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.

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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.

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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

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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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SlowCarFast
SlowCarFast
1 year ago

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.

Chris
Chris
1 year ago

The FS is not an interference engine, so I’m curious about the bent valve diagnosis.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
1 year ago

Rebuilding the Mazda engine would be easier than troubleshooting any kind of VW electrical problem.

Captain Avatar
Captain Avatar
1 year ago

So for less than $3k, I can have a manual wagon in pretty good shape for its age, and given my OCD tendencies for on-time maintainence, and garage, it could last for years.

or I can have a POS, possibly un-insurable VW with a ‘suspected’ fuel injection issue to get running again? I’d have to be paid to haul it away.

Mazda all the way. How are these even comparable?

Robert Thornton
Robert Thornton
1 year ago

I loved My Protégé 5. I unless there is a lot of snow, I wish I still had it.

Steve Gray
Steve Gray
1 year ago

Q: Which is correct?
“…neither of today’s cars runs.” or
“…neither of today’s cars run.”
I’m thinking a (singular) car “runs.” Multiple cars “run.”
Oh – and I had a 1983 4-cylinder VW that ran for 14 years, so I’m going with the Jetta.

T Beam
T Beam
1 year ago

I dig both of these. My daughters first car was a Mk3 Jetta, and I owned a Mk5 diesel till VW bought it back. BUT, fix the engine in that Mazda is the direction I’d go. The Mrs. had an ’09 Mazda 6 for 12 years and it was a great car too. I think this was one of the hardest Shitbox Showdowns for me to decide.

Tommy Helios
Tommy Helios
1 year ago

Hello fellow Autopians,
Your resident VW enthusiast/apologist here again. The majority is in the wrong here today and I am shaming all of you Autopians for making the wrong choice.

That Jetta is mint, and mk2s are getting harder to find and are worth more each year to people who aren’t me. All it should need is the grounds cleaned and I think it will actually run, digi is usually pretty damn solid. If it is a bad ecu I’ll sell you one for $50. If all else fails a aba/vr/1.8t swap will be less than 1k all in and you’ll have the most reliable dd ever, best sounding car ever or a decent ripper for track days. I will die on this hill, MK2 is best car.

Donald Petersen
Donald Petersen
1 year ago
Reply to  Tommy Helios

I don’t think mint means what you think it means.

Tommy Helios
Tommy Helios
1 year ago

Mint as in David Freiburg mint.

Faik Akir
Faik Akir
1 year ago

I looked for pistons for the FS engine and immediately found multiple listings on ebay, so not sure what rootwyrm is talking about. Same with cylinder heads, bolts, gaskets. That engine was used in many cars including the Ford Probe, so they are not that rare.
Although replacing a piston is far more work than just replacing the head gaskets and valves, that’s for sure, still would go for the manual hatch with no rust over a 40 year old vw.

Anti Autopian
Anti Autopian
1 year ago

Electronic/electrical troubles? No thank you. Protege’ for me.

Mach
Mach
1 year ago

the vw for sure.
its now a classic body style and it looks to be in decent shape. and since that engine has issues, i wouldn’t feel bad about ripping it out and swapping in a vr6

Nick Ginther
Nick Ginther
1 year ago

I voted P5, but like someone else mentioned it’s going to be hard to get parts for now.

I had a blue 2002 P5 5sp. It was an awesome car. I wound up trading it in along with a 2000 Tahoe… For a rental spec prius. The prius was fine and I was driving about 70 miles round trip to work everyday so it made sense but man did I miss the Mazda.

They pop up for sale around here fairly often but all of them lately have been rusted to shit.

IanGTCS
IanGTCS
1 year ago

I have a long history with both models. My step-mom had a 1990 Jetta for about a decade and I spent a good amount of time driving it over the years. My second car was a 2002 Protege5 in 2006 to replace a hand me down 1995 Altima. I loved that car for the 5 years I owned it and in some ways wish I’d kept it as a winter car. Yes, it would have dissolved into rust by now. In my areas I haven’t seen one in many years. I voted Mazda because while I liked the Jetta, it was the first car I selected for myself.

Strangek
Strangek
1 year ago

I’ve always liked those Protege 5s, really nice looking little wagons!

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

The Protege is a wagon, which is awesome, and it’s also not a VW, which is known for making some of the worst cars.

If an MZR will swap in (which has a timing chain), even better

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 year ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

“If an MZR will swap in (which has a timing chain), even better”

You misspelled “LS”

😉

Vincent Petruccelli
Vincent Petruccelli
1 year ago

I’ll take the Protegé, please and thank you. While it’s over 50% more expensive than the Jetta and there is always the potential for additional carnage with a timing belt failure, the Protegé could be a fun 2nd car that I could see myself owning, especially since my Sonic hatch is sometimes just a little too small to fit all my gear for R/C racing or transporting more than 2 passengers and their stuff.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

If this were an earlier VW with the CIS, I’d vote that way: had to learn way more about it than I really wanted due to a Rabbit I had.
Digifant is something I don’t want to get into at this point.
Hesitant about the Mazda even tho I voted for it—isn’t this right in the bad rust years? A buddy had one from around this time that gave a >really< nasty noise but didn’t lift when he tried to jack it up. Upon closer inspection, much of the underside was held together by mud. I never rode in it again. Gotta have limits.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 year ago

A (seemingly) rust-free 5-speed Protege 5? All day long, man. All day long. Great freaking car.

ExAutoJourno
ExAutoJourno
1 year ago

Despite a solid liking for this-gen Jetta, I’ll go with the Protege. Three main reasons: 1) I can actually fix mechanical things, but am far less capable with electronic issues; 2) the Mazda seems to have had a little more care taken of it; 3) the “kink” in the Jetta’s dogleg may have done more damage to the chassis than it appears at first glance. Been there, seen that.

So, for $1000-1500 (the head may or may not be salvageable, and that rip in the driver’s seat might be repairable) the Protege could be a decent DD.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago

Jetta, mostly b/c I love that era’s Bauhaus design, and the back end is just so wonderfully weird…you’d never mistake that Jetta for any other car on the road, then or now.

The Protégé on the other hand looks pretty much like every other car of its era.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

Jettas from that gen are starting to approach other classic Euro prices, like Volvos. A guy or gal could do worse than saving on one.

Outofstep
Outofstep
1 year ago

Since neither runs I’ll take the one that’s 12 years newer and maybe coerce some friends to help me fix it. Well that’s what I’d do if I had the free time at least.

Bomber
Bomber
1 year ago

I voted for the Protege. Better car in the long term and what’s a junkyard engine between friends. Odds are one way or another you’re gonna do it with both and the wagon is gonna be loads more fun to drive longer term.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago
Reply to  Bomber

yep LKQ and get the odometer on the engine down to around 100k miles. put a timing belt on and overall tune up as well as replace the clutch while swapping and then you will have pretty killer little manual trans wagon. the jetta just looks crappy and the title will always haunt it if you ever consider restoring it.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
1 year ago

I went with the Protege, because it hasn’t already been taken apart. It’s so much harder to put things back together, when somebody else tore them apart.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago

Ah yes, bottom of the barrel, this is my jam.

I’ve been in enough Protege 5s to know that although they’re pretty fun cars, I really don’t like the interior and for some sick reason, that matters to me. It’s cheap without being cheerful. It’s more like racerboy on a budget. I know the Jetta isn’t that cavernous inside but at least it has a more ergonomic seating position for my over-6-foot frame. Plus, I’m not throwing in a new JY engine in that, finding one in my area, much less a good one, would be quite a feat.

The Jetta, on the other hand, I understand. Sure, it’s a old German vehicle with a FI problem, but I’m familiar with European cars and their persnickety fuel systems. I believe I could actually sort this one out. And that interior…give it a good vacuum and carpet shampooing, some 303 Aerospace and it’ll come right around. The body looks pretty clean and those steelies speak to me. If I were closer to the west coast, I’d ask my wife so she could tell me “no.”

Jetta is betta.

SlowCarFast
SlowCarFast
1 year ago

Starred your comment for “I’d ask my wife so she could tell me “no.””

I’ve been there. Still not sure how I feel about it.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago
Reply to  SlowCarFast

This afternoon, I showed my wife a supremely minty, low mileage (55K) 1988 Jaguar XJS V12 for only $8800, just a couple hours away.

I asked, “So, when are we going to pick it up?”

She replied, “I don’t know, when are you planning to move into it?”

I can’t win.

DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
1 year ago

I went with the Protégé this morning, at least it has power windows.

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