Home » Fragile Forced-Induction Fours: 2003 VW Jetta 1.8T vs 2006 Mini Cooper S

Fragile Forced-Induction Fours: 2003 VW Jetta 1.8T vs 2006 Mini Cooper S

Sbsd 3 28 2024
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Welcome back! Today we’re sticking with sticks, because no matter what the fun police say, we love them. Today’s cars have different types of forced-induction systems, both of which are known to be a bit temperamental. But at the moment, they both run and drive just fine.

But before we get to those, we need to check yesterday’s results, and – well well well, what have we here? It seems the beat-up Chevrolet has taken a narrow but decisive win. I can’t really argue. If they were closer in price, I’d say it would be down to the test drive, but for a grand cheaper, my money’s on the Chevy as well.

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A number of you expressed a dislike for stepside trucks, and I agree; the style works better on older trucks. But I do like the GMT400 with a stepside, at least in regular-cab form. Before I bought my truck, I test-drove an extended cab GMC with a stepside bed, and I just couldn’t get my head around the styling. It looked like those superhero drawings that are all torso on little tiny legs. But this, a short-wheelbase standard cab, I like.

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Now let’s turn our attention from trucks to a couple of small European cars with a little something extra under the hood to help them along. One has a turbocharger, the other a supercharger, and both have a reputation for being finicky to maintain. Which one is worth the effort? That’s what we’re going to find out. Here they are.

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2003 Volkswagen Jetta GLS 1.8T – $3,295

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Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 1.8-liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Tacoma, WA

Odometer reading: 114,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

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The fourth generation is when the VW Jetta grew up, which makes it fitting that so damn many of them were bought as graduation presents or first cars out of college. It was also a huge step forward in complexity for the little VW sedan, and more complex often equals less reliable. And a great many complaints about this car revolve around the optional 1.8T engine.

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On paper, it’s great: an honest-to-goodness 100 horsepower per liter, from a twin-cam 20-valve four, with plenty of torque down low. And in practice, it’s a good performer, too. But it’s also known for sludgy oil, coil-pack failures, self-destructing water pumps, and more. This one is for sale from a dealership, so there is no maintenance history available. All we know is it runs and drives well enough at the moment for them to offer test drives.

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It looks pretty good cosmetically. This generation of Jetta introduced the “soft touch” plastics, which haven’t held up too well over the years, from what I’ve heard. And I think this is the era of Volkswagen that tended to smell like crayons inside; this is apparently due to the sound-deadening material off-gassing. But hey, there are worse things for a car to smell like.

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Outside, it’s, well, silver, like the overwhelming majority of fourth-gen Jettas. But it’s straight and shiny, and these cars do wear silver well. You’ll just never be able to find it in a parking lot.

2006 Mini Cooper S – $4,000

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Engine/drivetrain: Supercharged 1.6 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, six-speed manual, FWD

Location: Woodinville, WA

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Odometer reading: 104,000 miles

Operational status: “Runs good” is all we get

R53-generation Mini Coopers are cool little cars. They’re quick, handle well, and cute as a button. Unfortunately, they also live up to the stereotype of British cars being fragile and short-lived, even though they’re not British at all – these are actually BMWs, built in Germany. And sadly, they live up to all of the BMW stereotypes as well.

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The 1.6-liter supercharged engines in these are actually pretty robust, but they are prone to oil leaks and cracked coolant expansion tanks. I don’t know why BMW can’t keep its vehicles from oozing various fluids, but it seems to be a constant struggle. From what I’ve heard, it’s a lot of nickel-dime problems with these, death by a thousand cuts, rather than any one catastrophic issue. And of course, we get zero information about its history. Best bring a friend along who knows these cars well when you check it out.

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It does look pretty well-kept; there’s nothing obviously broken or worn out. And I don’t see any warning lights on the dash, which is a promising sign. I never have been a fan of having the speedometer in the middle of the dash; I didn’t like it on old Jeeps, I didn’t like it when I test-drove a Scion xA, and I don’t like it here. And if you have a passenger who tends to be a backseat driver, they know exactly by how much you’re exceeding the posted speed limit.  You’d get used to it, I guess.

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I have always liked the exterior styling of these. And more recent versions haven’t been able to improve on it. It’s the one big problem with retro-themed designs; how do you update it? Newer Minis have also forgotten the “mini” aspect; they’ve just gotten more bloated-looking. These early ones are lean and mean.

With either of these cars, you’re likely to have more problems than if you settled for a Corolla or something. But you’ll also have more fun behind the wheel. And really, for the most part, these cars aren’t unreliable, just fussy and high-maintenance. Do things when the book says to do them, in the way it says to do them, and everything will be all right. Mostly. Probably.

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Col Hathi
Col Hathi
17 days ago

Oooh I think I know that Jetta 1.8. It did duty in the Skoda Octavia vRS in India. Stay far, far away from the Jetta if you don’t fancy opening your hood up to see that the smoke is actually coming from two different point in the engine, for two very different reasons. This engine is a Siren a la Homer.

Mike F.
Mike F.
20 days ago

Voted Mini. Better looking, more fun to drive, and oil leaks can be ignored for long periods of time with refills and kitty litter, assuming they’re just minor drips, which is usually the case with BMW engines. There’s also the fact that the term “Jetta” triggers a nasty form of PTSD for me involving an ex-wife. So there’s that.

BentleyBoy
BentleyBoy
20 days ago

Ah yes the smell of crayons from the VW product. Reminds me of my daughter’s VW bug of the same vintage. I fired the parts cannon so many times at that car it was like playing the 1812 Overture! Mini all the way.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
21 days ago

Gimmee the Jetta and I’ll put in a better engine when that one acts up- or sell it and get an old VW Rabbit. Hell no to the Mini- I cringe at the damn speedo in the middle of the dash and I already hate the Mini body design anyway

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
21 days ago

I’m sure the Mini is the right answer, but I’ve always thought the Mk4 Jetta was handsome as h*ck, and 20+ years has nothing to change that. We’ll take the VeeDub.

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
21 days ago

While BMW owns the Mini brand, isn’t the factory actually in Oxfordshire England rather than Germany as mentioned in the article? So you combine complex German engineering with British production methods, similar to the 3.0 L81 engine in my Saturn Vue.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
21 days ago
Reply to  Speedway Sammy

Wow, yeah that’s bad…now for the trifecta- just add Lucas smoke!

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
21 days ago
Reply to  Freelivin1327

More like Nippon Denso smoke – we had two low mileage, well-looked-after secondhand R53s in a row, a 1.6S and a JCW, and the Denso alternators on both gave up the ghost at crucial moments.

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
20 days ago
Reply to  SonOfLP500

Any clue where those were manufactured? I know the Japanese keiretsu companies have put factories in a lot of low cost countries so the components aren’t what they used to be when cranked out with Deming ruled precision in Japan.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
18 days ago
Reply to  Speedway Sammy

No, I didn’t check, but unlikely to have been Japan. I suppose that where they were engineered is just as important.

Scott Ashley
Scott Ashley
21 days ago

I find this generation of the Jetta to be quiet good looking. I find the later generations mich more bland. Voted Jetta

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