We recently said goodbye to our 2010 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen after around 2.5 years of ownership and about 35k miles. I thought I’d record my thoughts on our first (substantial) German car ownership experience and give it a small send-off article. If you’re thinking about purchasing a Jetta Sportwagen or just want to read my ramblings, carry on!
If there’s anything you can learn from me, it’s how not to buy a vehicle. I tend to do things just about as poorly as possible; from not having a pre-purchase inspection done, to buying cars that have obvious signs of issues, I’m probably the least qualified person to tell you how to look for a car.
In this case, we were in a bit of a time crunch. Our beloved 2004 Mazda 3 had started making some noise, what I think was timing chain noise, and we needed something reliable to get both of us to and from work. We also had started to run out of space for Ali’s expanding business. If you’ve read my previous ramblings, you know I’m a practical man when it comes to vehicles. I generally hew towards hatchbacks, wagons, and vans because they will do nearly anything you need to do in a very efficient manner. I’ve got a whole diatribe on this, but I won’t stuff that in this article. My point being, a wagon was the obvious choice.
I got started by looking at what modern (defined for me at the time as 2008 or newer) wagons had even been offered in the US. In general, the US is not a lucrative market for wagons, so we often miss out on some of the cooler/weirder options. Luckily VW had decided that their Mexico built, MK6 Golf based Jetta Sportwagen would sell in large enough numbers to make sense for them to offer here. They offered this with their ubiquitous TDI engine as well as a 2.5 liter inline 5, you could also have a 5 speed manual or the 09G auto transmission, though you could opt for the DSG transmission as well. There are some well known weak points with the 2.5 inline 5 (Charles over at Humble Mechanic has a ton of VW info) but I wanted the inline 5 over the TDI because it’s quirky and it doesn’t have a timing belt you have to maintain. It also sounds kind of bad ass with an exhaust, though I knew that was a long shot for me to want to actually do. The 09G is also a robust transmission that I couldn’t seem to find common issues with, unlike the DSG which is a bit more maintenance heavy.
The Jetta wasn’t the only car I looked at. I had several other cars in mind; namely the Audi A4 wagon, BMW 330i wagon (offered with a 6 speed manual!), and of course no self-respecting car person would skip looking at the Saab 9-3 or 9-5 estates with a manual transmission. What it came down to for us was that the VW was more aligned with our budget, easier to find in a configuration we wanted, easier to find close by, and the Jetta seemed to have fewer issues and lower running cost than the other options (I now know better). Luckily, we found two within acceptable driving distance that met our criteria and price range. We test drove both and then brought Lulu home after forking over $7200 for a VW with 103k miles.
We got a rock chip in our windshield on the drive home. I should have taken that as a warning sign.
Let me start by saying I bought the car from a place in West Allis / Milwaukee called Diamond Jims. That should tell you most of what you need to know. To their credit, they had done some work on the car to get it sale ready. However, like a lot of these smaller kinda crappy dealers, they had done it pretty poorly. The first issue I discovered is that the car leaked oil, seemingly from between the engine block and the oil filter housing. This seems to be semi-common on higher mileage VW 2.5 engines and I believe this is because VW used a plastic filter housing (cheaper than aluminum and similar weight) bolted to an aluminum block. Plastic just doesn’t hold up over years of heat cycling.
The next issue I found was that the drivers side rear brake caliper had straight up not been bolted back down correctly, leading to the mysterious clunk I was investigating. That could have been a pretty big issue, like maybe get you killed kind of issue, so it’s safe to say I wouldn’t recommend this specific dealership (but again, I don’t like dealerships, so I’m already biased). I bolted the brake caliper on correctly, decided to keep an eye on the oil leak, and went about gathering some parts to make the car more fun to drive and take care of some basic maintenance.
As I do nearly all my own work, I had to equip myself to work on a German car. This means a nice set of triple square bits and a few other odds and ends that cars from other countries just don’t use. Keep in mind that there also isn’t a lot of room to work in most modern engine bays, let alone one with an extra cylinder crammed in there. Do yourself a favor and pick up some low clearance tools if you plan to work on something like this!
The first few things I did were for preventative maintenance; change the transmission oil and filter, change the engine oil and filter, and replace the engine air filter. Things went well for a bit until a few months after we bought the car when the radiator separated (again, plastic end caps on an aluminum tank) and made sure the car was undrivable while about 2 hours away from home on a cruise. That one in particular soured me on the car, which was a bummer as we were still early in our ownership and I never properly trusted the car after that. In this instance the solution was at least clear, so I replaced the radiator which is about a 6 hour job as you have to remove the entire front clip. If I had been smart, I would have replaced the oil filter housing at the same time as it’s right against the radiator. I did not do that.
The very first winter with Lulu turned up some more fun issues. We somehow broke a front spring, which I’ve never seen happen. On the upside, that did allow me to replace all the suspension with some more fun parts like H&R Springs and Bilstein B6 shocks/struts. As a fun aside, I actually found that the rear spring on the opposite corner had been broken as well, for who knows how long. I didn’t suspect anything until the front spring broke and necessitated all this work. Somehow, as I finished wrapping up the suspension work, I managed to destroy the drivers side half shaft. This created a pretty aggressive side-to-side shimmy at low speeds that was a little scary until I figured out how cheap/simple of a fix it was.
Now the thing about simple fixes is that they rarely actually are simple. In this case the simple fix kicked off a rebuild of the front suspension as I couldn’t get the rusted ball joints out. So I cut them out and replaced them on both sides, as well as outer tie rods on both sides and the sway bar end links as one of them snapped rather than unbolting.
I had noticed a slight belt squeal, so I figured it would be simple enough to replace the belts while I had the wheels off and had access. That opened a whole other can of worms, because whomever had previously replaced the belts had managed to strip the tensioner bolts on both tensioners. With those stripped, I wasn’t able to move the tensioners enough to slip the belts on. That added about 2 days of downtime and another $150 or so of parts as I needed to replace both belt tensioners and I replaced the two idler pulleys as well. In classic me fashion this was done in our frozen driveway,. This is because my garage only holds hopelessly broken cars 🙂
In keeping with the odd VW issues, I had to replace my accessory belts twice (not the cheapo ones either) in the space of 35k miles. One of the downsides of having 5 cylinders crammed into this very-much-engineered-for-a-4-cylinder space is that it makes it a pain to work in the engine bay on the belt side.
Some of these issues were simply due to ignoring preventative maintenance, or being just bad at performing said maintenance. Others were due to engineering to a price point (all the failing plastic!) or just… an intangible VW-ness. Those later oddities include passenger mirror glass that seems to fall out semi-regularly on these, sunroof drains that fail religiously, thin plastic air pump lines that crumble/crack at higher mileage, and a handful of others that are more well-known but that I somehow dodged (like the brake pump or the PCV issues).
One of my main complaints about our ownership of this car is that the issues never really stopped. We just had little things go wrong for our entire ownership of the car. Sometimes it was stupid small rust belt stuff like an exhaust clamp between the cat and silencer turning into dust. Other times it was stuff like the floppy rear wiper and janky turn indicator. When we sold it, the stalk would only indicate left, you had to hold the stalk up to indicate right and even then it would sometimes glitch and start indicating left.
The paint on these is thin as hell which is generally to be expected on an economy car, and the wind noise is much more prevalent than you’d expect for something that’s pretty modern. Perhaps the most salient example of these “VW issues” is revealed by the carfax. A previous owner had taken the car into the dealership 6 or 7 separate times to troubleshoot electrical issues with the head unit. That seems to have stopped after the entire head unit was simply swapped out with a Pioneer unit, presumably because they couldn’t figure out the issue. That pretty much set the tone for our experience.
The Driving Experience
To Volkswagens credit, this is a solid little car and it really is quite fun to drive for what it is. Part of what drew me to these is that they have a really decent interior volume with the rear seats down (69 cuft, nice) but are still squarely in small car territory. Being on the MK6 Golf platform also means there are tons of aftermarket parts if you want to make the car more fun to drive.
For my part, I went straight for sticky summer tires and the aforementioned suspension work as well as a WhiteLine “dogbone” mount insert. Those few relatively inexpensive mods (less than $700 if you aren’t replacing the shocks/struts as well) made it much more fun to fling into corners and eliminated a lot of the factory suspension wash. It was never something I chucked around like our Mazda3 but it was a huge improvement from the stock setup.
There isn’t a lot of power on tap (170hp, 177tq) but what is there is very linear and feels reminiscent of an inline 6 in that it just keeps pulling to redline. The inline 5 also delivers on sound once you’re over about 4k rpm and once it develops a small exhaust leak. The aforementioned wind noise is partially due to having an optional panoramic roof, which we liked but hardly used and in the end it caused more issues than anything. The stereo setup is decent for a car in this price range. I truly think the wind noise held things up on this front as at rest, the sound quality is actually quite good. The Pioneer unit undoubtedly stepped things up over the stock unit, so it’s entirely possible that a Jetta with a stock unit will have lower quality audio.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay the Jetta Sportwagen is that it’s just plain competent. It did everything we asked of it, the interior layout is uncluttered and eminently usable, and the seats are comfortable for longer drives and heated if you have the winter package. You also got some nicer features like electric adjustable seats on both the driver and passenger side, something our 2011 Sienna doesn’t have. The Jetta hauled everything from Ali’s art supplies, to a 500+ pound bundle of black locust hardwood (I used an OBD2 scanner to keep an eye on the transmission temps), and the Jetta Sportwagen even swallowed our new refrigerator, though we did have to bungee strap the rear door closed. It handled it all like a champ and always returned decent fuel economy, from 26mpg to 32mpg with our average being right around 28mpg. If there were any qualities I could carry-over from Lulu to our new-to-us Sienna, it would be the heated seats and the fuel economy.
I won’t lie, I was happy to part with Lulu earlier this year. There’s always a bit of excitement moving to a new vehicle and I’m a massive nerd so I love experiencing all the differences in driving dynamics between different platforms, but this was the first time I’ve experienced relief in selling a vehicle.
Would I recommend one? I’m not sure, I think there are probably better wagon platforms out there for normal people who just need some extra space. As someone who does (almost) all their own work, I can’t imagine paying someone to resolve all the issues I encountered on our Jetta Sportwagen. Parts prices are cheap enough, but I don’t think the BMW 330i is much more expensive to maintain and you’d almost certainly have more fun with a RWD platform and the extra grunt from the well-known inline 6.
There was a time you could snap up the TDI versions of these super cheap (due to that whole Dieselgate thing) but those days are gone. At current prices I simply can’t recommend a first gen Jetta Sportwagen, which is a shame as it’s so competent. I don’t know enough about the MK7 gen (they dropped the Jetta badge and just called it what it is, a Golf Sportwagen) to be able to say either way. Unfortunately they dropped the 2.5 inline 5 for the MK7, but I’ve heard good things about the 1.8 TSI. I can only guess that the quintessential VW issues likely persist.
We sold Lulu for $5000. No doubt I could have easily got $6500 in this market, but I was selling at a lower price simply to get the car gone as quickly as possible. Don’t worry, I was very thorough in my ad and disclosed all the issues I knew about as well as all the work I had completed.
The new owner told me they just needed something to last at least a year and I have no doubt that Lulu will do that handily. Just remember to feed her consumables, and don’t forget to hold the turn stalk up if you’re taking a right.