Tuesday, August 2, 2011

the Jetta that nearly killed me

As per my last blog entry, I now had the ever-reliable Subaru, the Vanagon, and now the 220D project. Even though the Mercedes wasn't driveable, it was mine. So, naturally, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

I spent whatever weekend time I could working on the 220D, knew the Vanagon was staying pretty reliable, overall, and the Subaru was going to run forever... or so I thought.

One morning, in October, 2010, I started the Subaru. I thought a heard a noise, momentarily, like a slight grinding or scraping. It was subtle, but went away immediately. I didn't have any time to fuss with it, so I left for work, as I always do. I got on the Masspike, put it in fifth gear, and started cruising.

About ten miles down the highway, just before the exit for route 495, the engine suddenly hiccuped, and lost power momentarily. Once again, I didn't worry too much about it. Then, a few seconds later, the engine shut off completely. I was in the right lane (thankfully) and coasting at 65 miles per hour. I flipped on my hazard lights and coasted to a stop in the breakdown lane.

I checked the first, most obvious thing - the fuel gauge was still rearing 3/4 full. So, I wasn't out of gas. I tried to start the car again, to see if the shutdown was a fluke. The starter cranked OK, and sounded more-or-less normal, but the engine just wouldn't catch and turn over. I figured I most likely had a dead fuel pump, and called AAA.

To their credit, they had a truck out to me shortly, and since the dispatching tow company was near where I lived, they agreed to tow me home. I was already late for work, so I parked the dead Subaru and hopped in the Vanagon. That evening, I began diagnostics to see if I could figure out why the car wouldn't start. I even went so far as to pull the OBD I blink codes and try and make sense of them.

After a few weeks of trying, with no results, and winter fast approaching, I realized that I needed to replace the Subaru. I didn't want to do it, but I needed something that would handle winter travel. A 180 degree spin off a road lightly-covered in snow a few years earlier convinced me to never drive the van in the winter again. As always, I took to Craigslist to try and find some new wheels. Of course, this time, nothing suitable was showing up in my price range aside from a mechanically-solid Subaru with a DANGEROUSLY rotted body.

I expanded my search to the Samba. If I couldn't find a Subaru, I would have happily settled for a car like my old Golf. Immediately, I saw something even more interesting - a 1990 diesel Jetta. According to the ad, the car had some problems - mostly cosmetic - that I thought I could handle. After a few emails and phone calls I was off to Connecticut to see the car.

It seemed a little rougher in person than I thought it might be (mostly interior stuff), and the paperwork was questionable, but I decided to take it for a test drive. I thought about it, made an offer, and soon, I was driving home in my super high MPG Jetta GL diesel:

For the most part, I thought the Jetta just needed a little bit of exterior cleanup and new carpeting. Yeah... not quite.

Shortly after I bought the Jetta, I did get the Subaru running again (perfectly, I might add). So, I had too many cars. I opted to keep the Jetta, which had 100,000 fewer miles on it than the Legacy. I sold the Legacy just as winter was beginning.

(final parting shot of the Legacy)

Before I go any further, I just want to preface the rest of this by stating for the record that I don't think the guy who sold me the car had any idea at all how badly it would shake itself to pieces in the coming months. The guy who sold it to me had owned the car for a year or so but hadn't registered it, though he'd done some work on it. Nevertheless, he hadn't actually driven it any real distance.

The second day I had the car home I changed the oil, not knowing how old it was. When I was done, I took the car for a quick test drive, to find out that the alternator belt was squealing like a bastard. The next morning, on the way into work, the belt broke one me a block away from the house. I ended up replacing that belt four or five times in the four months I owned this car, even going so far as modify the belt drive to try extend belt life. No go.

If that were it, I could have lived with it. But, in the four months I owned the car, I had to replace the following (in no particular order):

  • screaming speedometer cable
  • CV axles
  • shocks (all four corners)
  • carpet (car came without it)
  • radio
  • thermostat
  • engine air intake tube
  • numerous alternator belts
  • more that I can't remember
  • battery
(new alternator tensioner pulley)

(alternator belt drive modification - new roller bearings to compensate for belt deflection and to ease belt tension)

(shiny new CV axle)

(new CV axle installed)

(rebuilding one of the front struts)

(rebuilt strut installed)

Keep in mind that I had to do all these repairs outdoors, in Massachusetts, in the dead of winter, in sometimes single-digit temperatures in the dark.

(how the Jetta spent a big portion of the winter)

The final straw for me was when the front left wheel bearing toasted itself. It still rolled, but the wheel had a half inch of play when off the ground. I got fed up and didn't want to fix that also. I ordered the part, but sold the car (and then sent the new wheel bearing to the new owner). I had the car up on Craigslist a short while, and came down in price very quickly. As I told the buyer - "I just wanted the Jetta out of my life." I'm usually never that blunt and never negotiate so freely, but I wanted the Jetta gone.

For the record, I told the buyer everything I knew about the Jetta, from what the person I bought it from told me, to every repair I did on the Jetta, to everything I knew that was wrong with it. Whenever I sell a car, I give full disclosure. It usually helps me sell a car quicker and at a higher price, I think, than sugar-coating it.

Even though it got 50 miles to the gallon, I'd spent all the fuel savings on new parts, and had to do all the repairs myself, to boot. I hope the Jetta behaves itself better for the new owner. This is the first time I sold a car without having a replacement already lined up. As such, within minutes of it leaving the driveway, I was on Craigslist. Inside of 36 hours, I was driving my new car. See the (coming soon) following blog post for more on my current daily driver - another Subaru.

Here's some videos I took of the Jetta while I had it:
(alternator belt drive modification)

(CV axle replacement - video 1 of 2)

(CV axle replacement - video 2 of 2)


  1. you definitely made a good choice by getting another Subaru, especially with all the snow you get up there!

  2. Agreed. I just wish I'd figured out the problem with the old Subaru before I bought the Jetta.

  3. We all make mistakes. At least now you have a newer Subaru with fewer miles on it!

    1. Well, given how much I drive, the "fewer miles" part of that won't last too long. But, yeah. Overall, it's a better car for me.