Should Volkswagen's recent quality concerns deter Bill from buying a Jetta?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 01, 2004

Dear Tom and Ray:

What's happening to the VW brand? I used to think VW cars were made to last forever and were built with incredible German precision and care. Now I find out that all of the small models they sell in the United States, like the Jetta I'm considering, are made in Mexico. Not to slam Mexican workers, but I have to believe it will take Mexico -- like Japan in the 1950s -- a couple of decades to get up to world-class manufacturing standards. On top of that, I have searched for reviews of the Jetta and other recent VW cars by automobile experts. Many of them have mentioned fit and finish problems, and poor construction. So, would I be stupid to pay $20,000 for a 2004 Jetta when I could replace my 1998 Chevy Malibu with a 2004 model for the same price? The Malibu is bigger, gets about the same gas mileage and comes with more standard features. But the Jetta is really cool. Please give me a reason to buy one instead of another boring Malibu! -- Bill

TOM: Well, the Malibu and Jetta are really different cars, Bill. It's like asking us to compare a sombrero with a fedora. But first let's deal with the factual part of your question.

RAY: Yes, it's true that VW has some quality problems. The Initial Quality of its Puebla, Mexico, plant, according to J.D. Power and Associates, is slightly below the industry average. And when you look at J.D. Power's more meaningful Vehicle Dependability Study, which measures problems three years down the road, VW is way below average. That's certainly troubling.

TOM: You might be right -- it might take Mexican plants some time to perfect their build quality. When you look at vehicles that were 3 years old back in 2003, the Mexican-built vehicles do have more problems than average. How many more problems? It varies from plant to plant. Nissan's plant, for instance, is only a hair below the industry average (hardly worth noting), while one of the Ford truck plants and Volkswagen's Puebla plant are really far behind.

RAY: So, are Mexican workers less capable of building good cars? Not necessarily. It's very hard for us to know whether the problems are attributable to worker error, other problems like poor engineering and design, or cheap parts selection on the manufacturer's part. One analyst at J.D. Power estimates that at least two-thirds -- and probably more -- of the long-term problems are engineering and design issues. And we'd be inclined to agree with that assessment.

TOM: In any case, VW does need to improve its quality, but that doesn't answer the question of whether you should get one.

RAY: I think you should, Bill. You clearly think the Jetta is cool, sporty and fun to drive. The new Malibu, while quite a nice car -- and a very good deal -- is more designed for a family. It's supposed to compete directly with the Toyota Camry and offer comfort, size and lots of amenities.

TOM: So if driving fun is your top priority, get the Jetta. Reliability isn't everything, Bill. I mean, my wife will tell you I'm reliable, and look what she got stuck with.

RAY: You're clearly looking for a little more excitement in your life. So you burn a little oil? So the windshield seal leaks and the carpet mildews a bit? C'mon, Bill. Don't be such a sissy! Car-Pay-Diem!

TOM: Yes, even under warranty, it's still a hassle to have to take your car in for repairs. But it's the price you pay for becoming a hipster, Bill. So, enjoy your Jetta. And don't forget to fill out your J.D. Power questionnaire so we'll know if VW is doing any better in the quality department.

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