There's a saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Take Don Thurston's smoothed '03 Jetta 1.8T, for example. Like a feature car from 10 years ago, it ticks all the boxes: power under the hood, low suspension, nice wheels, smooth bodywork and a nice interior. Yet this is no formula game. You could easily attempt the same thing with similar parts and still end up getting it wrong, or perhaps not as right as Don.
An engineer from Madison, AL, Don isn't new to the scene, but this is his first venture into the VW family since his first car; a 1967 Beetle. After a few decades of American muscle he grew weary of single-digit MPG, so in '05 he searched for a suitable daily driver.
"I went through a couple of cars I thought I would like but didn't," Don told us. "My brother was still into VWs and had a W8 Passat so told me VW might have what I was looking for.'"
A trip to the dealer landed this '03 Jetta GLS 1.8T Tiptronic. As usual, a pledge was made to keep it simple. "My original intent, what I told my wife and everybody else, was that I'd lower it, put some wheels on it, tint the windows and that's it!"
Rather obviously, it didn't stay that way for long. First came the springs and wheels, followed by bolt-on engine mods, coilovers, M3-style side skirts, repro GLI valances and so-forth.
"I really didn't like how the skirts fitted," Don continued. "I've got good friends at VW and they steered me to the OEM-style. So I started making the car more of what I wanted to drive."
A look was decided on, and the car was visually transformed. An OEM Bora-R front bumper was located, matched to a Votex rear bumper and 20th AE GTI side skirts. Everything that could be shaved was gone from the car. Badges, side moldings, you name it; it's gone.
An E46 M3-inspired rear spoiler was molded into the trunk, while OEM GLI tail lights and HID headlights replaced the stock units. Just the right amount of black paint has been added to offset the silver, on both the B-pillars and rear bumper.
With beautiful bodywork must come beautiful wheels, and there are few that stop you in your tracks like CCW Classics. Measuring 18x8.5" front, 18x9" rear, they're like Goldilocks: not too wide, not too narrow, just right.
Offsets do the arch filling, ET19 front and ET25 (with a 4mm spacer to clear the brakes) at the rear, and wrapped in 215/35 Falken FK-452 rubber.
Speaking of brakes, Don had plans for big power, so the stock stuff wasn't going to cut it. A set of four-piston Porsche Boxster calipers were fitted, clamping 13.1" ECS two-piece rotors at the front, while OEM GLI vented rear rotors are out back.
Not long after getting back from the bodyshop, the owner decided to swap the now-slipping Tiptronic transmission for a five-speed 02J unit, matched up a Clutch Masters six-puck clutch. From there it was simply a matter of one thing leading to another, as the car was taken to the next level.
"I removed the motor when I did the trans, built it with IE rods and replaced all the bearings, seals and rings," he said. "I'd never really done bodywork, but I taught myself to weld and filled the holes in the engine bay and painted the bay myself. It's not perfect, but I did it."
The engine harness was tucked, and the 1.8T didn't go back in without a host of go-fast goodies. A CTS turbo system, based around a GT3076R, replaced the puny K03. It also got a Kinetic Motorsport front-mount, 830cc injectors and MAF-less Unitronic software run from the factory ECU.
Recaro Speed seats finished in diamond-stitched houndstooth fabric
CCW Classics and Porsche big-brake conversion
The 2.5" piping on the FMIC was powercoated black, the fuel lines replaced with braided Russell Pro-Classic line from the tank to the Bahn Brenner fuel rail, using Russell's fittings to match.
Don gave lots of credit to Lavi at Unitronic for helping him with turbo selection and working through the problems. His hard work meant the setup is cranking out just under 400whp at 25psi on pump fuel. But don't imagine his 1.8T is a gas-guzzler like his old Nova V8, although he did have to get used to the new power band. "The engine really doesn't start making power until 4000rpm," Don explained. "But on the flip side, it gets 32mpg on the road because you're never on-boost unless you're playing. And when you try it in first, second or third it just roasts the tires."
1.8T rebuilt with IE rods, low-comp pistons for GT3076R big-turbo, which makes 400whp at 2
Red-painted 02J manual transmission replaced stock auto
One of the more difficult choices was about the suspension. The scene demands ultra-low but Don needed a car he could drive to work. After some research, a Bagyard Air-Ride Supreme suspension was ordered but the result was not what he expected. "I was surprised! Bagyard is made in Austria using Bilstein struts and their own bags. They have a coilover-type ride. They're not quite as stiff, but they're close." Don explained. "I was worried about how well the car would perform driving around, but it does awesome, I couldn't be happier."
In addition to fine-tuning the ride height for daily driving and dumping it for shows, the long run from AL to MD for H2O International is far more stress-free. "I've been to H2O a couple of times and you don't know the quality of the roads you're going to find, so I just run it at a safe height and drive," he enthused. "And when I get to the show, the body sits on the tires, so when it's all the way down it can't move."
Rather than use a digital controller with preset ride height settings, Don went old-school with a seven-switch box to manage the air in the system. Dual needle pressure gauges above the stereo tell him the pressure at each corner, and after playing with the system he eventually determined what pressures he needed while driving.
The final piece of the puzzle was the interior. It was centered around a pair of Recaro Speed seats he found. "I'd always wanted Speeds, and when I fitted them with GLI rears they looked good but it wasn't exactly the same," Don said. "I'm an Alabama college football fan, so I was trying to think what I could do with the seats that would be a little different." The conclusion was the tasteful addition of diamond-stitched houndstooth fabric on the seats, doors and shift boot.
With the car complete, what do Don's V8 buddies think of him switching to a little German four-cylinder? "I have lots of friends running Mustangs or whatever, and while they thought I wouldn't like it, I can now go back to them and see if they want to play!"
Owner: Don Thurston
Location: Madison, AL
Engine: 1.8-liter four-cylinder 20v with Integrated Engineering rods, Kinetic Motorsport GT3076R turbo kit and front-mount intercooler with 2.5" hot-side piping, Unitronic MAF-less software, 830cc injectors, 034Motorsport phenolic intake manifold spacer, Bahn Brenner polished fuel rail, Russell Pro-Classic braided fuel lines and fittings, 3" 42 Draft Designs exhaust, VF-Engineering polished motor mounts, N112, N249 valves deleted, EVAP and SAI deleted, intake manifold, valve cover and intercooler piping powdercoated black, polished throttle body, shaved engine bay with wire tuck
Drivetrain: 02J five-speed manual conversion, Clutch Masters stage 4 six-puck clutch
Brakes: ECS Tuning 13.1" two-piece floating front rotors with Porsche Boxster four-piston calipers, GLI 10.1" rear rotors, Hawk HPS pads, stainless lines
Suspension: Bagyard Air-Ride Supreme struts and bags all round, two ViAir 380 compressors, powdercoated 5-gallon tank, ViAir dual needle gauges, seven-position switch box, eight valves, flow controls
Wheels & Tires: 18x8.5" ET19 front, 18x9" ET21 rear CCW Classic wheels with 215/35 R18 Falken FK-452 tires
Exterior: OEM Bora-R front bumper with foglights, hood notch filled, JOM four-bar badgeless grille, OEM 20AE side skirts, Votex rear bumper, molded M3 trunk spoiler, shaved door moldings and trunk, OEM stubby mirrors, black roof and B-pillars, Mk5 antenna, OEM VW HID headlights and GLI tail lights
Interior: Recaro Speed seats on Wedge Engineering brackets, 20AE GTI rear seats, GLI dash, black headliner, door cards, carpet and aluminum trim, manual pedal box, R32 pedals, Mk5 shifter, R32 steering wheel, 42 Draft Designs A-pillar gauge pod and brushed aluminum three-gauge panel, AEM TruBoost controller and AFR gauge, ViAir pressure gauges, seven-switch air-ride controller, four-door R32 door sill plates
Audio/Visual: Alpine CDA-9887 head unit, PDX 1.600 and PDX 4.100 amps, JL Audio C3-650 Evolution component speakers and two 10W3v3 subwoofers
Thanks: Becky and Emily, Lavi at Unitronic Chipped, Clay at CTS Turbo, Andrew at Open Road Tuning, Keith Blomeyer and Lynn Henley for the interior, Heritage Collision Specialists for body and paint