Home » Mechanic’s Specials: 1990 Volkswagen Jetta vs 2002 Mazda Protegé 5

Mechanic’s Specials: 1990 Volkswagen Jetta vs 2002 Mazda Protegé 5

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Good morning! Today we’re continuing with our sub-$1000 week, and I’m sorry to say that neither of today’s cars runs. But neither of them is wrecked, or rusty, or is full of trash, or has a family of raccoons living in the trunk, so maybe – just maybe – they’re worth fixing up.

Yesterday’s Cavaliers stirred up some opinions, that’s for sure. Let’s see how the voting went down:

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Almost an even split, which goes along with what I saw in the comments. Lots of write-in votes for “both” or “neither” as well. I didn’t expect a pair of old GM compacts to be so polarizing, but there it is.

Now, today, I won’t subject you to any General Motors foolishness, or cars that have been sitting for years, or any of that nonsense. Both of these cars are just plain ol’ fashioned broken, and recently so. If you can twirl a wrench with any degree of prowess, and have the parts, you can probably get either one of them going again in a weekend or two. But would you want to? Let’s find out.

1990 Volkswagen Jetta – $500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Milwaukie, OR

Odometer reading: 195,000 miles

Runs/drives? Nope. Fuel injection issue.

VW’s Jetta sedan really came into its own in its second generation, introduced to the US in 1985. A little bigger, a little fancier, this is the car that set the stage for the sales success of the third and fourth generation Jettas. In the US, Volkswagen sold twice as many Jettas as Golfs; American drivers never really embraced the hatchback the way European drivers did, at least until recently.

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This Jetta is a gasoline-powered model, with a single-overhead-cam engine displacing 1.8 liters. It’s backed by a five-speed manual. This 1990 model is equipped with VW’s Digifant engine control system, which combines electronic fuel injection with digital ignition control. And therein lies the problem with this particular Jetta: the fuel injection system is on the fritz. The seller believes it to be electronic in nature, either a failed computer or a grounding issue. The engine is healthy otherwise, making good compression, so throwing a little time and money into the fuel system would seem to make sense.

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The rest of the car looks pretty good: the interior is intact but a little grubby, and for the most part the exterior is fine. The seller notes that the title is branded, due to a little wrinkle in the left rear door sill/dogleg area, and it looks like the door has been replaced. It doesn’t take much for an insurance company to total out a cheap old car, but it’s not like you’re going to ever want to carry full coverage on a $500 car anyway. It looks like the door opens and closes all right, so who cares about a little sheetmetal damage?

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For the sake of argument, I looked up the price and availability of the engine control computer: my old standby RockAuto has them in stock from a few different suppliers for around $350. If that is indeed the issue, that gives you a decent little runabout that’s more fun to drive than a Corolla or Hyundai Accent for about $850. And it’s a nice shade of blue, too.

2002 Mazda Protegé 5 – $795

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

Location: Hillsboro, OR

Odometer reading: 201,000 miles

Runs/drives? Nope. Broken timing belt, bent valve

Mazda’s Protegé follows the VW Jetta rulebook fairly closely: a small, light sedan with a nice tight chassis and a good torquey little engine. The Protegé was separated from Mazda’s 323 hatchback in 1990, much the same as the Jetta came from VW’s Golf. And like the VW, the Protegé was praised for its handling, particluarly this third-generation, on Mazda’s BJ platform. I bought a Protegé new in 2002, and drove it all over the country; I can vouch for its twisty-road and cloverleaf on-ramp prowess.

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This is the Protegé 5, a five-door hatchback version, which would appear to count as a wagon based on Jason’s new rules, so we’ll just go with that. The P5 (as it was referred to among Mazda fans) was available in only one trim level, roughly equivalent to the Protegé ES sedan, with disc brakes at all four corners and some fancier interior trim pieces. It’s powered by a 2 liter version of Mazda’s FS series twin-cam four, shared with the lower trim levels of the Mazda 626, as well as the earlier MX-6 and Ford Probe. This car also features a five-speed manual, and the shifter in these is great. A little long in throw, but with really good feel.

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But – and it wouldn’t be a Shitbox Showdown car without a but – the timing belt replacement interval on the FS engine is 80,000 miles. Exceed that number at your own peril, as this seller found out. Just after having new brakes and tires installed all around, this car’s timing belt broke, and bent a valve. It looks like a replacement head, along with gaskets and studs and everything else (and a new timing belt, natch), will run you about $600 in parts. The seller was quoted $1800 for repair, so if you can do it yourself, you’ll save a chunk of change.

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The new brakes and tires, along with good general condition and a complete lack of rust, make a good case for fixing this car. When you’re done, you’ll have a fun, zippy, practical little wagon, and who doesn’t like that?

Neither of these cars makes sense if you can’t or won’t do the work yourself. But for those of us who are willing to rip stuff apart and replace things ourselves, either one would make a decent cheap fixer-upper, which you could then either enjoy or flip. Cars like this make me wish I had a bigger garage and more time; even if I could only break even fixing them and flipping them, I’d enjoy the process. Oh well, retirement goals, right?


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52 Responses

  1. As others have said, motors for the Mazda are likely a dime a dozen. P5s and other Mazdas end up at the scrapper because of rust. Your belief that P5 timing belts failed en masse is pure myth.
    I could have fixed this car for little money even when I was 17 years old.
    More importantly, importers likely have swappable engines available in the $500 dollar range that would be a huge upgrade and result in a genuinely cool car.
    Same goes for the Jetta, many cheap swap options.

  2. An ’02 was the first (and so far only) car I bought new. Highly recommended, except for rust concerns. Even if you pay a mechanic to do the repairs, the car is worth the price.
    Personally I don’t feel much for old VWs, but that one seems a decent deal as well.

  3. In spite of the comments from the poster with all the ASE certifications states, parts and /or used engines for the Mazda are not hard to come by, as other have pointed out also. That interwebs thing is pretty cool. Not a huge fan of zoom zooms in general, but I love a decent little hatchback for a DD. Would be a neat little winter project just for the experience of doing it if nothing else.

  4. The Mazda for sure. I’ve always liked the looks of these Proteges but any of them that pop up for sale locally tend to have major rust issues. But this one seems to still have it’s rear wheel wells, so that’s a win for me.

    1. A Protege 5 with no rust is simply not a thing in the Toronto area, therefore a Protege 5 is not a thing around here period.
      They were extremely popular here, and pretty much every single one has now been shredded.
      Seeing this P5 where I live would be like seeing a ghost.

  5. I’ll take the Mazda. I live in L.A. where they weren’t particularly rare, and that engine doesn’t seem all that exotic either. I’d throw a couple grand and a couple weekends at it, then probably unload it for a decent profit. I’ve dealt with much worse.

  6. My vote goes to the Protege 5. Used engines for these are plentiful and relatively cheap. I saw some low-mileage 2L Protege engines with around 60,000 miles going for around $900. Or you can spend half that on one of these engines with 100,000 to 150,000 miles.

    And with the Protege, it’s obvious what the problem is. With the Jetta, it isn’t. And I’m generally biased against VAG products specifically because of electrical/electronics issues they are known for.

    Thus, I’m going with the Protege.

  7. The Jetta. It has EFI and not the old CIS. Otherwise it is basically identical to the Jetta I drove in and after college – including the color – except it is in better condition than the Jetta I drove through and after college.

  8. This one’s easy — the P5 is the better car on multiple levels, and has some excellent options for a) replacing the engine with same or b) building something ludicrous. The Flyin’ Miata folks even had a “Flyin’ Protégé” line for a while. And it just looks better.

  9. @Mark Tucker good job building a challenging and thoughtful match up. I figured this would be an easy jetta win (for me, anyway), but that’s a compelling Mazda. I ended up voting jetta because I like the silhouette better and it seems like there’s a higher chance I’d be able to get it moving under its own power. Not well or easily, probably, but still.

  10. Those cars are both in better shape than they have a right to be at that age! In the midwest, the bodies would be brown and bubbly after a few months!

    And how does the Protege keep that leather from cracking all over? Oh, right. This isn’t an American leather interior. Why kind of cows did the Big Three use in their cars, anyway? Thin-skinned ones for sure!

    That Jetta rear door damage is going to be more trouble down the road than some people think.

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