Some car ideas work better in certain places than others. Some, such as the BMW 5-Series GT, don’t really seem to work at all – at least not in America that’s for sure.
The Volkswagen Jetta (or Bora/Vento/Golf with a boot) is one of those propositions that has never really taken the UK by storm. Consequentially, they present themselves as something of a bargain on the second-hand car market, which was how I came to find myself behind the wheel of one in March 2010. This one in particular:
At the time I was between jobs and, had just sold my wretched Audi S3, as its financial burden had finally proven to be enough. However, the prospect of being sans automobile was a thought too unholy to contemplate. I had to find a new vehicle and fast. But any replacement car would have to be affordable to run, reliable and blessed with at least some modicum of performance and entertainment.
As a VAG fan, my natural instinct was to think of a Golf. Specifically, a Mk5 GT TDI. It was quick enough, achieved good fuel economy from its 2.0 TDI engine and should be relatively solid. But, alas, the GT TDI was expensive. Volkswagen’s chosen son was the one everybody wanted, which meant used values remained high. That GT TDI moniker also meant insurance prices had a suitably enhanced value too. So I used my automotive knowledge and thought laterally; when is a Golf not a Golf? When it’s badged as something else and has a humongous rear end.
When I first went to view NJ56 XKS (a great number plate for a Jaguar) the trader described it to me as “having a boot you could easily get two dead bodies in.” He also had a Caterham Seven Superlight in his own garage, so I decided he was probably (for once) a genuine person to buy a car from, and ignored the fear of my car once carrying corpses in a previous life. The Jetta’s history was slightly more mundane, as you would expect, having been a former company-car for the Benfield motoring group. As a result it had been serviced religiously by a VW dealership, meaning mechanically it was sound, but the black paintwork betrayed a working life. Either way, it was a deal too good to miss, and I found myself behind the wheel of a diesel saloon at the age of only 25.
In the eighteen months I owned it, the Jetta proved to be a tireless workhouse, schlepping up and down the A1(M) with ease. It’s cavernous boot was never filled, and I often felt like I was a photocopiers salesperson on the way to a very important business meeting whilst in it. On the road it was entertaining to drive, the 140 bhp and 236 lb.ft of torque gave effortless shove and the GT TDI suspension meant it attacked corners with verve belying it’s size. Parking was a pain in the backside, literally, given its hefty rump as was constantly having to explain to people what it was.
But more fool them; in the UK the Jetta remains the thinking man’s Golf. ESM’s good friend The Tame Geek drives one very similar to the one I owned, and every time I see one I have a wry smile, liking to think the owner made a clever choice to avoid going with the herd.
I do miss my Jetta, as does ESM’s OH; mainly because she found it comfortable enough to fall asleep in whilst I drove. In the end it was traded for that of which we do not speak, which was probably the worst car-buying choice I’ve made! Oh well, can’t win them all, just ask BMW.
Continuing with the theme of ESM’s BTCC correspondent, here is a (fairly) recent photo of our two cars chilling out together:
A few similarities; both black, both VW-group, both petrol-turbo and both with motorsport pedigree. Our correspondent’s is the rather rare Seat Leon TFSI, which existed for only a short period of time in the first year of this model’s life, before the introduction of the FR trim level. With 185bhp from the 2.0 turbo motor it’s no slouch, just don’t talk to him about fuel economy! Or the drawbacks of black paintwork.
After several posts about car buying predicaments, here’s somebody with another automotive dilemma. Namely my Father, and the choice of not one, but two, Subaru Impreza WRX STis to drive.
The WR Blue Impreza on the right was my Dad’s actual company car for a number of years. The black one appeared after he won a competition, with the prize being the use of an Impreza STi for a few days. This resulted in the quite surreal situation of our house having both banzai boxer-powered saloons on the drive for a while. Tonight’s featured picture came about after we realised that we had to get some photos to document the silliness of running two Imprezas at the same time. So we took the pair to their natural home; the North Yorkshire Moors, early on a Sunday morning back in August 2003. Given my age at the time – my late teens - this was a very cool situation!
In fact, my Dad running an Impreza STi was rather cool in itself. He picked all the options himself; an insanely loud Prodrive exhaust, those huge STi mudflaps (£100 a corner), and a hilariously tacky double-DIN stereo headunit. He did, annoyingly, draw the line at ticking the box for a carbon-fibre strut brace. The piece-de-resistance was perhaps the standard-fit shift-light, which would illuminate and sound a warning at a set RPM, for a true motorsport moment. Having a water tank in the boot for the intercooler spray was another little detail, which still makes me smile to this day.
The sound of the burbling flat-four pulling onto the drive still lives with me. The house would reverberate ever so slightly, idling whilst the turbocharger was allowed to cool down. Longer journeys in the Impreza were less fun however; ear plugs became mandatory for any kind of motorway cruising. Such noise was probably the reason for my Father developing tinnitus!
But it’s easy to forgive such things, when I remember the sheer brutality of its acceleration and handling. realistically, very little could live with the STi on normal roads, such was the width of its abilities. I don’t think I have ever really experienced a car with so ferocious performance that could be used on a daily basis. It may have been ugly, to some, but the Impreza WRX STi Type UK “Prodrive Style” is a car that will remain engrained in my automotive memory for a very long time.
Continuing the Japanese theme for this week, here is another photo fresh from the archives. If by fresh you mean taken about two days ago:
This Nissan 350Z belongs to ESM’s Mate Dave who, whilst finding himself bored with a week off work, traded in his diesel Seat Leon FR for the tree-fiddy-zed.
Going from a frugal derv-powered hatchback, to a coupe powered by a naturally aspirated V6, has hit Dave hardest in his wallet. 287bhp doesn’t come without a corresponding thirst for unleaded! Although it has to be said, the 3.5 litre motor is a great sounding way to shred your hard earned cash.
This was the first time I’d been in a Zed, but it’s safe to say it felt easily as quick as the claimed 0-60mph time of 5.8 seconds. I was also impressed by the ride; despite wearing the GT pack Rays alloy wheels, it didn’t particularly thump or judder over Newcastle’s shoddy roads.
The interior has aged well since the 350Z’s introduction in 2003. However, the period BOSE stereo proved amusing by making me question the last time I saw a car with a cassette player:
We did discover that it’s also the perfect place to store an iPhone 4, should you so wish.
Overall, the 350Z is more modern muscle car than out and out sports car. But this isn’t to the big Zed’s discredit; it’s a wholesome, honest coupe with sonorous engine under the bonnet. And a tape deck.
After a rather lengthy summer hiatus, ESM is back once again. To kick things off after the holidays, I figured another Friday Photo From the Archives might be in order. In fact, this is one taken four years ago this week:
This is my Audi S3, also known as the “worst car I’ve ever owned” and “that bastard Audi”. It was the 225bhp BAM model, fully kitted up with electric, heated, leather Recaro seats, CD-multichanger, climate control and expensive aluminium wing mirrors. It also had an unbelievably high specification of unreliability.
I had never really set out to buy this particular S3. At the time I was only 23 and was more interested in just test driving one rather than actually purchasing. However, the salesman at a local used car dealership was such a patronising, belittling arsehole when I enquired about the S3 that I set out to prove him wrong. He didn’t believe I could afford to buy “his” car, and that he would only let me test drive it if my Father was there. Perhaps this was an incredibly elaborate sales technique, but it worked. Money was transferred, the car became mine.
On the day of picking it up I was understandably excited. Here was a proper car, not the small hatchbacks I’d been used to. The Polo GTi was traded in, and I drove off in the S3. My happiness lasted all of about an hour. Accelerating away from a roundabout the S3 stuttered, a warning light appeared on the dash, and the car instantly felt slower. Not being far from home, I trundled back and used the Microsoft repair method; turned it off, then back on again. The fault light had gone. Phew.
My relief was only short-lived. Monday morning’s commute to work again brought the warning lights, misfires and low power back into play. Luckily, a colleague had access to the VAGcom diagnostic software which we plugged the S3 into. Some diagnostic runs up the A19 suggested something was clearly amiss with the Audi; with an overboosting turbo knocking the engine into limp-mode when the pressure became too much. Phonecalls were made to the dealership and, with the car being under warranty, they were happy to take it back and get it sorted. They even provided me with a courtesy car; a gold Peugeot 307 with a knackered exhaust.
Time passed. July became August, and August became September. In total it took six weeks, two garages and an Audi UK technical specialist to finally resolve the S3. Numerous parts were changed or swapped. I even received a second courtesy car because the first one’s tax expired. The replacement Vauxhall Astra 1.4 automatic is possibly the worst car I’ve ever driven.
The repairs to the S3 cost me nothing, but cost the dealership around £1,750, wiping out any profit they had made on the car. In hindsight, I should have rejected the car after the first week of it being off the road and got my money back. But my age, and determination to own that car, overruled my head on this occasion. Frankly, I wish I hadn’t bothered. Even when fixed the S3 proved to be an unreliable pain. In addition to the replacement parts fitted under warranty, in my tenure with the car it also had:
- Both front suspension springs replaced after a random failure whilst driving,
- All four coil-packs replaced, a week after the new suspension springs had been fitted,
- A single piece of interior trim replaced for £80,
- A replacement armrest mechanism after the original failed,
- The exhaust manifold welded back together after it started blowing gases into the engine bay.
To put this into perspective, the above all took place between September 2008 and March 2010! The car was hardly a paragon of vorsprung durch technik, and left me with the constant feeling that something else would break whenever I drove it. To top it off, the actual driving experience itself was hardly incendiary. With such weighty trim level and quattro drivetrain, the S3 constantly felt slower than it should be. The 1.8T engine always felt laboured and soulless, with the six-speed gearbox not adding much to the party either. The 4WD system wast not even a true “quattro” setup, using the Haldex controlled system instead.
Power would only be diverted to the back wheels once the fronts began to lose grip. Combined with the overenthusiastic ESP system, the result was a rear differential which did very little the vast majority of the time. Once the front wheels began to slip, the ESP would generally cut in, killing power and leaving nothing to be transferred to the back. This would prove particularly frustrating in snow, when the ESP and Haldex sensors would get into a fight, leaving the S3 to swing between grinding understeer or lairy oversteer in the same corner.
Add to this the fact the Recaro seats gave the constant impression of sitting on top of them rather than in them (the electrical gubbins also made it impossible to get them to sit low enough in the car), the lifeless steering and the horrendous thirst for super unleaded never failed to uninspire me.
All in, the S3 ranks as the worst car I’ve owned for the simple fact the driving experience failed to make up for the unreliability and dynamic shortcomings. To finish off the Friday theme, some research into the chassis number turned up some interesting reading. My S3 was actually built on a Friday afternoon. This probably explained its half-baked build quality!
Eventually the constant expenditure on new parts and repairs became too much. The S3 went up for sale and set off for pastures new in Aberdeen. Within a week, the pesky hot-hatch had already broken down. At least it was draining somebody else’s bank account for a change.
This week I’ve been having a bit of a Twitter chat with Richard from PoloDriver. In particular, about the 6N2 Polo GTi; one of which I used to own and like Richard does now own.
Along with developing the urge to go and buy one again, it also lead to me looking through the pictures I have of my beloved GTi. In particular, I came across this one:
Obviously, mine is the red one. It’s parked next to ESM’s Mate Dave’s TVR Cerbera Speed Six.This particular Cerbera proved, true to form, to have all the characteristic TVR reliability. It ended up on a recovery truck after the predictable cam-follower/valvegear disintegration episode.
The GTi proved a lot more reliable in the several years I owned it, and went through various subtle modifications to pretty much the spec pictured above: 16″ BBS RXII wheels, Eibach Sportline suspension (lowering by about 35-40mm) and a 280mm front-brake setup from a Golf G60. There was also OMP strutbrace and BMC carbon-fibre air intake under the bonnet.
Was it quick? 125 bhp meant 0-60mph in around 8.5 seconds and a top speed in the region of 130mph. So quick-ish, but not mega-hatch fast. Fuel economy averaged 35mpg+ no matter how I drove it, and the only thing which went wrong was the brake light switch and a blocked crankcase breather pipe. This is considerable given that it was used as Volkswagen intended, including a week spent hammering around the Isle of Man TT course.
In a move of what was, with hindsight, errant stupidity I traded it in for an 8L Audi S3 which would prove to be the worst car I would ever own. I am sorely tempted to buy another GTi, but live in fear that it will never be as good as “my” Flash Red example. In addition, even the youngest examples are now at least 10 years old, and many will have suffered the infamous gearbox failures and camshaft tensioner issues which stalk the GTi. The ones that have survived also run the risk of being ruined by crass modifications or overenthusiastic driving.
If I had the time, space and money I would very much love to purchase a GTi in need of some TLC, and restore it to how it was when it left the factory. I should probably avoid the classified adverts for a while…