Buying a California-Spec VW Jetta in Ohio Was a Huge Mistake
Rust-free and cheap—and hiding a terrible secret.
If you can convince a car enthusiast that Miata is not always the answer, they’ll probably recommend a GTI. I suppose it’s fair—I’ve never experienced a bad-driving GTI. If you can’t afford one, there's always the Golf or Jetta. VW kids will assure you "they’re not that bad!” “They’re really simple when you get to know them!” They’ll tell you all the check-engine-light memes are just for laughs, and aren’t based in reality.
Kevin Williams is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on automotive adventures and DIY tips to help you get the most out of your car. And we’re not going to be precious about it—so I’m making our writers relive their worst wrenching mistakes to tell you what they learned from disaster. Enjoy! -- Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles EIC
I have a friend who does that. This person in particular has owned nearly every 2.0T VW product made in the last ten years. He insists that VW longevity is great and that these are perfectly fine cars to own. Sometimes I wonder if he’s some sort of paid Volkswagen PR plant.
I’m a car flipper. I flip for survival first and foremost; I’m in it to make money. My Volkswagen friend is also a car flipper, and he’s had great luck consistently flipping VWs. I've generally stuck with Japanese and American cars, myself. I’ve owned at least ten Toyotas and never lost money on one. But bouncing from Toyota to Toyota gets boring. I wanted to do something different for once.
With the success my friend has had, I figured there had to be a VW out there that I could make some money buying cheaply, repairing, and reselling.
And there might have been! But I didn't find it this time. I didn't do enough research, I didn't ask the right questions, and relied almost entirely on the intuition of a stranger. So I lost my ass on a Volkswagen Jetta. And it was my fault.
How Bad Could It Be? Very.
Actually the first time I bought a Volkswagen to flip, everything went fine. I found an '04 2.0-liter automatic Jetta on Craigslist with only 124,000 miles on for $1,200. That 2.0-liter non-turbo engine, or “two-point-slow” as it’s known in VW circles, is a technologically basic design. Only two valves per cylinder, single overhead cam, iron block, no variable valve timing. It only claimed 115 horsepower, so I figured it couldn’t be too complicated to repair if something went wrong.
A thorough grilling of the owner revealed that the car was generally pretty well taken care of, albeit with a slight misfire in cylinders two and three. It also had a rebuilt title, which I wasn’t fond of, but the physical condition and low price sold me.
That flip was pretty uneventful. I replaced the spark plugs and wires, cleaned the interior up, and sold the car about a month after buying it for $2,000. After parts, taxes, and other fees, I walked away with a tidy $600 or so profit. Even with a branded title, the car was safe, and the new owner was happy to have a decent vehicle to get to work in.
About nine months later another Volkswagen Jetta popped up. This was also a 2004, but better equipped than the last one. A GLS, specifically, with alloy wheels, a sunroof, and a few other goodies.
The seller said it would crank but not start. He also told me that the car wouldn’t fill with gas; any trip to the gas station would only net a few cents going in before the gas station’s pump would shut off.
I didn’t ask too much about the condition. The owner seemed nice enough, so I was inclined to believe him. He said the Jetta was his son’s, who was a student commuting to college. The man seemed frustrated with the car, he had a brand new Honda CR-V, and he had already bought something new to replace the Jetta when it "suddenly stopped running." It also didn’t seem like he knew that much about cars. The couple questions I did ask, were met with a lengthy non-explanation, and then accolades for how reliable the car used to be.
“Until it randomly stopped, it was a great little car! I wouldn’t have hesitated to drive it anywhere!” he told me.
As a rule, when I approach a flip, I usually budget for the worst. The vast majority of the cars I buy do not run or drive when I get them. So the “worst” usually means a replacement engine or transmission.
But because of the niceness of the seller, I found myself dismissing the likelihood of major issues. “Oh, it’s probably an EVAP issue,” I thought, irrationally. I figured the charcoal canister or some other part of the EVAP system was clogged, and thus the car wouldn’t run or drive. It also would explain why the car had a hard time filling up at the gas station. That’s easy, easier than a replacement engine.
My roommate and I flat towed the Jetta home and got to work trying to figure out what was wrong. After cranking and cranking (and nearly blowing up the starter) we got the car to run for a whopping 15 seconds at a time before it would die.
I figured I’d try something else. Without cranking, I sat in the car and turned the key. I called to my roommate, “Do you hear anything?” We both sat quiet, and tried to hear any sort of buzzing or humming. Was the fuel pump priming? We did hear something, but it sounded... wrong.
After pulling the back seat pad off and removing the access panel to see the fuel pump, we were greeted with a cracked plastic fuel pump, splashing gasoline all over the place like a cheap decorative fountain. The old fuel pump had obviously been repaired once before, as there was evidence of a hacky job done with scotch tape and wood screws.
"Oh, OK!" Relief. It looked like the car just needed a fuel pump. An online search showed multiple options for replacement fuel pumps for this car, for as little as $30 all the way up to $600. Jeez. Who would pay $600 for a Jetta fuel pump?
Sounded easy. I’ll just buy a cheap $30 pump, put it in, and call it a day. But you know this story's getting ready to turn for the worse.
The California Car Calamity
When I purchased the car, I learned it was initially sold in California. In theory, that'd be a big selling point in Ohio. The car should have much less rust than a comparable car “from here.” I figured that, if there were any differences in engine equipment, it’s probably just got a bigger catalytic converter or something, nothing hugely different than the Jettas sold in the rest of the country.
I was wrong. The California, or PZEV, 2.0-liter MKIV Jetta has a slightly different engine.
They’re mostly the same as the Jetta engines in the rest of the country, but a few things are different. Namely, the Cali car has Variable Valve Timing. Somehow it still only produces 115 HP, but parts are a bit more expensive and complicated than normal 2.slow Jettas.
The PZEV Jetta also has a different fuel tank and pump. On most MKIV Jettas, the fuel tank is plastic. On the car I had, the fuel tank was metal. And instead of my replacement fuel pump costing a mere $30, my only option was the most expensive one which, yes, lists for $600. That was greater than my entire budget for repairs on this project. The car was also overdue for a timing belt replacement, and that's an important service on interference engines like this because if snaps prematurely the pistons and valves can crash into each other.
I had to find another option to repair the car. So using some epoxy, a soldering iron, and creativity, my computer-engineer roommate was able to reconstruct the old fuel pump.
He also put on a new timing belt, water pump, and accessory belt.
We went to start the car for the first time, and it sputtered to life, accompanied by a flashing check engine light. The car idled on its own at least, albeit badly, so we knew the fuel pump repair worked. The car had a plethora of trouble codes, from misfire (obvious) to transmission problems.
After a spark plug, ignition coil, and distributor replacement, the car idled somewhat better but still not great. No more flashing check engine light though, and the car at least ran.
"Maybe the computer needs to 'relearn' itself," I thought, optimistically. Sometimes a car's computer does take a few miles to dial itself in after major repairs, especially when air or fuel flow is altered. Meanwhile, I had a friend-of-a-friend already impatiently lined up to purchase the car once I was finished repairing it and I wanted him to have a solid car to drive.
I drove the Jetta around for a week and it did get better. The check engine light was on, but for a bad oxygen sensor. Nothing that would seriously impair driving. The transmission codes went away, the car stopped misfiring. I cleaned the interior up, and then signed the title over it to my friend’s friend for $2,000. I had put around 350 miles on it since it’s repairs. It wasn’t perfect, but it would be fine, I thought. Besides, the guy needed a car to drive, as he had totaled his by running into a tree three weeks before, and his friends were tired of driving him to work.
That was a hard and annoying flip, but it was done. Or so I thought. Oh, no, we're not done!
About three days later, the new owner sent me an angry text. The car was misfiring horribly, and now he claimed the transmission was slipping. Sure enough, a check with an OBD II reader revealed that the car was misfiring on all cylinders, and the transmission fault codes had once again returned.
I had given up. I was tired of this car, and there wasn’t much I could do to fix the problem. After a search of the symptoms and chats with a few mechanics, I inferred that the car had likely jumped time. If the timing was off enough, that might mean the car could need a whole new engine, or at least a cylinder head. Because it was a PZEV California car, a replacement engine is hard to get a hold of. All the junkyard motors were more than 1,500 miles from me, after all, and apparently, non-PZEV engines are not interchangeable with other 2.0 Jettas. Key parts, like the cylinder head, or even the car’s main computer, are different than other cars. Did I mention that the transmission was on its way out?
I felt bad. I sold a car that I thought was good, but it blew up only days after going home with its new owner. Despite all that, the new owner was adamant that he’d rather fix it himself rather than take his chances with another car. I agreed to give him back $750, for him to hopefully repair the car.
After parts and labor, I had lost $500 on my flip. But I did learn a few things about car buying.
First, expect the worst, be happy if it doesn’t come. I should have stuck to budgeting and expected to replace an engine with that Jetta straight away, and I did not. And, of course, I should have researched the oddity that is a California-spec 2.0-liter Jetta.
Second, assume that the seller is lying. Or at the very least, assume the seller is utterly ignorant of how a car works. Judging from the sketchy previous repair on the Jetta's fuel pump and the stored codes for a faulty transmission, I have a hunch that the person who sold it to me had some idea that his car had more issues than he led me to believe. “Oh the car just stopped one day," and "I don’t need it anymore,” should have been suspiciously vague when I went shopping. Most people will at least try and get some sort of professional diagnosis before they essentially abandon a reliable vehicle.
So, third, research. Research. And research. If I had done just a bit more reading before i bought this car, I would have known what to look for and identify the differences between the PZEV Jetta and a regular one. On this flip, I played far too loose and assumed far too much about the car and the owner, only for it to bite me in the rear.
It was an expensive mistake I hope I won't make again. I hope.
Kevin Williams is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on practical tips and DIY advice to help you get the most out of your car. Look for a freshly redesigned Car Bibles in early 2021. Meanwhile check us out on Twitter, IG, and Facebook. Actually LinkedIn too, if you're on there.