VW Jetta reliability and expense
September 13, 2016 1:56 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are looking to buy a used car. I've had my heart set on a Volkswagen Jetta seemingly forever. She has heard some horror stories about the cost of maintenance and repairs for VWs, and does not want to buy one. I've heard the same horror stories, but the data I've been able to find online hasn't confirmed them (although, to be fair, it hasn't entirely disproven them, either). I'd like to hear actual VW owners' stories to help us make a decision.

To start with, my desire for a VW is based largely on one rather frivolous factor: the Direct Shift Gearbox. I've always driven a stick shift; she has only ever driven an automatic and is not particularly interested in learning to drive stick. I don't mind an automatic (in fact, there are times that I prefer one), but it's just a little boring, and the DSG seems to be a good compromise. It's not a must-have, by any means, but why not, right?

For my entire driving life, I've bought extremely cheap beaters. My current ride is a '96 Mazda Protege, a car whose manufacture predates my license to drive. It has unbelievably lasted me 7+ years, which has allowed me to save a few thousand dollars to put towards a new car. The plan was to drive the Mazda until it died, saving more and more as I went along, and then buy a Jetta when the time came.

Unexpectedly, the time has come. The Mazda is still chugging along, but my wife was recently in a fender-bender that totaled her car. The good news is, she's getting a few thousand more dollars from insurance.

We've discussed it, and if we put her insurance money together with my savings, we could buy something reasonably nice without getting a loan. (We could afford car payments, but why take them on if we don't have to, right?) Sharing a car makes sense, as she works on a college campus well-served by public transportation about two miles from our house and rarely drives. To the extent that we use her current car, it's usually me driving and her riding as a passenger. So becoming a one-car family would work for us. The question is, what car?

She knows I've been interested in a Jetta, but she has heard from various friends that they're unreliable and expensive. This seems to be pretty well-accepted conventional wisdom: Volkswagens need frequent maintenance, and when they do, it's very expensive. Even oil changes are supposedly financially ruinous. She's more interested in a cheap Honda, an Accord or maybe a Civic. Hondas, as everyone knows, have the exact opposite reputation: they run forever, and cost nothing to maintain. I've been around enough Hondas to be pretty sure that's true. But I have an irrational dislike of Hondas. To me, nothing screams "I just graduated from college and got my first real job" like a silver Honda Civic. When I was in law school, there were so many silver Civics in the parking lot that people would have to click their key fobs to determine which one was theirs. We live really close to a Honda factory as well, so almost every other car on the road her is a Honda. There's just nothing special about them.

In order to change her mind, I'm going to have to make a case that the Jetta isn't that much more expensive than the Civic or Accord. But I'm having trouble finding reliable (pardon the semi-pun) information. The Kelley Blue Book value of the Jetta seems to be right in between the KBB value of the Civic and Accord, all three within our budget. Edmunds.com's True Cost of Ownership has the five year maintenance and repair costs to be roughly similar among the three. The Consumer Reports reliability rankings that I could find without going behind their paywall seem to indicate that, while the Hondas are a little better, the Jetta is hardly unreliable. For both Edmunds and Consumer Reports, though, the data seems to be pretty highly variable from one model year to the next, and from one trim package to the next, which to me suggests that the sample size might be pretty small.

So I'd like to gather some more data. If you've driven a Jetta (or, heck, why not, a Passat) from about 2009 to about 2012 (yes, I'm aware there was a redesign in 2011 - aesthetically I prefer the 2009-10 body styling, but they're a little old at this point), have you spent a fortune on repairs? Was your car really in the shop every other week? Are Volkwagens really that much worse? Bonus points if you also own a Honda Civic or Accord from the same period, and can compare the costs. I know the Hondas will be cheaper; the question really is, how much?
posted by kevinbelt to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't know if their implementation is the same as VW's, but the current-generation Ford Focus has an available dual-clutch transmission and is pretty fun to drive.
posted by Polycarp at 2:04 PM on September 13, 2016

Best answer: I had a Jetta. I liked driving it. That said:

If you get the Civic, it is unlikely that you will ever find yourself in a circumstance where you are saying to yourself, "god almighty, I wish I'd gotten the Jetta. Why oh why didn't I just get the Jetta. Argh. Now I am really screwed"

it doesn't have to be silver
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:16 PM on September 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

Just an anecdote from one guy, but we just had the DSG replaced in our '13 GTI at 25k miles. I really wish we had gotten the manual, but we're in the same boat re: partner not wanting to learn how.

Other than that, (but that's a BIG 'that'), the HVAC burnt out the fan speed resistor pack and we keep getting low tire pressure warnings when every tire checks out okay. Still, though, I don't want to own this car after the warranty ends.
posted by hwyengr at 2:23 PM on September 13, 2016

This doesn't answer your question, but our 2001 Jetta was known to have an automatic transmission that died at 125,000 miles or so, and guess what? It died. But that's a very old car, many Volkswagen generations ago. We have a 2010 Mazda 3 automatic with a manual shifter that is super fun to drive for a budget sedan (WAY better than a Corolla or Civic). That might be a nice middle ground option, especially since your last Mazda experience sounds positive. Finally, I'd generally trust Consumer Reports reliability data. If that data is good on the Jetta/Passat, I'd just buy the car and not worry about it.
posted by cnc at 2:29 PM on September 13, 2016

Neighbor had 2013 VW (the convertible one with the hardtop?) and literally had to sue the dealership to get his money back because it was ENTIRELY defective. Another neighbor has the SUV one, and it's basically rusting on the street because they bought a new car and can't sell the VW.

I had a 1973 Super Beetle and it was the love of my life. I don't hate the brand, but I would not buy one now. Agreed if you get a Honda Civic (had one a few years ago) there will be less maintenance.
posted by jbenben at 2:47 PM on September 13, 2016

Honda and Toyota rank as top non problem cars. As for stick, wife bought me a used Corolla, stick, when my 150,000 Subaru became dangerous and not worth fixing (but that car was trouble free too)
posted by Postroad at 2:50 PM on September 13, 2016

The cost of maintenance and repairs on our 2009 Passat made us break our long standing tradition of driving cars until they fall apart. God I loved driving that car but I love having something reliable and cheaper to maintain even more. Bought a Honda Accord this past January and I adore it.
posted by cooker girl at 3:08 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Totally regretted buying my 2010 Jetta. Cost of maintenance was a REAL bitch Sold it back to the dealership and bought a Honda Accord in 2014, which I love. The Accord is much poor reliable and the cost to maintain it is easily a 1/3 less than any VW I've owned (drove 2005 Beetle for 4 years, so much fun but...ugh). Really so much happier with the Accord. Funny - my only regret about the Accord is I got mine in silver.
posted by OsoMeaty at 3:14 PM on September 13, 2016

OK, purely anecdotal...my Golf was an absolute lemon, from the time I drove it off the lot. My best friend thought it was a fluke and bought one. She is very sad.

All the dealerships I tried to go to were horrible, too. The engine light went on when I was on my home from the dealership when I bought it NEW. It wasn't diagnosed properly for 4 years. COUNTLESS trips back. God. I wish I had those years back.
posted by ReluctantViking at 3:30 PM on September 13, 2016

I'm a VW owner and haven't had any issues, but also haven't had the car for that long (a manual transmission '14 GTI).

All the research I did before buying the car seemed to indicate that used VWs are not like Hondas or Toyotas in the sense of basically being able to nail the hood shut apart from routine oil changes, but also not particularly trouble prone as long as the previous owner was diligent about maintenance. The caveat to that was that it seems anecdotally like the consensus is you really need a mechanic who specializes in German cars because sometimes the issues can be tricky to diagnose, and you CANNOT defer routine maintenance. I would make sure you take any car you're seriously thinking about

My previous car was a Honda Civic and it was a good and trusty little car but the GTI is so much more fun to drive I still find myself giggling with pure joy when I drive it.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:34 PM on September 13, 2016

Best answer: Had a 2001 Jetta VR6 with the 4 speed manual and drove it to just over 200K miles. Fun to drive. Expensive to maintain. Cooling system was made of plastic and we slowly replaced just about every pipe or hose over the time we owned it. In general, VW has a deserved reputation for over-engineered fragility. I remember some random spring popped out of the trunk lock and to fix it I couldn't just buy the spring but this entire huge assembly, of which the spring was just one of many parts. Three of my coworkers had recent VW diesels ('10 and newer) - one sold his before he had major issues, one's fuel pump failed on the freeway leaving him at a dead stop in full speed traffic (he sold it immediately after repair - and he was a HUGE proponent of VW diesels), and one's continues to run.

I also got to know some of the best VW mechanics in San Francisco and LA (which should tell you something about VWs) - and one of them in SF sold his GTI for a civic SI. That guy said that if I had to do VW again, get a recent 4 cylinder turbo with the timing chain (not belt) and stick shift. Nobody I know trusts the DSG.

So what do we drive today? The Mrs. replaced the Jetta with a Prius, which is probably the biggest delta between unreliable and reliable possible. We bought it with 70K miles on it already and have put on another 60K, and there have been zero maintenance expenses for us outside of oil changes and tires. I have a Ford Focus hatch with the PowerShift dual clutch transmission. Love the focus, but the transmission is just ok and has been in to the dealer multiple times for recalls and software updates. Ford stands behind their product, but their dealer network really sucks. Not as bad as VW's dealer network, but it's bad.

Short answer: if you can only have one car, and that car needs to work, then it still really should be Japanese - preferably a Toyota.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 3:53 PM on September 13, 2016

Can the compromise be to buy a Civic (or whatever your wife wants) with a manual?

How "not particularly interested in learning to drive stick" is she? Can she try learning on the Mazda before you make a decision?

I haven't driven a DSG-equipped car, but I have driven a couple of cars with crappy semi-manual gearboxes (regular automatics but with + and - detents) and it's not even close a proper manual with a clutch. I would make sure to test drive the Jetta to see how much of the spirit of a manual transmission the DSG actually manages to capture.

Anecdotally, my last Civic survived two totalings (neither my fault) and almost made it to 200k. My current Civic is pushing 100k and, except for some wear in 2nd gear because I drive like a jackass and a few dents in the doors, drives like brand new. My parent's old, old Civic made it a little past 200k.

In my experience (of driving quite a few rental cars for work), Civics (and Mazda 3s) are a significant sportiness increase from the Focus/Cruze/Elanta/Soul baseline. I haven't had any Jetta of Golfs though so I can't compare.
posted by lozierj at 3:54 PM on September 13, 2016

My 2002 Jetta was My First Car and I drove it from the dealership to my parent's house for long enough to pack up my belongings and drive to a different country to start working at My First Job after undergrad.

The 1999-2005 Jetta is still, imo, the sexiest looking modern car on the road. The thing was amazingly fun to drive (the grin on my face when I got pulled over on a Wisconsin backroad going far. too. fast. made the cop laugh and let me off with a warning). The interior was roomy and comfortable, the sound system made everything I played sound better. I bought my Kitchenaid in a matching color.

I drive a Nissan now.

I know that my Jetta is older than what you're looking at, but between the electrical problems, the expensive imported parts, the special snowflake anti-freeze, and yes, the mysteriously spendy oil changes, I just couldn't justify buying another VW to myself. In fact, I gave this exact same spiel to my friend who went all apple-eyed for a 2010(ish) GTI before he went and got one anyways (because there was nothing else remotely as fun to drive out there in that price range). And he sold it within 2 years because it was an expensive bear to maintain. And this is all before VW as a corporation did things that deeply offend my engineering ethics.

So, all of this is to say that I know how you feel. I have stood in your shoes and I will tell you, don't do it. Get a MINI or an Infiniti if you want a fun driver. Get a Camry or an Acura or a Lexus if you want the step up from the law school beaters.

I want to love VW. But I know that it won't give you the fahrvergnĂĽgen that you seek.
posted by sparklemotion at 4:00 PM on September 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you are willing to accept Audi experience as the same as VW, ours had catastrophic engine failure at 48,000 miles and got a new engine under warranty. The exact same thing just happened a second time only now it is out of warranty rendering a 7-year-old vehicle essentially valueless. It also had another major repair as a result of a class action lawsuit, and many many other repairs to things like the sunroof, hatchback, etc. I'm sure I'm blocking some out. But boy was it nice to drive.
posted by HotToddy at 4:00 PM on September 13, 2016

Best answer: In my experience (of driving quite a few rental cars for work), Civics (and Mazda 3s) are a significant sportiness increase from the Focus/Cruze/Elanta/Soul baseline. I haven't had any Jetta of Golfs though so I can't compare.
posted by lozierj

Yeah, I do the rental car thing for work a bunch, too. I've never seen a recent Civic in a rental lot, but my go-tos are (also) the latest Mazda 3 and the latest Toyota Corolla. Both are great cars, but if I had to buy one with my money today the Corolla is probably the winner. I've only caught a Corolla S with the technology package once, but that was a great car.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 4:01 PM on September 13, 2016

I have a 2011 Jetta which I bought new in 2011. The only repair has been the compressor which broke last summer and was $1000 for parts and labor at the local VW dealership. I live in Florida however so the AC in on full blast at all times. I will say that the AC is not amazing even with a brand new compressor but it would be more than fine anywhere outside of Florida. In any case, I loooove my Jetta! I would rather drive it than my fiancé's new Benz. It handles so well and is super responsive. I plan on driving it into it falls apart (hopefully in many years!)
I believe it has DSG but honestly it's not really anything like a standard. My only word of caution would be, do not get the black exterior with the light leather interior - looks real slick for the first year but gets grimy very quickly.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 4:52 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add mine has 75k miles on it as of this month.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 4:54 PM on September 13, 2016

I've never seen a recent Civic in a rental lot...

Me neither, but I did put a few hundred miles on my brother's '14 on a road trip. I don't think I've ever gotten a Corolla either.
posted by lozierj at 5:19 PM on September 13, 2016

I don't think you'll use that gear thing as often as you think.

I had a Passat for years. It was fun to drive, nice and tight. I got it for the safety features, and that was good for peace of mind, but maintenance was a nightmare. It ran well, but even for the most routine maintenance, every little thing had an additional hurdle and/or significant cost.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:40 PM on September 13, 2016

It's not frivolous at all. Once you've driven a good DSG no manual nor automatic gearbox will satisfy you at all. We had a 2005 Golf TDi 2 litre second hand, ran it without maintenance to 230,000 miles and sold it to a friend, it's still perfect three years later even though he still hasn't got around to replacing the cam belt. Replaced it with a new Mk7 Golf with all the options, has been completely faultless and only been to the shop three times for three annual services. As Top Gear said, it does every job you want a car to do perfectly. And it's a lot of fun to drive.

Sadly we now need a 7-seater and if VW made one I'd have bought it sight unseen. But XC90 T8 it is, we don't expect VW reliability from it.
posted by tillsbury at 6:04 PM on September 13, 2016

I have a VW Beetle '14 Diesel (woo, recall), which I've loved, besides the whole scandal. I may go for the convertible next. No problems, and I drive about 500 miles a week. Husband has the GTI and loves it. Also high mileage. Mom has their small SUV, and this is the first time she's actually really liked her car, at least since she had kids.

We both have extended family (cousins) who have driven VWs forever: mostly Passats , Jetta, and Golfs. The woman who's usually driven Jettas feels that the trims are not quite as nice as before (not that it's horrible), so she's going Passat when she gets her new car. No one has had a lemon yet. But then maybe we've been lucky?

Maintenance is a bit pricey: the DSG fluid change is every 40k (I think) and is a bit hefty time and price wise, but my husband uses it pretty regularly (it's fun!), so worth it for him.

My dad is a Honda guy. They're reliable, good gas mileage, he likes driving my husbands car on occasion though. He's not a car guy, so he'll probably stick to his Honda.
posted by ghost phoneme at 6:08 PM on September 13, 2016

The theme that emerges is that if you luv that German style, then you should buy new-ish and have fun for a few years, and then sell it before it gets old. But if you have to go beater, go Japanese.
posted by ovvl at 6:26 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I can say that my former mechanic (specialist in foreign cars) and a friend who used to work for a mechanic shop both said not to get VW's because they broke down a lot, and to quote the friend, "it takes a half hour just to change a headlight thanks to the tight German engineering."
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:29 PM on September 13, 2016

I've had both a Jetta 1.8T (2002) and a Civic (2008). Jetta's turbo died at 86K, along with other sundry issues. Civic is running strong at 118K, with most issues being wear and tear or self inflicted.
posted by pyro979 at 7:02 PM on September 13, 2016

We bought a used 01 (I think) manual Jetta with like 110k on it for $3500 a few years ago. We put in about TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS (like, seriously $10k) over the next two years. And it STILL needed work. So we sold it as-is for like $1500 to a neighbor who could work on it himself.

Don't ever, ever buy a Jetta. Or any other Volkswagen.
posted by Slinga at 7:06 PM on September 13, 2016

What Slinga said. Don't buy a VW.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:14 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're going to be able to prove that the Jetta is just as practical as a Honda.

I think the argument to make to your girlfriend is: you drive more than she does, driving is important to you, and getting the Jetta will be something that reliably gives you a little pick-up every time you use it, rather than something that slightly depresses you every time you use it.

There may be something equivalent for her -- a good gardening tool, a nice laptop, a beautiful handbag... I don't know what it is, exactly, but there should be some object that was worth it to her to pay a little more for for the pleasure she gets in using it.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 7:29 PM on September 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

My parents had a 2003 Jetta 1.8t manual transmission. In 2006 it had major electrical problems at a rest stop with no warning and would not start up. We were in the middle of a road trip and far from home, so that sucked. My brother now owns it and he's envious of my 1999 Toyota Camry because of the cost of repairs and constant repairs of his.
posted by azalea_chant at 7:34 PM on September 13, 2016

On my fourth VW ('90 Jetta/ '88 Jetta/ '99 Cabrio/ '12 Golf/ yes in that order) and haven't had the problems people are detailing here-- except during the time when I hadn't found a mechanic who specialized in German cars in my area, and was constantly replacing all the things because the guy who was telling me which things to replace didn't know what was going on. That said, I am on my first automatic VW and finding that the DSG doesn't do the thing I wanted it to do, and am pretty sure I'll switch back to manual with my next car.

Also, I have changed the bulbs in my headlights on three of those four cars, and never did it take half an hour. Maybe the full headlight assembly would take that long, but that's a little more involved.
posted by dizziest at 8:04 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've owned a VW before and I would be willing to own one again -- but only while it was under warranty. Friends with VWs have had too many major and minor problems for me to want to be responsible for fixing one out of my own pocket. They are fantastic to drive and cheap to buy, but not necessarily cheap to run.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:00 PM on September 13, 2016

Nth Hot Toddy and others above. I had a...99 or 00 Jetta that I bought a couple years old and drove for a couple more. Then it started having cosmetic plastic things (clips holding interior panels in place, buttons) break, then minor dashboard electric problems, then it Kelly blue booked for $3k and needed a new $3k transmission. They're cute, roomy inside (I'm tall), and comfortable to drive... And it had problems I've never had in any other car before or since. I never bought one again - we loved our Subaru hatchback (moved overseas), and currently have a really old Toyota hatch that will. Not. Die. Currently renting a Mazda (3 or 5) and it's nice to drive too (much better than the Kia we initially rented).
posted by jrobin276 at 11:48 PM on September 13, 2016

Another factor which may or may not be relevant depending on where you live: my ex drove a Jetta and not very many local garages worked on them. There were only maybe five sorta locally, and the most reliable and affordable one was 40 minutes away. (I unfortunately got to know it well from helping him drop off or pick up the car, but his was 15+ years old so I can't make judgment on whether it was particularly hard to maintain.)
posted by metasarah at 5:36 AM on September 14, 2016

2 more andecdata points:
A friend just ditched her VW for a Hyundai which she adores because it's fun to drive. The VW was eating her up with maintenance & the whole mileage scandal I think left a bad taste in her mouth.
Another friend with a Jetta says he wishes he had never sold his Toyota Avalon. Same issue -- maintenance.
posted by pointystick at 6:55 AM on September 14, 2016

I'm not sure this anecdata is going to give you any better information than the research you've already done. But I have a 2012 GTI with not many miles on it (25,000) and I've been happy with it. One fuel pump replaced under warranty but that's been it, though granted I don't drive much - I walk my commute.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:49 AM on September 14, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for the input, everyone. An update: You guys pretty much talked me out of a Volkswagen (what prize bull octorok said was particularly effective). I was initially able to talk the wife into a compromise of a Subaru Outback or Forester (fun to drive for me, reliable for her), and that's what we would have done...

But, we found a really amazing deal on a '14 Corolla at a dealership just down the street. It fit her criteria, I have good memories of an old Corolla I owned years ago, I've rented and liked the newer Corollas, and the price was too good to ignore. So now I own a Toyota! Pretty happy so far.

Thanks for the help, MeFi!
posted by kevinbelt at 1:16 PM on October 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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