the major things on it have been very reliable. NOT reliable, however, are all the little things. Door locks are miserable. Have gotten it "fixed" twice by the dealership when the alarm randomly goes off when entering or exiting the car. Cupholders broke (all of them) and the air vents are broken and generally messed up. AC now refuses to work. Like peep, glove box door is broken as well, and I was just informed (again) that I have a rear taillight out.
Having said that, this car has been a trooper for me. I would MUCH rather have little difficulties in minor cosmetic things (glove box, cupholders, air vents, tail lights) than be fixing transmissions or other big engine issues. I think it's got a lot of life in it. Take your car to a mechanic. Expect some cosmetic issues.
posted by Spyder's Game at 11:54 AM on October 8, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everybody!

Given your responses as well as the remarkably negative user reviews compared to other cars, I decided the car was too much of an Unknown and possible Big Pain In The Neck and went with a '95 Saab convertible, given my previous good Saab experiences. We'll see how this one goes.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:23 PM on October 9, 2009

So you traded arsenic for cyanide, I see!
posted by Jon-o at 8:55 AM on October 10, 2009

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