Opinion

My Volkswagen GTI Has Been A Nightmare And I Need To Replace It. What Car Should I Buy?

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Image: VW

Alex lives in Chicago and bought a 200,000-mile GTI during the pandemic. His maintenance and repair costs are exceeding what he paid for it, so it’s time for him to cut his losses and move on. He has a $10,000 budget to get something that is also fun, but won’t be a money pit.

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

Here is the scenario –

TL/DR: I bought a garbage VW GTI during coronavirus and its costing too much to maintain, but I love driving it! What do I replace it with?

We’re usually a one car family (Chicago city dwellers), but I bought a second car during the pandemic when my schoolteacher wife went back to teaching in person in the classroom. Driving is the only reasonable commuting option for her so she takes our primary car. I’m an interior designer in a tiny office, so the safety of working in person is manageable. Taking the train with the rest of civilization was not manageable and so I needed another car.

I did a bad job, though. I bought a 2008 VW GTI with 200,000 miles for about $2,600, and then spent about four times that in maintenance over a 6 month period (this includes a really bad pothole strike that trashed half the suspension). Its now clear this car hadn’t been maintained at all, and everything I haven’t replaced looks like its going to fall apart soon.

We’re going to sell that car, but the Delta variant means commuting is still a struggle, especially when the weather turns cold and I can’t bike to work as much. Also, I really love driving the GTI! So, do I get another GTI? What do I need to spend to get a more reliable example? Is there a different car I should be considering?

Quick Facts:

Budget: up to $10,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: Chicago, IL

Wants: Fun, manual, fairly reliable

Doesn’t want: Another money pit

Expert 1: Tom McParland – Older And Pricey, But Probably Worth It

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Photo: Craigslist

Alex, you may have noticed through various WCSYB posts that the GTI is usually the right answer. I will even go so far as to say that for most folks a GTI is a better answer than a Miata, but there are some instances where the GTI is the wrong answer. You appear to have figured that one out with a 2008 example pushing 200,000 miles. At this $10,000 price point it is going to be a challenge to find something that is equally as fun to drive, without the same level of reliability risk.

By some stroke of luck, a fantastic Honda is available within your market. This is a 2001 Honda Prelude. Yes, this car is twenty years old and the seller wants $10,000 for it. However, it only has about 80,000 miles and looks to have been very well cared for. There are a few modifications, though nothing that seems janky or seems to be a red flag. These Preludes cranked out about 200 horsepower, similar to the GTI, but you will need to kick in the VTEC at the higher RPMs to really feel it. The motor is paired with a five-speed manual that was actually one of the best feeling shifters of the time. And unlike your current GTI, this Honda likely has a lot more life in it.

Expert 2: José Rodríguez Jr. – The Hot Hatch From Mazda

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The GTI or Miata are usually the answer in situations like these, Alex. The GTI is out, although I will say that your budget could still be within range to fix your current car and make it as reliable as you need. But if you’re fed up with the GTI and want a change, consider this 2008 Mazdaspeed3.

This Mazda hatch is closer to your VW than Mazda’s own Miata in terms of its approach to fun behind the wheel. It’s possible that you did need a hot hatch, all along; you just ended up in the wrong one at first! This is as close as you can get to the front-engine, front-wheel drive formula of the GTI in a car from Mazda.

The ’08 Mazdaspeed3 is in your city, and within your budget. It comes with a rebuilt engine. That warrants a good discussion with the previous owner. I’d want as much information as possible to avoid more money pit shenanigans, but if the execution of the engine rebuild matches the excellent condition of the car’s interior, then you’ll have a hatch that basically just got a new lease on life.

Expert 3: David Tracy – Give Your Commute Some Soul

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First, allow me to chuckle a bit at your plight, because it mirrors that of so many owners of oughts-era Volkswagens. The things are just absolute shitboxes, to the point where it’s now a running joke in the car world, even if I do feel your pain.

Anyway, you’re commuting in the city I take it, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be hitting free-flowing canyon roads, which is why having a great-handling, quick car really shouldn’t be the priority. If you don’t want an EV for peak efficiency (and probably solid reliability), but want something actually fun for city commuting, I suggest something with soul — something that will put a smile on your face even on grid-pattern roads. Something that, even if you’re just driving 10 mph behind a long line of Uber and Lyft Toyota Camrys, you’re enjoying.

You should get an old car. Something bone-simple that won’t ever die, and that you can fix with a flathead and a pair of vice-grips. Don’t spend the $9,900 that the seller of the Chevy truck above is asking on Facebook Marketplace; that’s too much money. But this type of machine is what you should buy. Find something that’s already dialed in if you don’t want to tinker (the truck above clearly needs a bit of love), and then enjoy the airflow through those quarter windows; take your wife on a romantic weekend drive-in movie date and share some popcorn on that bench seat; row through those three gears on the floor to give your traffic-filled commute a little more spice.

It won’t be the most comfortable, but the commutes will feel special. Maybe that’s not what you want, but I’m always going to suggest fun over practicality.

Expert 4: Mercedes Streeter – Reliable And Sporty

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Let me start by saying that I know how you feel. High-mileage, cheap Volkswagens are alluring and it’s easy to end up with a money pit that’s always in the “service position.”

This 2001 Toyota MR2 might be the perfect car for commuting around Chicago. It has a 1.8-liter 1ZZ-FE four mounted in the rear that makes 138 HP transmitted through a manual transmission. Despite the power deficit, the MR2 reaches 60 mph just as fast as your GTI, and despite some potential catalytic converter and oil-burning concerns as Kevin Williams of Car Bibles writes, is a fairly reliable machine.

As you know, we deal with a lot of temperature swings in this area. It seems like one day could be 80 degrees while the next could be 30. The MR2 is great for those warm days where you could throw the top up and enjoy a jaunt down Lake Shore Drive, or for those cold days with the top down (just throw some snow tires on in the winter). The MR2 is a small car, allowing for some easy parking in the city, which is a big deal.

Here is one a short drive away in Michigan for $7,900. It’s said to need minor work, but I bet it’ll stay out of the shop far longer than your GTI does.

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