Making More Jetta Repairs

VW Jetta with "fixed" bumper

Now that we have this shiny old Jetta, my priority had been to put it on the road and daily drive it, both to work the bugs out before its Smyth Ute conversion and to keep the miles and the winter salt off my BRZ – at least before I traded it in. I’ve made the repairs obviously necessary to get the Jetta street legal, but it still needed a few more repairs before it could really hit the road – or go much of anywhere, for that matter.

VW Jetta buried in snow

A series of rapid fire snowstorms in one week swooped across Massachusetts last month. This made it difficult for me to make progress on the Jetta as quickly as I’d hoped, despite having a garage. Parking priority goes to our daily drivers to keep them out of the weather and ready to go. The Jetta kept getting buried in snow, requiring extraction before I could get into the garage. And some time on the battery charger – which brings us to our first problem.

I’ve Run Out Of Electricity Again

Though it had no problem keeping a charge when we got it, the battery started dying overnight. The car started just fine after a recharge, and the alternator put out plenty of power to keep it charged.

2003 VW Jetta rear bumper damage

It came with an extra battery in the trunk for some unknown reason. It had a good charge, so I threw it in the car to see what would happen. It started up just fine, but once again it ran out of electricity overnight. If I disconnected the battery – either one – it held its charge just fine. Something in the car was draining the battery. I tried the obvious tricks first. I disconnected the trunk light, since the trunk lid doesn’t latch properly and that might have been the source of the drain. That didn’t work, so I removed the latch entirely. It wasn’t helping anyway, and this also led to the warning light on the dashboard shutting off.  That’s a good thing, but it still didn’t fix it the power drain.

Then Michael Gallant of Smyth Performance sent me this video.

I’ve never been much good at electrical issues. I prefer problems I can put my hands on, see the axle snapped in half, and say “well THERE’S your problem!” Following the magic smoke inside the wires isn’t nearly as easy for me. It takes a great deal of patience, which is not something I have in any great quantities. But the Humble Mechanic spelled out the procedure in small words that even I can understand, so I got out my multimeter and decided to give it a try.

I didn’t get very far in this procedure before finding the culprit. I knew that the right rear door was not fully registering as closed, having had to turn off the interior light above it so it wasn’t on all the time. That should have been enough to stop the drain, but I learned that Mk4 Jettas and Golfs have an unnecessarily complicated door latch module that’s quite prone to failure. Even worse, it’s impossible to get to without taking apart almost the entire door. Part of the Humble Mechanic’s suggestion was to address any known problems before testing each fuse individually to find a voltage drop. If I was going to keep this car as-is, I’d have to take the door apart and repair or replace the module. But since the back doors are coming off later anyway for the Smyth Ute conversion, I simply removed the B-pillar trim and unplugged the wiring harnesses to the right rear door. After leaving the car outside over a cold winter night, it started up perfectly the next day. The same conditions would’ve killed the battery before, so that door latch module must’ve been the problem – and, like the trunk latch, I have absolutely no intention of fixing it, because Ute.

This Car Blows

I knew when I bought the car that the blower didn’t work. The heated seats help make up for it, but I really need fully functional climate control – if nothing else than to keep the windshield from fogging up. I imagine I’ll want silly things like heat and air conditioning, too. Fortunately, unlike many cars that bury the blower under absolutely everything else that belongs in the front of the passenger compartment, Volkswagen put it behind the glove box, which is easy to remove with just a few Torx screws. I, and others, may rag on VW for the difficulty of servicing their parts at times (*ahem* door latch module), but they made accessing the blower quite simple, especially compared to many other cars.

The original Craigslist ad said the problem was the blower itself, but the seller told me it was actually the resistor pack. Michael Gallant had a spare on the shelf, which he kindly mailed me for the price of “please get this crap out of my shop.” Once it arrived, I pulled the glove box, peeled back the insulation, unplugged the old resistor, removed the two 6mm bolts holding it in, and installed the one Michael sent. Before reassembling I turned on the ignition, just to make sure it worked. I’m glad I did, because the blower still wouldn’t run.

I should have known this wouldn’t work. (Like I said, I’m bad with electrical problems.) In many cars that use resistor packs to control the fan speed, from the Jetta to Jeeps to BMWs, you know that the resistor is the problem if the blower only operates at full blast. This makes sense, since the highest setting runs the fan at full power, while the resistors step it down a bit depending on what speed you choose. My blower wasn’t working on any setting, including full power. I began to suspect the blower itself was the problem, just like the ad originally said. Fortunately, after removing the resistor, no extra work is required to remove the blower other than unplugging it and yoinking it out. The blower was practically falling out of the car already. I took it over to my workbench and connected my 12 volt power supply directly to its power connector. It barely moved. Well THERE’S your problem!

So I ordered a new fan by TYC, the same company that made my replacement mirrors. I slid it into place, bolted the resistor pack on, turned on the car, and all four fan speeds worked perfectly. Before reassembling the car, I swapped the car’s original resistor pack on to test it, and it worked too, so the issue really was the blower all along. But the resistor packs do fail regularly, so I’ll keep the one Michael sent me as a spare.

Early Retirement

VW Jetta with flat tire

I knew when we bought the car that the tires on it were nothing special. The tread was low, but enough remained to squeak through inspection one last time. I figured they were good enough for now and to sit on during the Ute conversion. Then the right front went flat. Well THERE’S your problem! (See? I do better with physical problems than electrical ones.)

I took the opportunity to check and inflate all of the tires to their proper pressures, which was necessary before I started to drive the car regularly anyway. But the next day, I was greeted by another flat right front tire. (Well THERE’S… ok, I’ll stop now.) Additionally, as you can see in the photo, what was left of the outer tread had worn away – no doubt a result of driving with a leaking, underinflated tire. I was not happy, since this meant I’d need to replace the tires sooner rather than later. The Wolfsburg Edition comes with 16″ alloys, a nice looking upgrade over the 15″ wheels of lesser models. I could’ve put my 17″ OZ Racing Ultraleggeras on Jetta, but despite holding air they also needed new tires after I ran them bald at a November track day in my BRZ. I decided to sell them instead of saving them for the Jetta. Any second set of wheels I get for this car will likely be 15″ for snow tires, gravel rally tires, or maybe some all-terrain truck tires if they fit once the ute conversion is complete.

I hit up my friend Jonah at FIX to see what he had kicking around. At first I was going to bring the wheels up to him separately, but the lug bolts were cranked on so tightly that even my cheater pipe bent. Plus I found some locking lug bolts that I didn’t have a key to remove. “I have everything you need to get those lugs off,” he said, “and new ones if they break.” There are reasons why I’ve been friends with this guy for years. He always has a wide selection of used but legal tires available – tires that hold air, even. For now, my standards (and budget) aren’t any higher than that. I still don’t know if the car will pass Massachusetts inspection without further work, and getting it on the road is the priority. (I hope my duct tape rear bumper fix is good enough – another part that’s coming off for the Ute conversion that I really don’t want to spend money to fix correctly for a few months.) We can always upgrade the tires later once we have a better idea whether we want to turn this Ute into a track toy or a rallycross beast – two jobs that require completely different types of tires.

New Shifter Boot

Mk4 VW Jetta replacement shifter boot
Photo credit:

Finally, though not strictly necessary, I decided to replace the shifter boot. The old one was completely separated from its base, most likely to provide a previous owner access to the base of the shifter for diagnosing the car’s previous shifting issues (which I fixed with 42 Draft Designs bushings). For just $16.89 plus shipping from, I had a no frills replacement that even included a new shift knob. Installation was simple, despite VW using a permanent clip to secure the knob and boot to the lever, unlike every other car I’ve ever removed a shift knob from. But it fits and looks good. Someday I may even clean the rest of the interior (well, at least the front of it) to look as good.

Better Now Than Later

As much of a pain as it is to have these new problems pop up, especially with further delays by snowstorms, I’d much rather be working on them now than later, when I’d rather be using my time to install the Smyth Ute kit than fixing problems with the donor car. Right now I can take my time and get everything working properly before the conversion. I’ve already made my first upgrade with the 42 Draft Designs shifter bushings. I’m sure more small nags and issues will pop up once I start driving it regularly. That always happens in a car that’s been sitting for a while. I think that’s what’s happening with the battery and tire issues. Despite these setbacks, I still think we chose a good car, especially for the low price. Besides, this wrenching is good practice before we get serious and cut a quarter of the car off.

I got it registered and insured today, so clear the streets – the Jetta is on the road! And now comes the next hurdle: Massachusetts state inspection…

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