I am a big car enthusiast who loves driving around in Volkswagens and Audis.
These are uncertain times for a lot of things. People are concerned about gas, the economy, and their fiscal security. Under these conditions, more and more people are buying used cars. That new car smell is a drearily distant luxury for some. It can all seem a little grim; budget car driving can feel like a ticket to plain-vanilla, ultra-plastic cheap motoring.
But fear not just because you have to shop thrifty for the road. Enter das Volks-Auto: Volkswagen.
When buying a car that isn’t factory-fresh, there are key issues to keep in mind. Value is one of them, but vehicle condition and common issues are others. To get the skinny on what you need to look for when hunting for your own slice of German engineering, I went to see Ivan Gutierrez of Axis Motoring in Orlando, Florida. Ivan has worked with Volkswagen and Audi automobiles for over a decade (so the man knows what stands the test of time, what to keep an eye on, and what to just plain avoid).
Volkswagen brought a touch more of the upscale to entry-level car buying. Their Mk IV Golf and Jetta platforms – released in 1999 – were a distinct effort to move the marquee a bit up-market. Line up the entry-level Mk IV Golf against the same year's basic Civic, Corolla, and Sentra, and the standard features speak for themselves. Among the superlatives, the Volkswagen was the only car with ABS brakes and front side airbags as standard. It currently also has the second-lowest "true market value" of the four—making a second-hand 1999 to 2005 Mk IV Volkswagen worth thinking about when looking for a set of “already-been-loved” wheels.
Mark IV Volkswagens were made in four different engine types:
- the 2.0L gasoline motor,
- the 1.8L turbo,
- the VR6,
- or the 1.9L TDI turbo-diesel.
Each has certain advantages and issues to keep in mind. Most commonly you will run into either a 2.0L inline four-cylinder or the 1.8L turbo mill.
The 20-valve 1.8L turbo engine was a VW/Audi workhorse for eight years, powering Volkswagens from the Golf to the Passat. It offered a combination of both fuel economy and torque-tastic performance from a compact package that won it a place on the annual Ward 10 Best Engines list.
What to Look For When Considering a Used 1.8 T
For relatively little money, you can make mincemeat of larger motors too, using aftermarket software for the engine’s computer. All that said, there are a few points of interest if your would-be Volkswagen has this engine under the hood.
Keep an Eye on the Temperature Gauge
Test-drive it on the highway of course, but try some stop-n’-go traffic if you can help it. This is a sure-fire way to test the cooling system on your potential 1.8T—which can fail on older or high mileage cars, according to Ivan.
“The coolant system can develop a leak in one of two places: the coolant flange on the block, or the bypass that feeds coolant to the turbo." Signs of this are the distinctly sweet smell of the coolant as it pours onto hot engine bits and burns (you can see this by removing the airbox).
If you see things getting hot, check the radiator fans as well. Older fans can go without any other warning sign than the engine getting hot. Also check the battery-top fusebox, the fuse farthest to the passenger side operates the fans.
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The OEM water pump has a plastic impeller that can fail over time. Without a pump churning coolant through the engine, things will get "toasty." it’s recommended you change the pump when you do the timing belt.
That timing belt change is another thing to keep an eye on—in fact, it’s probably the most crucial part of this motor’s maintenance.
The 1.8T Is an “Interference Motor”
This means that if the belt goes, the pistons will make contact with the valves of the engine, potentially bending all 20 of those high-tech valves. Ivan says: “If you aren’t sure when the belt was last replaced, do the water pump and belt service immediately; a $600 service could become a $2,500 engine rebuild." Those parts should be replaced every 60,000 miles.
Some 1.8Ts Develop Misfires
Misfires can be the result of two things: a leaky valve cover gasket or a bad ignition coil.
- If oil leaks from the head onto the spark plugs, it can foul them up and cause a misfire.
- If one of the four coil packs has gone bad, symptoms of this include a blinking check engine light when it misfires, accompanied by a popcorn-making sound from the exhaust (because it’s operating on three cylinders).
Volkswagen used two types of coil packs. The first were screw-on types (made by Hitachi). Then came a push-in type. The screw-on types are more resistant to developing misfires.
Check for Excessive Exhaust Smoke
Smoke exiting the exhaust, both at idle and under load, can mean different things.
- Blue-tinted smoke indicates burning oil, possibly from:
- Leaky valve seals (when first starting the car, or getting on the gas after coasting in gear)
- Turbo shaft seals (if under high load, like accelerating, or on extended idling if highly worn)
- Worn piston rings (nearly all the time)
- White smoke can indicate burning coolant internally. Check for the same coolant aroma from the exhaust.
- Thin, wispy smoke (especially on a cold day) can just be moisture evaporating in the pipes.
What to Look for in a Used 2.0 L
The 2.0L Motor is an interesting yin to the 1.8T’s yang. While the 1.8T was one of VW/Audi’s most high-tech motors, the 2.0L has been in production in one form or another for so long, that it was probably engineered by a stegosaurus. While the turbo motor has 20 valves, the 2.0L makes do with less than half of that—8. The 2.0L produces only 115 hp, 35 to 65 less than the 1.8T (depending on the year). There’s something to be said for being around the block that long though.
“The 2.0L motor is pretty bullet-proof,” says Ivan. “There isn’t much that goes wrong on it.” It’s even a non-interference motor. So if the timing belt goes, you’re stuck on the side of the road, but all you need is to just pop another in.
The only things to watch out for on the 2.0L motor are components it shares with the 1.8T engine:
- the radiator fans
- coolant flange
- water pump
These components are less strained on the 2.0L motor, though.
Keep an eye on the exhaust system also; the catalytic converter material can break up over time—a $500 replacement.
What to Look for in a Used VR6
The VR6 motor was marketed as the darling of the MK IV lineup. Ivan says, “It was sold as the top-of-the-line performance motor, but the 1.8T actually has much more potential."
The interesting thing about this motor is that it’s an incredibly narrow-angle V-configuration (just 15 degrees). Both banks of cylinders share a single-engine head. It’s technically an inline-six in that respect. Their engine notes are definitely the most audibly satisfying of the four.
They suck on a bit more gas than the four cylinders, but out-of-the-box, you will get the most power. It’s a smooth and linear delivery too.
Here’s what to look at if you find a Golf or Jetta with a VR6. Sorry Beetle fans, this is the only motor not offered in the Mk IV Beetle.
The VR6 uses a pair of water pumps instead of just one. This isn’t a fail-safe: they both have to operate and can fail on higher-mileage cars.
Water Pump-to-Thermostat-Housing Pipe
The pipe that connects the thermostat housing and water pump is plastic and located under the cumbersome intake manifold of the VR6. This means that it eventually wears out and is difficult to get to. But aluminum aftermarket replacements can buy you peace of mind.
The timing chain is the biggie. Because it is located at the rear of the engine, for spacing reasons, the transmission must be removed just to access it. Replacing the timing chain, however, does create a good opportunity to get a new clutch too.
The chain itself may not always be the reason to get in there—the tensioners for the chain may go first—but both should be replaced when the job is done.
What to Consider When Looking at a Used 1.9 TDI
The 1.9L TDI turbo-diesel is the MK IV that goes farthest on a tank of gas. “The TDI engine is very maintenance-free,” says Ivan.
It’s no powerhouse on the top end, but its low-speed torque pulls it quick at city speeds. Its tough-as-nails engineering, coupled with diesel fuel-sipping, make it an advantageous runabout package.
Be Cautious With Diesel Tuning
People interested in the TDI for diesel tuning should take note: Though diesels can be made to be fierce, and tuning software exists for the TDI motor, Ivan says the diesel transmissions aren't as tough as on the other MK IV versions. “The transmission that came with the 1.9 TDI wasn’t as strong as the gearboxes for the 1.8T or VR6. The gears are thinner, and the torque that a pumped-up TDI can make at low revs is capable of stripping the gears,” says Ivan.
Technically, you can mate the 1.8T transmission to these motors, but that’d be ill-advised because the ratios of the diesel were designed much longer for the very-low-revving TDI engine. “A 1.8T transmission will have you redlining the motor at normal highway speeds, ” Ivan says. “You really wouldn’t want it.”
Know Your Transmission
Mk IV Volkswagens come with three types of transmissions: two manual types and one automatic.
The manuals are split by their age—the older O2J five-speed and the newer O2M six-speed.
Most Mk IVs (including the GTI) have the two-shaft O2J, spreading the five gears over just two main-shafts.
The O2M can be found on the VR6 motors and special editions of the 1.8T GTI/Jetta GLI. The O2M spreads the gears over three shafts, making it a stouter design (only an issue for big-power-chasers—the five-speed hold can hold its own).
All manuals utilize a Dual Mass Flywheel. These have a two-piece design instead of the traditional solid types (see photo below). Designed to dampen forces between the transmission and engine (replacing the springs in a clutch plate), the internal springs on the flywheel eventually wear out, as indicated by a knocking sound when getting on/off the gas in higher gears. The only remedy is flywheel replacement.
Transmission fluid should be changed between 50,000 and 60,000 miles.
Be picky when shopping for automatics. “They're awful,” says Ivan. The Mk IV automatic transmission can be ready to bite the dust at around 100,000 miles. “They’ll start to slip, and then it only gets worse,” he added, “it’s better to just replace them; they’re very difficult to rebuild.”
More Things to Check in a Mk IV
Ivan said the suspensions are pretty stout from the factory. Main components like the struts/shocks last surprisingly long.
In fact, Ivan said that he hadn’t seen a blown set of struts at Axis Motoring, high mileage or not. Other bits, however, do need attention: the front strut top-mounts (often called the “donuts”) wear over time as well as the front lower control arm bushings. Neither should be a deal-breaker.
Exteriors and Interiors
There isn’t much that should go wrong (barring a factor like an accident). Ivan said the headlight plastics can haze from being in the sun. Polishing it off can fix it if you don’t want to replace them.
Inside, the door card inserts and headliner can begin sagging from aged glue. Fixing them means being comfortable with upholstering.
Wear-and-tear also depends on geography: where the car spent most of its time. A city-owned car that was parked indoors is the ideal find. “If you lived near the beach or lived down a dirt road, factors like the salted air or the dirt and rocks would play a role in wearing the plastic and rubber bits faster,” says Ivan.
Scrutiny with a keen eye (and knowing your facts) can mean a bargain buy with European taste.
Mk IV Golfs can start just below the $3,000 mark for a 2.0L base model and up to $14,000 for a fully-loaded GTI in impeccable condition.
The same goes for the Jetta, with the base GL starting at around $2,900 and VR6 or GLI turbo models over $13,000. Prices are roughly the same for the Beetle. The TDI diesels all hold their value well because of their fuel economy and included features.
Whatever your choice be, if you’re looking for a used car that can bring some driving pleasure to your sensible, money-conscious motoring, these Mk IV Volkswagens can provide next-tier amenities, performance, and value for the prices of the plain-Jane alternatives.
Save money, and enjoy what you drive. Viva das Auto.
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.
© 2013 ManuelCintron