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CHOTW: 1991 Volkswagen Jetta GL

1991 Volkswagen Jetta in Columbus, Ohio. $1,950.

There are some cars for which I know I will never get buy-in. For better or worse, my wife Chris has an opinion about our vehicular children.

But let me flow back into history for a moment. I had always liked the Mk2 Jetta and their hatchback Golf siblings. In high school my friend Liz had a white base-grade 1985 Golf to which we applied black vinyl cow spots. Later, in college, my friend Beth (who inexplicably hated Golfs) had a 1989 Jetta GLI 16-valve. I liked both of them. Indeed, the handful of Mk2s I’ve driven over the years were fun and gloriously analog. You sat tall and the sightlines were fantastic. They were perky little things – some versions might even be called quick – imbued with decent handling and slightly vague yet satisfying manual transmissions. Being German, despite varying ports of assembly, they liked to run fast.

That’s still a damn handsome car.

Then, shortly after meeting Chris in 1997, I met her 1990 Jetta Carat. I don’t even want to go into the specs. What? Okay, fine.

It was a Red-Metallic (how original) on gray cloth four-door. Being a Carat – insert obligatory Rabbit joke here – it was fully loaded with air conditioning, power windows, a sunroof, Zandvoort alloy wheels, and probably some other features I don’t care about. It moved its 105 ponies through a 3-speed automatic made of broken promises and shame. I found out after it failed that the transmission shared its guts with the equally terrible auto-box in my family’s old Audi 5000S.

Like this. Sort of. With alloys. Maybe fog lights, too. Who cares?

Chris liked her Jetta in part because inside it had a faintly sweet smell. Turned out to be a perpetually oozy heater core, a problem that solved itself when the contents thereof dropped onto the floorboards thus stranding them both at the west end of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge in northern California.

After I bled all over the engine compartment bypassing it with components sourced from Home Depot, we somehow found out there was an open recall on Mk2 heater cores. While it was at Volkswagen having that done, we also had the front struts replaced. Afterward, the handling was so vastly different I nearly crashed it into a guardrail.

Say. Tun.

The car and I build up a level of mutual antipathy. I won, though: We sold it to a Jetta Person. You know the type. Somewhere we probably have a picture or two of the Jetta, but I don’t care enough to take a breath to ask my wife, who is sitting 10 feet away from where I’m typing this.

So, again, I will likely never have a Mk2 Jetta of my own. But that doesn’t mean I don’t look from time to time. And that brings us to today’s Cheap Heap of the Week, a 1991 Jetta GL with no options except air conditioning and that same hateful automatic transmission.

It’s certainly an attractive thing. I prefer the earlier, thinner bumpers, but I wouldn’t kick this one out of my driveway. The paint and wheels are shiny, at least on the sides we can see. No sunroof mean no fewer leaks. The trunk is rusty in an interesting way. I’m not sure what more you’d do for remediation, other than slopping more POR-15 all over the floor (just as a previous owner has). Maybe just fiberglass the whole thing?

Inside is very inviting. The seats and carpet look clean and without weirdness or funk. It’s not perfect, however: The dashboard has cracks, the door panel fabric is separating, and the driver’s door is missing its cubby box. It also has those stupid door-mounted shoulder belts that never hold you in place whether or not you’ve manually buckled the lap belt. Without doing a lick of research, I’d be willing to bet there are proper anchors on the body for real 3-point seatbelts.

I can feel the seat under my body, how the key turns in the ignition, and the steering wheel in my hands. I’m trying not to smell antifreeze, but in my mind’s eye I can see the gauge needles swing as you run through the gears. The heater slides will feel flimsy, the mirror knob will feel disconnected from life yet somehow the glass with adjust, and the shifter will make a squishy tongue-fart noise when moved about.

I kind of miss all these sensations (minus the coolant). I kind of miss a Mk2.

“Hey, honey…?”


After writing this, I went deep-diving for a Mk2 Jetta. You know, just to see what’s out there. Turns out, this Jetta was also posted 2+ months ago on VWVortex with pictures of the passenger side, and for a couple hundred bucks less than the Craigslist ad linked above. The seller was supposed to shoot some photos of the underside, but you know how that goes. Still, it really does look great.

14 thoughts on “CHOTW: 1991 Volkswagen Jetta GL Leave a comment

  1. Waiting for you to drop a gem like “a 3-speed automatic made of broken promises and shame” sort of the way my daughter waits for me to get to the punch line of a bad pun with a long buildup. This time, at least, it was worth it. Thanks! No particular interest in the Jettas of that era, or since…rather have either a Honda or BMW from back then…

  2. I find Jetta’s appealing. And you probably recall the diesel one my wife owned. Kind of quick with a manual transmission, decent handling, lots of leg room, and generally huge trunks! Big enough to store a few extra bodies when needed. Front seats could use a bit more thigh support for my liking, but not bad. And the Golfs always seemed fun, trying to get my daughter interested in a GTI. Reasonable space and can serve as a track car for her as a novice HPDE driver.

    • I haven’t driven a Mk2 in a long time, so a lot of this could have been nostalgia talking. At some point, I’ll write about my Mk1 Rabbit Convertible and how some cars – 20+ years later – don’t really live up to the memory.

    • My 1991 Red Jetta. One of a few cars I had in my early 20’s. Loved it. Everything about it, except the bumper which fell off at busy stoplight intersections a time or two and at the most inopportune times.

  3. No repeats. It was a LOT of fun with all of the modifications my dad did for this car with the JC Whitney catalog. It completely lost its charm to me when they were the taxi cabs in China in 2000.

  4. I love my “new” 91 jetta! I’m also glad to have a 5 speed instead of the automatic you talk so highly of 😀

    It only has 83k miles, so I’m hoping to drive it for a very long time. I enjoyed your memories of the car!

  5. I’m so glad I stumbled on to your journal. Yep I had a bunch of A1/A2 VWs, mostly GTi and including an ’88 Jetta 16V, which I loved. Switched to BMW and SAAB after being hit by some drunken foo’ in the Das Jetta.

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