Don't buy this car to go fast. There was a time in the mid 1990s when the GTI had a 2.0 and was slower than the original. That GTI didn't deserve to be called a GTI. This Jetta is not as good as that lump. It is heavier, being a Jetta. It has smaller front brakes and drums in the rear. And it is the slowest car european car has ever bothered to get performance numbers on.
The Japanese-car guys down the hall argue there is no such thing as a good, affordable European car anymore. If you look at it from a certain angle, they have a point. Most of the old good ones need to be restored, and the newer good ones aren't really cheap yet. There are quite a few in the middle that aren't new enough to be really good but still need to be restored. Parts for any of them can be expensive.
On the other hand, there is no car cheaper than the one you already have, especially when it's paid off. If you had the means only to buy a 2.0L MkIII, or you set the living room on fire when you were 10 and made your parents hate you enough to buy you one when you went off to college, you might be stuck with one for awhile. If we were stuck driving one, we'd want to make it faster. From the reader letters we get, we have to think lots of you are in that situation. So we're going to suffer through making this car better and tell you how difficult it is. Just like buying it in the first place, we don't expect to dissuade anyone from doing it, but at least we'll be able to say we warned you. Don't let anyone tell you we don't care.
To be completely fair, we've seen a turbo MkIII 2.0L Jetta with a row of 12-sec. time slips. Its proud owner appeared likely to be a pretty talented fabricator. In any case, without doing any calculations, it looked like the best-designed turbo system I've seen on a non-1.8t Volkswagen engine in a long time. We're not going to do that.
We think most people who have this car are on a budget, so we're going to stick to one, too. We chose $4,000. Within that range, one can argue that well-chosen modifications will give performance more pleasing to an enthusiast than stock vehicles costing quite a bit more. It might even be as fast as a new Civic, which is still more expensive. Spend much more than that, and you may delay stepping up to something better that will make you happier in the long run. Just don't expect to be able to hang with your buddy who dropped a used B16 in an $800 CRX and got some chrome taillights at Pep Boys, unless you learn to drive. The odds are good that he didn't, so you still have a chance.
When we said slow, we meant really slow. Admittedly, there was a gremlin playing hide-and-seek in the engine management system when we tested this 30,000-mile 1996 Jetta, so it was down a little bit on power. It has since dynoed with more power than the stock MkIV Jetta 2.0L we have in our archives, so it should be faster the second time out, no matter what. That said, it passed 60 mph at the 11.3-sec. mark on its way to a 17.9-sec. quarter mile at 77.6 mph. But this Jetta wasn't just slow in acceleration. It took 167 ft to stop from 60 mph and wallowed through the slalom at 60.5 mph.
Said our test driver, "That was the most dangerous car I've ever driven through the slalom. It felt like it had 'no roll' anti-roll bars. Maybe it has little ones, but either way, it had no roll stiffness. Sideways momentum was uncontrollable."
Only our long-term Jaguar X-Type has ever been worse on the skidpad, pulling 0.76g compared to the Jetta's 0.77g.
We're pretty sure that whatever we do, the car is going to be a lot better. To follow along, go to www.europeancarweb.com. We'll have more photos and in-depth how-to than we can fit in the magazine, but otherwise, it'll be the same coverage you would get here.