Ask Bark: Should I Lease a Jetta?

This week’s “Ask Bark” comes from a reader who wants to know if he should prolong his Volkswagen-related madness or start new Volkswagen-related madness.

I have read your articles. I like your style. I know about the fact people ask you for advice on what car to get and then completely ignore it. You’ve said you won’t respond to that question anymore. I’m about to ask the same question. (WHY GOD WHY??? — Bark) But I really do want your answer.
Fine … here we go.

About me:
I’m 32 years old. A lot of my friends and colleagues have BMWs (I’m a software engineer). Most of them don’t use their BMWs for all that they could be, it’s mostly a badge engineering thing. I consider myself knowledgeable about cars, but fairly relaxed about them as well. I know how to drive a manual, but I’m not great at it. I live near downtown Seattle and spend a lot of time in traffic commuting to work (20 minutes to an hour away). I’m 6’3″ and 200 lbs with a physically fit frame. In cars, I tend not to be able to see traffic lights when I’m the first one in line. In trucks I tend to not fit in the parking garages nearby me in downtown. I’ve owned a lot of vehicles (some old and some brand new) and while I’m very fiscally conservative, I find I go through vehicles every 3 years so I haven’t really done all that well financially with automobiles. My cars in order have been a 1996 Prelude SI, a 2005 Acura RSX Type-S, a 2007 Toyota Tundra, a 1992 Nissan pickup, a 2007 Honda Pilot and a 2001 VW Passat GLX 4motion. I liked the RSX the best as it was actually very roomy (love hatchbacks!) and the engine was great, but really didn’t have it all that long because I bought a boat that I needed to haul around. Then I lost my job and started over for a bit before buying the Pilot in an attempt to haul my boat but get better gas mileage (it didn’t). I went with the Passat because the Pilot was actually a lemon and the boat has long since been sold and I wanted something cheap that could get me to the mountains for snowboarding while I paid up my 401k.
Now onto my question (Whew, I was worried that I had missed it in there somewhere).
Fast forward to today and my 401k is happy with my current slot in life and I’m comfortable in the Passat but it’s getting a little long in the tooth. While it has been fairly reliable unlike what most people think of when they think of VWs, it is still a VW and the maintenance is not cheap. I did the math and it has cost me $3,600 in maintenance over the last 12 months (an engine leak, new tires, spark plugs, wires, brake fluids, transmission flush and oil changes/filters at independent shops rather than the dealer). The previous 12 months (actually 15 months) I owned two vehicles so I don’t have good math as it wasn’t a daily driver. Over the next 12 months I expect a little less, but it’s coming up on needing new brakes all around and what if the old VW curse comes for me. So being a guy who likes to try new things, getting a newer car that costs the same or less than I’m spending already makes a ton of sense for me. I’ve come to the realization that I’m never going to be the guy that buys a car and keeps it for 10 years (me either). I’m too fickle for that. So I’m not opposed to leasing but I’m also a cheapskate when it comes to leasing. I’d rather pay more a month to consider something mine and be able to sell it later. I’ve heard multiple sources say you can lease a Jetta for $100 a month right now. A Jetta doesn’t really excite too much (AWD, hatchbacks, all electrics, roofless vehicles and Apple car play excite me much more) but it’s brand new, the reviews aren’t terrible on the 1.8T, the gas mileage is way better and the maintenance should be null. I’m really into the idea of the Model C coming out but that’s not for a while longer and I’m tired of being patient. Doing the math of $100 a month plus a few grand down seems cost-effective from my current standpoint. So all this wordiness being said: Is the Jetta 1.8T with a few added options a better car than a 2001 VW Passat vV-6 4motion? Are there any other cars you would suggest based on my desire to own it for three years and keep the costs lower than $3,000 a year? Should I go buy another RSX and relive my ricer days without any mods this time around?
A Man Who Should Be Committed (He has a real name, but that’s what I’ve decided to call him based on this letter)
All kidding aside, thank you for your e-mail, sir.

OK, there’s several things to consider here. First of all, thanks for demonstrating the reality of the Modern Day Car Shopper. You’ve owned a hatchback, a couple of pickup trucks and an all-wheel-drive 14-year-old sedan. And now you’re considering an econobox, or maybe another older hatch. People think that most car shoppers have it narrowed down to just one or two models, but all of the research available today suggests otherwise. In fact, most people actually expand their search to more cars and models as they get closer to the actual purchase event — which is exactly what’s happening here.
Now, let’s talk about your actual question. Is the Jetta 1.8T better than a 2001 VW Passat V6 4motion? Only in the sense that nearly any 2015 car is going to be better than a 2001 car. The new Jetta is not a particularly fun car to wheel, but the 1.8T at least makes it bearable. The problem is that I can’t find anything like a $100 a month lease on the 1.8T (I’m sure the B&B will prove me wrong immediately) — it’s the base 2.0 liter engine, manual transmission variety that has the $139 a month lease special with $2,199 down, $1,000 VW cash, and a dealer contribution of $2,167. Trust me when I say that you’re not going to want anything to do with a 2.0. I had that same motor in my MKIII Jetta back in 1994, and it’s not any faster today than it was then. The 1.8T looks more like about $197 a month with $2,000 down (which is the approximate value of your trade). To get it down to the magic $100 a month, you’re going to have to float a couple grand of additional cash above and beyond your trade. However, VW dealers aren’t exactly ringing the register with any great regularity nowadays, so they might be willing to increase their dealer contribution a little more than usual.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of putting money down on a lease. I’ve done three leases in my day, and I never put down a single dime above and beyond whatever customer cash and/or rebates were available at the time. There’s not much, if any, financial advantage to doing so unless you’ve come into some money and you’re prone to letting cash burn a hole in your pocket. I’d put your trade on the table (or, if you’re not in a hurry, sell it privately for a few hundred more) and that’s it.
The second part of your question: are there other, better cars that would cost you less than $3,000 a year for the next three years? Abso-effing-lutely, especially given your preference for hatches. At the very same lot where they’re struggling to pay the electric bills, the Golf 1.8T is leasing for $219 a month with the $1,999 down. If you like hatchbacks and VWs, why not get the Golf?
Or how about a Focus? They’re putting $2,000 on the hood right now. You can get a Titanium hatch for less than three grand a year with your trade-in. In fact, you can damn near get an ST. Or, if you’d rather buy, you can get a Focus SE hatch for about $235 a month on a 0 percent, 72-month buy (which is exactly what I’d probably do — whine away about long-term loans, haters).
So here’s the Tough Love portion of this post: Life is too short and money is too precious to spend a freaking cent of it on a car that “doesn’t excite” or of which the reviews “aren’t terrible.” You make good money, you have a good job — why are you punishing yourself? Spend some of that money on something that DOES excite during that dreadful Seattle commute (my office used to be in Bellevue, so I totally get it). You’re going to be in your car upward of two hours per day sometimes. You like hatchbacks. Why not get one? Besides, the Jetta interior is not a particularly pleasant place to spend that much time, even if it does come with modern conveniences like “Bluetooth.” Your purchase history doesn’t suggest that you’d be happy in one.
Regarding your RSX idea: When I was your age, making what was probably similar money to what you make now, I realized that I needed to grow up a bit and get a sedan. So I bought a Pontiac G8 GT. If I’d had even the slightest bit of patience with that car, I could still be driving it now and it would still be worth about what I got when I traded it. Alas, I wasn’t. Sometimes I see a G8 GT on the road and I get a little sad that I don’t have one — until I remember that it had major mechanical issues that caused me to be without it for months at a time. But the further I get away from actually having had to drive a Chevy HHR rental for a month because of a parts availability issue, the more I romanticize the idea of the G8 in my mind. Sigh.
Where was I? Oh, right. Buying an RSX. Yeah, don’t do that. The amount of money those things pull on the used car market is downright mind-boggling. Your monthly payment over 36 months for what is now a 10-year-old car would be equal to or greater than a 36 month lease payment on any number of hatches that are just downright better. Yes, at the end of it, you would own it, but at the end of it, you’d also now own a 13-year-old car.
So, here’s the Bark-approved final answer: Don’t get a Jetta 1.8T. Don’t get another RSX. I am really trying hard NOT to recommend leasing a Fiesta ST, mostly because I don’t think you’d enjoy the harsh suspension and the manual transmission on that commute. So here’s what I’d do, go drive both a Golf 1.8T (since you apparently have a little VW thing going on) automatic and a Focus Titanium automatic, which are two very different cars, and pick whichever one suits your driving style better. Or, if you can’t stomach the idea of leasing a car for that much money, drive the Focus SE hatch and work the numbers on buying one of those over 72 with 0-percent financing.
Over to you, B&B!
Send your “Ask Bark” questions to Bark really has nothing else better to do than answer your questions. I mean, there’s the whole “parenting” thing, and there’s also his actual job. So, maybe he has couple of better things to do than answer your questions, but he’ll do it anyway.
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