Cheap Stickshift Daily-Drivers: 2004 Volkswagen Jetta vs 1999 Toyota Camry

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Okay, okay; you all have suffered along with the non-running heaps long enough. Today we’re going to look at two nice sensible cars that both run and drive, and both have manual transmissions. But because of our price bracket, you gotta compromise somewhere, and that somewhere, in the case of these cars, is the leading edge of the hood.

So let’s see which battered race car you picked, and we’ll get to them.

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Great. And now I’m hungry for Doritos.

Moving on: As David has pointed out, the key to finding a good deal on a cheap used car is to know how to drive a stick, and be willing to do so daily. Look for a manual transmission in a car that nearly everyone else would only want with an automatic, and you can save some money and feel all gearheady and superior about it. (This is my car-buying MO as well.) Two such cars are the ubiquitous Toyota Camry, and that college-graduate favorite from twenty years ago, the fourth-generation VW Jetta.

Today we’re going to look at one of each, and while previous owners may have known how to handle a clutch, it looks like they could have used some practice with the brakes. But what’s a little wrinkle on the hood? It adds character. Let’s check them out.

2004 VW Jetta GLS – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Lynnwood, WA

Odometer reading: 200,000 miles

Runs/drives? Doesn’t explicitly say, but they say “call to set up a test drive,” so I assume so

It always perplexed me that the Jetta was so vastly more popular in the US than the Golf was, especially considering our current love affair with hatchbacks (You can call ’em crossovers if you like, but I know better). In the early 2000s, you saw a Golf or two here or there, but these Jettas were everywhere. And as a result, they’re all over the classifieds as cheap cars now, but all too often with an automatic, and either the fragile 1.8t engine, or the service nightmare VR6.

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This car has neither of those drawbacks, being powered by the basic two-liter single-overhead-cam four that can trace its roots all the way back to the 1970s. Often derided as the “two-point-slow” by the sorts of VW enthusiasts who favor slammed suspensions and energy drinks, it’s a good solid engine that puts out sufficient power for a smallish sedan, especially when connected to a manual gearbox. Reliability, efficiency, and ease of maintenance count for a lot in cheap used cars, and this powertrain is the pick of the litter when it comes to Jettas.

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It’s easy to see why these cars were so popular: they’re handsome machines, stylish without being fussy, and a good deal more elegant than, say, a Honda Civic of the same era. This car’s design dates back to the Clinton administration, and it still looks inoffensively pleasant today.

[Editor’s Note: Personally, I think this is the Best Jetta. – JT]

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Inside, VW’s foray into “soft-touch” materials during this era made for a lot more wear and tear than the old vinyl-and-plastic Rabbit interiors, but this one doesn’t look too bad. A little grubby here and there, and it looks like the passenger-side door panel is coming apart, but it’s a sub-$3000 car in a seller’s market. This looks a lot nicer than a lot of cars I’ve seen this age.

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There is the matter of that minor disfigurement on the front, which seems to have taken the entire grille with it. If it bothers you, a trip to a junkyard should score you a new hood and grille from another Jetta, probably one with a more trouble-prone drivetrain, without much effort.

 

1999 Toyota Camry LE – $2,450

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter V6, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Cypress, CA

Odometer reading: 250,000 miles

Runs/drives? “GREAT!”, the ad says

Fun fact: This car is exactly the same non-color as my own daily driver Corolla, a hue that Toyota calls “Taupe Silver Metallic,” but thanks to our own Stephen Walter Gossin, I am going to henceforth refer to simply as “Meh.” As far as I can remember, Toyotas of this era were only available in White, Black, Meh, Ugh (that hideous gold-biscuit-beige), Oh God Not Another Silver One, and That Nice Dark Green You Never See.

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Chromatically challenged though they may have been, there’s no denying that these cars are excellent: reliable, durable, comfortable, and low maintenance. The worst charge you can level against them is that they’re boring, which this particular Camry attempts to alleviate with a five-speed manual backing up its 194 horsepower V6.

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I mean, it’s not going to give anyone “the fizz,” as James May might put it, but it should pull strongly enough up an on-ramp to at least not bore you to sleep. And while Toyota’s front-wheel-drive manual shifters aren’t the toggle-switch-click of a Miata or Boxster, they work well enough. This one is probably a little sloppy after a quarter-million miles, but it’ll get you there.

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And look! A CD player and a cassette deck! Finally, you can listen to Hootie and the Blowfish again, as it was meant to be heard.

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This car’s nose job isn’t as bad as the Jetta’s, but it looks like it happened longer ago, judging by the rust in the wrinkle. But it gives the car sort of a Billy Idol sneer that might make the traffic think twice about messing with you. (What am I saying? This thing is as invisible as they come.)

There you go: two cars that are both good-running, manual, not hideously deformed, manual, efficient, and manual. I don’t know what more you could want from me. Take your pick!

 

QuizMaker

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46 Responses

  1. As the resident VW apologist/enthusiast and as one who has taken the mk3 2.slo to over 400k you wouldn’t catch me dead eating crayons in that Mk4. Camry will outlast the heat death of the universe (kinda wish it was the i4 for extra miles) and you could drive 100mph past a cop in a school zone and they wouldn’t even realize it. Worst generation of golf/Jetta VW ever produced and only worthy of parting out to make other cars live on.

  2. Camry, all day everyday. The Jetta may be the most reliable drivetrain, but they have a super nasty habit of dropping their windows into the doors when the regulators self-destruct.

    As for the Cry color, as a Smoking Tire Podcast fan, I can only refer to that color as “Jewish Racing Gold.”

  3. As an owner of a “Nice Dark Green You Never See.”(Woodland green pearl) I’d have to go with the Camry. 5spd V6 aren’t that easy to come by, and there’s even a supercharger kit available for it. They are low-key and relatively cheap to repair, 2500 might even be a steal in this market

    1. As a former owner of a 1997 model, I have to put my vote in for 1997-98 “Classic Green Pearl” over 1999-2001 “Woodland Green Pearl” as the better “Nice Dark Green You Never See.” Though it did start to chip after 10+ years of driving. We had to track down that color and have it trucked 200+ miles to us to get it, but it was worth it.

  4. With a rebel yell she cried more, more, more!
    I went with the Jetta. The under hood shot is remarkably clean looking for 200k and a face that looks like it lost a round with Rocky.

    1. Yeah, the rear motor mount is a MAJOR pain in these. As is the steering rack if I’m remembering a weekend I tried hard to block out.
      The 5-speed took most of the meh out—but largely replaced it with Oh GOD I’m gonna DIE understeer. I’d still take it over the Jetta, tho

  5. Californian here. What’s even more amazing about the Camry than the no Camry dent is that’s the period and sequence correct license plate for when that car was new (and it has the original selling dealer plate frame). Which means it’s been in CA since new and never totaled/rebuilt (or at least never reported as such, although it looks pretty straight overall). As much as I wanted one of those Jettas when they were new, that Camry should last forever. It would be worth what the seller is asking even if the market wasn’t batshit crazy.

  6. If one of the choices includes a Toyota V6, it’s simply not a comparison unless the other also has a Toyota V6. And a manual?

    The VW would have to have less than 100k miles to even make this a contest. And even then, I’m not sure I wouldn’t take the Toyota.

    I’m convinced there’s not a better engine family in the world.

    GM LS V8s, BMW I6s and Toyota’s own V8 family are solid contenders for second place, but the Toyota V6 is King.

  7. I loved my mk4 golf. The mk4 jetta isn’t as nice from the outside, but is still a looker, particularly for its price bracket and competition. The interior is easily the most pleasant of any of its non-luxury contemporaries, useless cupholders aside, and the 2.slow really was fine to live with, although turning on the A/C did visibly lower your fuel economy, which was a little weak to begin with, considering the power on tap.

    The Golf’s relative unpopularity I think is a function of how cars were (are?) marketed. IIRC, the Golf was German while the Jetta was Mexican, which translated into a higher msrp for the Golf. They were also being sold with a “look how much stuff we include standard” campaign, which translated into a reputation for being expensive relative to the competition, since other bone stock models advertised for less even though the dealers wouldn’t actually sell you anything that basic

  8. I owned a new manual V6 Jetta from this generation. Fun to drive, but oh-my-god the quality was awful. I only kept it 3 years and still had 4 repairs >$1000, fortunately 3 occurred during the (short) warranty.

    The engine in this one is a bit anemic an not worth the quality issues. Go for the anemic Camry. At least it’s unusual

  9. They’re both snoozeworthy, but even with its disadvantages, I picked the Jetta. That Camry might outlive me by six decades, but nobody will ever notice it doing so. I don’t need OTHER people to notice my car, but it’s so utterly bland and personality-free I fear I’d constantly be backing into it with one of my other cars in my own driveway. It doesn’t even try to protest that it actually exists. It’s an unsalted saltine cracker. It’s a beige pair of Crocs. It’s an HVAC system that neither heats nor air conditions but only ventilates. It’s an unsharpened MY PAL pencil that already has somebody else’s tooth marks near the end. It’s a reasonably clean but secondhand sock. There’s a Celine Dion CD jammed in the player, and the included cassette adapter squeaks. Plus the driver’s side front tweeter is blown. And the entire interior smells like that shifter boot.

    1. Hey don’t disparage Celine Dion.
      She sings her songs like they owe her money.
      She came here kick ass and sing songs, and she’s about out of ass.
      She sings songs like she has a very particular set of skills.
      She is the too much that is never enough.

  10. I would pick the Camry if it had the four, but I’m not interested in DOHC vees with timing belt routing that looks like a GPS plot of a dog chasing his tail. No. Thank. You.
    And yeah David, this is the best generation of Jetta, but not the best generation of Camry. So Jetta it is.

  11. I usually don’t even participate in this game, but I decided to play today — and not only play but to dig into the original ads.

    The stick-on neon price numbers on the windshield of the VW scream “shady used car dealer” and the ad does that annoying thing where it lists nearly 900 unrelated “keywords” at the bottom. Yeah, seller, I’m sure someone shopping for a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, or Land Cruiser is also cross-shopping a beat-to-hell Jetta. Get out of here with that nonsense!

    Although the Camry seller claims that it is “Fun to drive.” so I’m not sure if I trust him either. Still, someone who thinks that driving a Camry is “fun” is probably pretty risk averse and took good care of the car.

    While I like VWs (and this one looks like the one featured in that nice relaxing commercial from the early ’00s https://youtu.be/DcfW_hlYZ5k), I gotta go with the Toyota if I had to pick between the two.

  12. Camry. Sure it’s 5 years older and has 50,000 more miles on it, but I’d still expect it to be more reliable and easy to wrench on than the Jetta. If I’m shopping at this price bracket it’s because I am pretty much broke and need reliable transportation so I don’t lose my job, and I just wouldn’t trust that VW to have my back.

    Also, that generation of Camry in that color is what I would’ve used as a getaway car in a bank robbery, ten or fifteen years ago. Today it would have to be something like a white CR-V from 2015 or so.

  13. Wife owned one of those Jetta’s back in the day. It was a fun little car, but even with low mileage (~50K) I was replacing coil packs all the time. With 200K? No way.

    If I’m looking for a car in this price range, reliability is king. I’ll suffer in the Camry.

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