QDear Tom and Ray:

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. 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. 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

ATOM: Well, the Malibu and Jetta are really different cars, Bill.

RAY: Yes, it's true that VW has some quality problems. The J.D. Power Initial Quality rating of its Puebla, Mexico, plant 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: When you look at vehicles that were three years old back in 2003, the Mexican-built vehicles do have more problems than average.

RAY: 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, is more designed for a family.

TOM: So if driving fun is your top priority, get the Jetta.

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!

Dear Tom and Ray:

I live up in the mountains, where I drive through snow in the winter and sometimes on dirt roads during the rest of the year. I have an older Dodge pickup, but my tree-hugger friends are getting on me about how much stuff I'm spewing into the environment. I'm quite sympathetic and would like to have a vehicle that gets better gas mileage, but I also need good traction to get around. I read your positive review of the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid on your Web site, and it sounds great. But I'm not sure it'll do the trick up here. Are there other vehicles with hybrid powertrains that could cut it in the woods? -- Darryl

TOM: You're going to see a lot more hybrid options during the next few years, Darryl. I agree with you that the Prius isn't the right car for dirt roads with tree stumps and mountain roads covered with snow. But if you can wait a bit, you'll have your choice of good options.

RAY: The first hybrid SUV will be the Ford Escape, which is due soon. That's supposed to get 30 miles per gallon overall, which is quite good. And needless to say, its emissions would be a fraction of what your old Dodge pickup is putting out.

TOM: By next year, there will be a fully hybridized Toyota Highlander, and perhaps even some GM pickups with some sort of mild hybrid assist.

RAY: So you just need to buy a little time, Darryl. You need to temporarily distract your tree-hugger friends with some other issue. Ask them if they've heard about the free-range-tofu movement.

Got a question about cars? Write to Click & Clack in care of The Post, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk Web site at www.cartalk.com.

(c)2004 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman