Who would have thought that a car would turn out to be the best bargain of my life? I did! Before I purchased a Volkswagen Golf TDI (diesel), I spent hundreds of hours researching. I am a research-a-holic so it didn't bother me to spend the necessary time narrowing down my choices and doing multiple test drives. I keep an eye on major items like cars, appliances and even real estate—I like to know what is going on, even if I'm not in the market to buy something yet. I can live, somewhat vicariously, on someone else's purchase of a wonderful new stove or shiny fridge. When the time comes that one of my major ticket items is wearing out, I have a good idea of what is available via the used market.
Although both common sense and most financial gurus will tell you to purchase a car used, I decided, after thoughtful analysis, to buy this one new for about $18,000. You will need to analyze your personal situation, but this car has paid for itself over and over again. With proper maintenance, I plan on it being around for many years to come. We all have our prejudices, and I have a prejudice against being broken down on the side of the road. First and foremost, I demand a certain reliability out of my vehicle. Next, it must appeal to the efficient and basically cheap side of me. And it must be F U N to drive. I actually sat down and made a spreadsheet of my vehicle options—both new and used cars.
I started by narrowing my choices. There are literally hundreds of cars available. I knew I wanted a smaller car. I prefer 4 doors and I like to haul stuff. I originally wanted a station wagon but found at the time, that there were few choices in reliable, inexpensive wagons on the market. I considered used vehicles such as the Volvo 240 wagon, Toyota Camry wagon, Mitsubishi Expo and so on. The new models I considered included Mitsubishi Mirage, Toyota Corolla and Camry, Honda Accord and Civic. Sort of as an afterthought I decided to look at Volkswagen Jetta and Golf. Although I love the Beetle, it was too impractical for my current needs.
There are websites (Edmunds, Kelly Blue Book, etc.) that will give you a "cost of ownership" but I created my own spreadsheet to figure it out with my specific information to be sure I was making an informed decision. I drive roughly 15-20,000 miles a year. I want comfort and I want reliable. I was willing to consider models that were not mainstream because I like to be different anyway. The VW Golf TDI uses diesel fuel and gets a consistent 46-48 mpg in mixed driving. I do a lot of driving in hilly areas and it has plenty of pep to get me around the slow folks, even going uphill in 5th gear. Best of all it is both comfortable and fun to drive.
When I was analyzing data, I considered the average life expectancy of the vehicles on my short list, using 250,000 miles as my benchmark, repair ratings and fuel economy. For instance, an older, used car would have been far less expensive initially. I could have paid $5000 for a high-quality car with 150,000 miles. I calculated that a vehicle that averages 22 mpg, driving 20,000 miles a year, with an average fuel cost of $3.44 per gallon will cost $3127 in fuel alone! If you buy an older model used car for $5000, perform routine maintenance, go through one set of tires and have no repairs the average cost is about $4200 per year.
The main reason I purchased the VW Golf TDI is that with the diesel engine, life expectancy is 50-80% longer. A well-maintained diesel engine can easily go 400-500,000 miles. Assuming all other factors are the same (cost, repairs, etc), this car has already saved around $13,300 over 9 years or an average of $1488 per year in fuel costs alone (20,000 miles / 42 mpg = 476.2 * $3.44/gal = $1638/year). I have maintained it religiously and it has not given me one minute of problems. I'm averaging a cost of $3600 a year with all maintenance, tires, repairs, fuel and the initial cost of the car (including interest). As more years go by, the initial cost is amortized and the average drops even lower—by the end of the life expectancy of this vehicle, I will average around $2700 per year. Over 20 years that is a savings of $30,000!
I have mentioned the importance of routine maintenance. Nothing will extend the life of your major purchases more than taking good care of them! This includes your car, your home and a vast array of appliances and electronic devices. For instance, when your brakes start squeaking, change the pads. If you wait, it will become a major job including pads, rotors and much more labor. Have a weekly, monthly and yearly checklist for your car, home and any major appliances. Companies who have fleets of vehicles do routine inspections of the systems that go wrong to ensure vehicles are repaired before minor issues cause further damage. Google your vehicle and see if there is a common problem that you can prevent.
Although I absolutely adore driving this car, I am not advocating that it is for everyone. What I am advocating is a thorough analysis of your situation, not just as it relates to cars, but all of your major purchases. Many folks waste thousands of dollars on transportation during their lifetime. Think not just what the initial cost is, but what is the long term cost? How long will you be able to stand keeping the same car before the lure of "bright, shiny, new" calls? Will you be able to resist feeling bad when others get a new car and you are driving a well maintained 15-20-year-old efficiency expert?
Note: My fuel price number is relatively arbitrary. You can use any $$ amount, just keep it consistent throughout your figures for each vehicle.
2020 update: This VW Golf Tdi is still an almost daily driver and has had no major work done (aside from suspension - it lives on a dirt road). My son still owns the car, and still drives it when it is not icy or snowing (his Golf R32 is used on those days!). I missed it so much that I recently purchased a 2005 Golf Tdi, which will be my summer daily driver (my Golf R is my winter driver). VW love runs in the family!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why didn't you, the writer of this article, take into consideration the price of diesel for the longterm cost of a Volkswagen Golf?
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Answer: I did take this into consideration, it is part of the calculation.
Question: Why do I love my Jetta TDI as much as you love your Golf TDI? Could it be for the same reasons? Were you also able to see through the nonsense of "Dieselgate?
Answer: Yes, I was. Nearly every manufacturer has been proven to be doing the same thing, VW was the first and bore the brunt of the scandal.
Question: What are the total miles on your Volkswagen Golf?
Answer: The 2003 Golf TDI is driven daily by my son these days. Total miles around 260,000. Still no major problems. The main things that have been replaced are suspension parts (he lives on a dirt road!)
Question: I enjoyed your article and appreciate your thorough research. My problem is that I can no longer get a new VW in the US. I would like the same car you have for all the same reasons, but they stopped selling them here. What do you suggest I do to obtain a Volkswagen Golf TDI?
Answer: I would purchase a used VW TDI. In fact, I am looking for a Beetle :)
Question: I have a 2003 Manual transmission VW Jetta TDI and it has 330,000 miles on it. I love it. I love diesel for the economy. What do you think about the new hybrids and electric cars hitting the market?
Answer: I love diesel technology. I do not think electric cars and hybrids are any better for the environment. They are far less powerful, and they do not have the mileage range that a diesel VW has. For these reasons, I will stick with VW!
Question: 2013 Golf TDI Wolfsburg owner here and I think the quality of the build is superb. Do you agree?
Answer: I agree that the build quality of VW is superb. Each one I have driven is a solid car (2003 Golf TDI, 2005 Golf TDI, 2013 Beetle TDI, 2014 Beetle TDI, 2017 Golf R). The doors are good and heavy when you close them! I have not had a single body part issue in the 18 years I have owned "modern" VWs. In both my TDI Beetles, first a 2013 and now a 2014, I definitely love the added power vs the 2003 and 2005 Golf TDIs. I "only" average about 42 mpg in the Beetle, so it is a bit lower than my 2003 & 2005 Golf TDI - both Golfs average 43-45 mpg.
My son explains VW love with the saying "Smiles per Mile" :)
Question: What size is your TDI engine i.e., 2.0 1.6?
Answer: The 2003 TDI Golf has a 1.9 liter turbodiesel injected engine.