Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

High miles volvo station wagon or VW Jetta?

I’m a new driver and mom of first grader, agonizing over which car to buy. I have a friend selling his '97 Volvo station wagon with 175K for $2500, or a '96 VW Jetta from a dealer with 108K, for $3995. I’ve done as much research as I can and asked for advice but I just don’t know what’s the best choice. I felt safer in the Volvo, but can get used to the VW. I just don’t want to be stuck with a car what will be useless in a year’s time.

I suggest the car that had the best care by the prior owner(s).  Of all the possible factors that is the most important.  The trouble is, you don't know and neither do I.   However YOU know which one feels safer to you.  That appears to be a serious concern on your part (as it should) so I suggest you go with that one. 

After you get it make sure you keep all the maintenance listed in the owner’s manual up to date. If the owner’s manual is not in the car when you get it, inquire about getting one. Your care of the car is important to reliability, life and safety. That manual is the information you need to care for your car.

They both are at an age they are becoming repair and maintenance money pits.

Unless you are a mechanic or are sleeping with one, these are two nightmare choices. Scylla and Charibdis. Two of the least reliable and most expensive to repair cars on the road. Both are overpriced by about 50%.

If you have only $4000 to spend, best choices would be a circa 2005 Ford Focus or Chevy Cobalt or Chevy Malibu. $4000 will only get you a ragged-out Honda or Toyota with very high miles.

I agree that it would be difficult to pick two worse cars in terms of their potential repair costs.

If the OP is determined to buy one of these two cars, then the one that has been given the better maintenance is the preferable one. Without documentation of maintenance, both should be avoided.

As the old saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, and neither of these 13-14 year old cars is a good choice if you want reliable, low-cost transportation.

Thank you for your advice. Being a new driver with a little one in the car, I am concerned about safety and wonder how these cars rate compared to Volvo and VW.

Any other suggestions as to a low cost reliable and SAFE car, would be appreciated. Thank you.

You need to keep looking. The Volvo will require $2,000 a year for repairs to keep it on the road. The Jetta isn’t going to be much better.

Perhaps the friend with the Volvo will give it to you just to get rid of it so he dosen’t have to deal with the next major repair. That way you’d have a least enough money for a year of two of repairs. That’s the only way I’d take the Volvo.

I think you’re right and I need to give up on the Euro car, for now (being Euro myself I have a fondness for them). I’m going to see about safety on Ford Focus cars and some of the others suggested.

All cars on the market these days are very safe. Volvos were the safest cars 20-30 years ago. And they feel solid. But today they are all about the same, or very close.

I agree with others that both cars you are considering are money pits (and you will regret you bought either one), and there are so many better cars from a reliability and maintenance cost point of view.

If you are worried about an accident and want to avoid it, take a defensive driving course for about $150 from the AAA or similar organization.

This is advice I would give to my own relatives if they asked my opinion.

As stated, Volvos, and to a lesser extent Volkswagens, are very overrated and overpriced vehicles. However, if money is no object, buy what you want, but get a good cellphone and AAA memnbership so you can get help quickly when you are stranded.

If I was in your shoes, I would want the most reliable car and one that could be repaired quickly at a reasonable price. That’s what other posters are recommending.

P.S. I’m half Euro myself, but I don’t let that color my judgement.

If you must choose one of the two, go with the VW. Parts are easier to find and so is advice at in one of their technical forums. Consider dealer proximity and there should be more VW than Volvo dealers too. I currently own a VW more than 20 years old. I did not have in mind when I bought the car new that I would keep it forever but that seems possible now.

Otherwise, go with an older GM or Ford car for the best price and the lowest mileage. Older Hondas and Toyotas do not seem to have a monopoly on reliability as evidenced by the number of questions here about them compared to US brands.

I suggest that you look for a 2002/2003 Ford Crown Victoria, 2002/2003 Pontiac Bonneville, and 2002/2003 Buick Regal or Century. You should be able to get a decent one in a private sale for less than $5000. They have the best injury scores in the IIHS insurance payout database. That means they are the safest for the passengers. Being large cars also means that they are unpopular, and are priced lower because of it. Another bonus is that these cars are likely to belong to a senior citizen. Seniors are more likely to take care of their cars, since they have learned that good maintenance leads to fewer repairs. Find one you think is in great shape and have a mechanic you trust check it over before you buy it.

My vote is with Mr. Sanders in regards to the Crown Vic, Buick, etc.
Parts and repairs are generally much easier and cheaper and commonality accounts for a lot.

And no timing belts to mess with either.

Thanks, everyone, for your input.

I agree…cheap Volvos and VWs “look” like good deals because of their initial price. Find a used Corolla/Prism/Focus that’s a little newer and it WILL be safer. It (Volvo) may be heavier, but that does not mean it is safer. Safety comes from factors other than weight. Otherwise, we would all feel safe driving tractors.

“Find a used Corolla/Prism/Focus that’s a little newer and it WILL be safer.”

But not as safe for the occupants as a Crown Victoria or Buick.

Ford Crown Vic or Mercury Grand Marquis come to mind. Some from the early 2000’s should be in your price range.

I agree but… IMO a newer compact will be safer than an old 97 Volvo…

For your price range, a 5-10 year old domestic car will be your best bet for safety and reliability. I’m a big fan of the full size FWD Buicks (LeSabre/Park Avenue). They are popular with senior citizens, so they are usually well taken care of and have lower miles when you find them for sale. They are rock solid, drive easily, powerful enough without being disgustingly overpowered (However, if you do want it disgustingly overpowered, look for a Park Avenue Ultra, which has a supercharged engine and every luxury amenity you could ask for), cheap and easy to repair, roomy, have a huge trunk, and do very well on gas. Another poster mentioned the Pontiac Bonneville. The Bonneville is a sportier version of the LeSabre/Park Avenue.

Maybe not. The Volvo 850/S70 got a good rating in the offset frontal crash test by IIHS from 1993 through 2000. A Volvo 850 would fare much better than any new compact given that rating. Still, I’d go with an early 2000s CV or Buick. As you know, I prefer the Buicks to a CV any day. But that’s person preference.