By on April 21, 2010

Steven writes:

I’m in the midst of an automotive dilemma: I’ve got two cars: a 2007 Nissan 350Z and a 1998 Volkswagen Jetta. I picked up the Jetta this fall to serve as a winter car. The Jetta turned out to have a brake problem (fixed), leaking shocks and a hole in the muffler. I really wanted something a little sportier for the winter. The Z is my baby, and I want to retain money to continue refining it into an AutoX menace, but the Jetta is killing me, Smalls! I see three alternatives: 1. Fix up the Jetta with nice suspension parts and a new cat-back, making the daily drive less slow. 2. Sell the Jetta, buy something else in its place. (Focus ZX3, GTI 1.8T, E36 BMW, Civic?) 3. Fix the Jetta to OEM specs, save money for the Z. What should I do?

Sajeev Answers:

Like taste in clothing or choice in significant other, the winter beater must match the personality of the owner. Sometimes brand loyalty means a Mustang owner must roll an Escort or Porschephiles snap up older GTIs. But people of average means shouldn’t buy an E38 BMW beater for $4000 even if they can afford the payments on their certified pre-owned, E65 luxobarge. You always get what you want, but budgeting component repair on worn parts is mandatory.

And you made a compromise from the git-go. The Jetta is a fine handling car in theory, all bets are off after 12 years of abuse. But your Jetta can work, if you have experience working on German cars, buy the speed parts from somebody else’s failed project and don’t mind freezing your fingernails in December to replace a (pricey) failed module or rubber component. That might be asking for the moon, so I’d cut and run.

So be realistic about your goals for a winter beater. It is a two step process: find one that you’d buy if it was still sold new, but take advantage of (hindsight) knowledge of component repair and common fail points: Civics and the ZX3 fit the bill. (Once you ensure all the Focus recalls were performed.) And when you get a truly enjoyable daily beater, join its on-line forum, learn a thing or two about DIY-maintenance/modifications and the winter months shall be borderline tolerable. And won’t cause significant damage to your wallet, so you can use that cash for race tires for the Z-car.

And make sure to email your new winter beater’s mechanical quandaries right back here. You’ll be happier in the end.

(Send your queries to [email protected])

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35 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Beater Must Beat It?...”


  • avatar
    twotone

    VWs are like blondes — nice when new but they don’t age well. Sell it and move on. Pick up a Honda, Subaru or Hyundai as your winter beater and get four real winter tires.

    Twotone

    PS: A good pre-purchase inspection should have found the Jetta problems before you bought it. Do it next time.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Owning an old German car as a beater has its ups and downs. Get ready for overly expensive repairs versus a comparable Japanese or America beater (pretty cheap to repair). I find that the older Civics fit the bill well and can give you a nice sporty yet good beater (it is sifting through the abused / distastefully modified ones that makes it difficult to find one).

  • avatar
    educatordan

    According to Sajeev’s logic your beater should be an old Sentra. (Just poking at you.)

    You’ve already done much work on the old Jetta. Keep it and get it up to safe and reliable and drive it, drive it, drive it.

  • avatar

    I guess I’ve got a different definition of “Winter Beater” than you guys. When I lived in the rust belt, the winter beater was a car that probably looked like crap but could be expected to run for 1 winter without a lot of extra money. If I could sell it in the spring, cool…otherwise it got hooned to death and hauled to the scrapyard.

    So that car usually ended up being an old Buick or Olds or something else that had reasonably reliable mechanicals and some body rust. I had a couple of late 70’s Olds Cutlasses that worked pretty well for this. $500 each and easy to keep running. And very satisfying to drift into concrete barriers when it’s icy.

    But yeah, if this is something you plan on keeping for more than a few months I’d recommend getting something that is useful during 350Z weather too. A Subie hatchback is reliable, reasonably fun, and can haul a lot of stuff. It has 4 doors and a usable back seat too, just in case you’ve got, you know, friends. The Focus would do the job too.

    I have the practical/impractical car duo now, and it sure is nice to leave the convertible in the garage all winter even in the South. I only put about 2000 miles a year on it, and the practical one does heavy duty the rest of the time.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      I do as you do, too. A fun car and a second car. I won’t drive a POS though. Even my winter rat has to be solid and rust free. I really don’t have brand loyalty, but I do look for a car that has either factory performance versions or good aftermarket support for performance parts. I chose to take a Sable and turn it, suspension/brake wise, into a SHO. Cheap to buy, insure and repair. Nice and reliable, too. Had it for years. Being that it is now over 18 years old (still no rust/dents) it won’t get repaired if it needs something big. The replacement is likely to be a Mazda 6.

      If you can work on your cars, keep the Jetta. If you have to pay to repair it, dump it now…

  • avatar
    dswilly

    The nice thing about old BMW’s as beaters is that they are still worth owning and fun to drive once relegated to beater status. Find a used 5 SPEED E30, preferably a iX (very rare AWD) and have more winter fun. Heck you might even decide to autocross it.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. You already know what the Jetta needs. Fix it and drive it. There are plenty of parts available to make your Jetta more pleasing to drive.

  • avatar
    George B

    I’d probably look for a 1995-1999 Nissan Maxima for a winter car. Made in Japan build quality and fun to drive for a FWD car. Also useful when you have more passengers than will fit into the 350Z.

  • avatar

    If you live in the Boston area, take the Jetta to Marc Feinstein at German Performance Service in Brighton. Marc doesn’t have a dishonest bone or cell in his body. If you live elsewhere, well, the 350Z probably isn’t going to rust, so I’d just put snows on it.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      I was going to recommend the snow tires too but some folks are still stuck in this “winter beater” mentality. Unless your ride is something really, really, really exotic or collectible I’d just put snows on it. I know I’m going to try to get something cool for my next ride but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna drive my F150 all winter long.

    • 0 avatar
      racebeer

      +10 for the snows suggestion. A couple of years ago, our Metro Transit System (in their infinite wisdom ….) changed my bus route around to the point I could no longer walk to the bus stop. Had to go to a central Park ‘n Ride. UGH!!!! Well, both of my play toys are basically summer cars, so I decided to put Dunlop Winter Sport 3Ds on the Firebird. With those tires installed, the ‘Bird will now climb a telephone pole in the winter (of course the limited slip rear helps a bunch). The difference dedicated winter tires make is unbelievable unless you have experiened them. I just changed out to the summer tires a couple of weeks back, leaving the winters stacked up in the corner of the garage until late October.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    Your list of problems sounds normal for any 12 year old car, and if you have a garage and could DIY I would venture to say pretty cheap to fix. Parts are readily available for that Jetta and the internet forum support for German cars particularly VAG can’t be beat.

    If you can’t or won’t DIY, and you want reliability and fun to drive you are pretty much looking at 98-2003 Mazda Proteges, Honda Civics or Acura Integras.

    Good luck finding an unmolested one though. I sold a nice Integra (170K) like that about a year ago. Phone ran off the hook.

    As gas prices climb again those cars are selling well.

  • avatar
    Steve C.

    I’m the one who wrote this…

    I wound up selling the Jetta. I got $350 more than I paid for it, which covered some of the repair costs.

    My wrenching skills are limited. Getting the brakes fixed rather than fixing it myself was a time thing, but I had the ignition switch go out on me after 2 months. The Haynes manual said that fixing it required precision drilling, and if you’re not confident, give it to a pro.

    Anyway, fixing 2 things on a car I’ve owned for less than six months, combined with VW’s reputation left me with the impression that this might become a money pit quickly.

    I’m currently looking for something else to drive to work. The one car that is haunting me for a dd is an e36 BMW 325i/328i sedan. It would satisfy my “fun to drive” tooth, leaving my budget for the Z. Furthermore, the ones I’ve seen look to be in much better condition than the Jetta.

    Will my budget tell me that I’m jumping from the frying pan into the fire?

    • 0 avatar
      dswilly

      Buy the e36 if it’s in decent shape and if it’s a stick. Give it a quick sweep, coolant, hoses, plugs, etc. Then give it hell.

    • 0 avatar

      Forget about your budget, I am telling you that. My goodness man, switching from an ancient VW to an ancient BMW…FOR A BEATER?

      Do you really hate your money?

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Steve – that ignition switch is a common problem. It’s $15 or so from NAPA. VW runs too much current through the switch and they cook after a few years. I’ve put two on my ’97 VW Cabrio. It’s really easy to replace. The repair books will have you removing the bearing race at the top of the column but you can disconnect the steering shaft from the U-joint between the pedlas in moments and slide the whole thing out.

      These are good “beater” cars. I’ve got 170K on mine and expect to see 200K. The problem with my car is that the seat leather is wearing out. Will have to put a new set of factory style covers on them to keep the car looking decent enough to be seen in. For me is keeping my older cars looking presentable. Keeping them reliable is much easier.

      Of course I’m not fighting the salt like you are. (I’m in TN).

  • avatar
    crc

    It’s too bad you sold the Jetta. Of course, I’m not the one who would have had to fix it. And speaking from experience, working on a Jetta on a concrete garage floor during a Rochester NY winter isn’t fun. My ’97 was a beast in the winter though. And after a few key parts, loads of fun to hammer around in. Good luck with your new purchase.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    If you want a fun car that’s easy on the wallet and will make it through winter without issues, stop thinking European. None of them, not BMW, not Volvo, not VW, not Saab, Mercedes, whatever: none of them will hold up well over the long term.

    On the high end, think about a Lexus IS300: a good one is just as much fun as an E46 without nearly the financial pain.

    On the middle, consider the older GS300/SC300, Infiniti I30 or J30, Acura Integra (but watch for abuse!). Do pre-inspect and watch for problems on these.

    You could also keep an eye out for a non-Renault-ized Maxima, last-generation Celica (a hugely underrated car), Mazda Protege (watch for rust, but also hugely underrated), Focus (post-2004), Prelude (again, watch for abuse), 6- or 7G Civic (ditto), 7G Accord (four-cyl, for preference) or Acura CL.

    I would be careful about Subarus: they’re reliable, but when they break, it’s usually expensive.

    New or nearly so there’s the Honda Fit: it’s fun, cheap to own, rock-reliable.

  • avatar
    rmwill

    Good move selling the VW for a profit. Given your requirements and skills, stick with good Japanese brands like Toyota or Honda. Less so for Mazda and Nissan, and no way for Subaru.

    • 0 avatar
      littlehulkster

      You DO know that Subaru has consistently been among the top in reliability surveys, right? I don’t know where this idea at TTAC that Subarus are unreliable comes from.

    • 0 avatar
      rmwill

      Having wrenched on a buddies WRX STI has told me all I need to know about Subarus. Rebuilding the engine and transmission will tell you that they are much like VW’s. That is, very nice for a while, then the “what were they thinking” components begin failing and the car becomes a owners worst nightmare.

    • 0 avatar
      dswilly

      You know what they say in Subie circles “Did you get a good one or bad one”

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Subarus are relatively reliable. What Subarus are not is relatively inexpensive to repair when they do require service. The poster who mentioned the “what were they thinking?” moments is right.

      They’re also not quite as abuse-friendly, nor specify the use of less-expensive replacement parts.

  • avatar
    tparkit

    Steven, you are leaping from one horse to the next because (it seems) you are of mixed mind. You might want to examine your own motives pushing you toward “fun to drive” (i.e. why are you doing this, and who are you doing it for?). Otherwise you will never be happy, cars coming and going out of your garage and taking your cash all the while.

  • avatar
    ctowne

    Too bad you sold the VW. Now, how are you going to stay warm in your winter beater without the soft yellow glow of the CEL bulb? You’ll have to use the heat…or buy another VW.

  • avatar
    william442

    Why do people “save” cars? My C43, and our S 2000 both live in Virginia, and are driven all winter.Anyone ever been in a snow storm -minor- in a very small car with the top down?

  • avatar
    Steve C.

    The intention is to eventually turn the Z into an AutoX monster, throwing out such niceties as sound deadening, carpet and whatnot.

    The daily driver/”beater” (I suppose I’m using the term slightly loosely) is something I’d drive to and from work. Plus, with the near-term possibility of children, 4 seats and 4+ doors for it are a requirement, and also I need a fairly low (sub $5k) entry price. If you throw RWD and a manual into the mix, the only thing that seems to fit is a fairly old BMW 3-series in decent shape. (That is, unless I really go off the deep end and get an Alfa Milano.)

    Since writing the original letter to Piston Slap, I realized that I don’t think I’ll be satisfied with anything not driving the rear wheels. I can possibly get by with an auto as long as it has a manumatic option.

    What I would get if I had more dollars to spend would be a G35 sedan, a CTS or IS300. Unfortunately, if I roll back the clock to a year these would be something affordable, I find that they were still gleams in an engineer’s eye.

    I AM of mixed mind. I want to have my cake and eat it too. If I were not married, I could care less about the budget. (Then again, I wouldn’t need the extra set of doors, either.) Unfortunately, what I WANT and what I think I NEED might not converge at too many points, if any.

    • 0 avatar
      william442

      Steve, I am probably just grouchy today. Doors? My wife, the baby, and the 80 pound lab, and I, did just fine in the TR 4. At least no one complained, that I remember.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Lincoln LS?

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Shoot – we’ve done the two kids, wife AND dog all in the two door Cabrio. Dog is an English Setter. That’s easy around town but we’ve also done that trip to Grandma’s house 100 miles away. Yeah – a little crowded after 100 miles but our “big” car down for a timing belt.

      Seriously we find that the Cabrio typically only carries our kids and myself to school/work most of the time so it rarely carries all four or even five of us. Plenty big for those kinds of trips.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      +1 to ajla. LS only had a stick in V6 form but forget the manual/manumatic and enjoy another attempt at an American BMW.

      https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/lincoln-ls-v8-sport/

  • avatar
    dswilly

    For 5k you can get a sweet e30 with 5spd with the IS package. It will be bombproof, economical and fun. Tons of doors, big trunk and still rock-solid with many many miles. CHEAP to fix – Don’t buy the hate hype. The local BOSCH guy can maintain this car in his sleep but you could probably do most of it in the driveway awake. Plenty available. Be sure to change the timing belt at 55k. Start shopping.

    • 0 avatar
      rmwill

      +1 for the E30. However, he said he was not to mechanical, and that would eliminate a vintage beemer. I love my E30, but the diabolical Bosch electrical components require you to be a multimeter wizard.

      Bosch = Lucas

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