1989 Yugo GVL Long Term Road Test: The Balkan Bullet

A Yugo Joins the Long-Term Fleet

"What are you guys up to, anyway?" asks the proprietor of Bosnia Express. Her tone is friendly, her Eastern European accent soft but unmistakable.

We're approaching the register with armloads of Balkan foodstuffs like Cockta and Krem Banana. It's noon on a Saturday. We're on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho. Our five-man team left Los Angeles about 24 hours ago in the Edmunds long-term F-150 and A3, sleeping minimally in Winnemucca, Nevada. There's no known Balkan ancestry among us. Perhaps we look a little out of place.

We drop the Cockta on the counter and explain that we're about to buy a 1989 Yugo GVL and drive it back to L.A., and we need some appropriate snacks for the road.

"Oh! You must be buying Arko's Yugo. The white one, right?" She chuckles. "My husband drove it just last week."

Minds blown. She knows the seller? More importantly, the car is actually road-worthy? We found it on the devil that is Craigslist. All we really know is that it's got less than 40,000 miles on the clock, it's covered about 700 miles since 2002 and the engine has unspecified idle issues. Arko has already weighed in via text: "Would not recommend driving it to L.A. It looks better on a trailer lol." We've been wondering what condition we'll find it in.

"Oh yes, it runs. It's fine. He drove it all over the city."

This is greatly encouraging. But wait. Is her husband interested in buying the car?

"No." Zero hesitation. Then she cocks her head. "Why would you want to buy a Yugo?"

Simple. Because the Edmunds vehicle fleet has too many carrots and not enough sticks. When an editor holds up the car sign-out sheet for an unreasonable period of time, or posts a blurry photo, or randomly stops blogging at all, we've got to have a penalty box. We can't just let the offender walk away with the key to the Viper. We want every editor to fear these words: "You're taking the Yugo tonight."

"I see," our new friend replies thoughtfully. "Well, Los Angeles is a long way in that car. Arko will give you a bottle of rakia. You might need it."

Taking Possession
Funny she should mention the regional brandy. As historian Jason Vuic reports in The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History, workers at the factory in Serbia frequently tinkered with their productivity by throwing back shots of sljivovica, a plum-based rakia variant. In a neat bit of symmetry, that's precisely what Bosnian-born Arko offers to supply us with an hour later when we're standing in his driveway, closing the deal for a negotiated $950 cash (by rule, the penalty box had to cost less than $1,000).

We politely decline. We're too busy wrapping our heads around how straight, clean and rust-free this 25-year-old survivor has remained. What's more, the engine, a 1.1-liter, 55-horsepower Fiat four-cylinder with a Weber two-barrel carburetor on top, seems to be working remarkably well. OK, the idle's disturbingly high — there's no tachometer, but 2,500 rpm is a fair guess. And Arko's talking about a fuel-flow problem, which is why he keeps a few spare fuel filters in the car, just in case. It's certainly not stalling, though, and after we borrow some Raid and extract a thriving hornets' nest from the trunk, we're satisfied that the car poses no immediate threat to our well-being. All we need to do is swap out the cracked, decade-old tires for fresh 155/80-13 meats.

We shake hands with Arko and slap an Edmunds plate on the back. A car that once sold for around $4,000 brand-new is officially ours. Belatedly, we notice that the fuel needle's bouncing wildly between half and empty. Arko confirms it's kind of broken.

Time to buckle up and go top off the 8.5-gallon tank.

Baby Steps
There will be two of us in the Yugo for the duration, and we find ourselves laughing hysterically all the way to the local Shell.

Nothing makes sense right now. The steering wheel's on a 45-degree angle and doesn't adjust. The spastic speedometer is less functional than the fuel gauge, though we later discover that the odometer's in fine form. The four-speed manual shifter has as much play in gear as it does in neutral. Acceleration? Not really. And the brakes are barely there.

Not dying on this trip is starting to feel like a legitimate challenge.

But our actuarial tables are about to get a boost. After filling up and puttering over to the tire shop, we're informed by the manager that the front brake pads have all but disintegrated. That's the bad news; the good news is that it's not too late in the day for Napa Auto Parts to deliver the last remaining set of replacement pads in all of Boise. Brakes and tires? Hey, that's expected when you're buying any used car, let alone a $950 Yugo. We tell the shop to get it done. Two hours and $270.64 later, we're slightly more confident that the car will turn and stop well enough to keep us breathing.

We toss in a fire extinguisher we bought at AutoZone and hit the road. The first real test will be the 128-mile trek from Boise to Twin Falls, Idaho. If we're lucky, we'll get there with a few hours of daylight left. Or just get there at all. Assuming the Yugo's up for it, we'll press on to Ely, Nevada, for the night, leaving us a manageable 500-plus miles back to L.A. on Sunday.

Maybe we can really do this.

Maybe we're out of our minds.

The Open Road
The journey that follows is most notable for its improbable consistency. We're naturally expecting our quarter-century-old Communist runabout to encounter some difficulties on its first meaningful drive in 13 years, but the car just keeps on marching along.

According to the Glympse app's GPS tracker, the Yugo loves to go 77 mph; that's where the ancient Italian engine really sings, an unusual sweet spot for an '80s economy car. We record a top speed of 86 mph on flat ground, matching the original factory specification, with a subsequent run touching 91 mph thanks to a slight downhill grade.

Even flat-out, the slab-sided hatchback isn't particularly bothered by crosswinds, shaming our old Smart Fortwo long-termer, for example, and casting doubt on the tragic tale of the Yugo that was blown off a bridge. As for cornering, there's enormous initial body roll along with a disconcerting wiggle from the transverse leaf-spring rear suspension, but once we realize the car's not going to tip over, we develop a measure of faith in its ability to take a set and hold at least some sort of line.

About that suspension. Its compliance over obstacles like train tracks and big dips in gravel turnouts is astonishing. Ordinary pavement imperfections send predictable shivers through the structure, but when we carry some speed through a railroad crossing, the Yugo wafts along as if it's been retrofitted with Airmatic. You hear the tracks, but you barely feel them; similarly, you're aware of the huge suspension travel through those gravel dips, but the experience inside is serene. The historian Vuic begins his book with a joke about the ride — "Q: What do you call the passengers in a Yugo? A: Shock absorbers" — but in actual fact, our Yugo feels as supple at times as a vintage Cadillac.

"It's a real car," we keep saying aloud, slowly coming to grips with the notion.

"It's not even really that bad."

Granted, it smells like there's an exhaust leak, so we might be high. But as the miles roll up, we can't help but develop some genuine feelings for this epically unloved contraption.

Home Stretch
We stop in Ely as planned (the headlights work just fine, though the dashboard illumination is largely AWOL) and we're back at it early Sunday morning after four precious hours of sleep. We streak west along Nevada's stunning Route 6, maxed out in 4th and posterizing more than a few of our fellow motorists in the passing zones. At this point, our belief in the Yugo is strong enough that we leave the beaten path and, along with it, the possibility of rescue from passing motorists, detouring into the barren landscape for photos. The temp needle creeps toward the red with too much stop-and-go, but we tame it each time with a quick blast of heat, which conveniently coats us with a powder of dried leaves and other detritus that's been sucked in over the years, absorbing some of our seeping sweat.

It's only over the final 92 miles to Edmunds HQ that our Serbian steed starts to falter. We've just run the gauntlet of the Mojave Desert on a 106-degree afternoon, swilling warm Cockta to stave off dehydration, with the car performing flawlessly beneath us. The town of Mojave is our final pit stop before victory lane. Back on the 14 South with a full tank, the 1.1-liter tiger abruptly loses its fangs. Wide-open throttle is effective, but it bucks and stumbles at anything less. The throttle, by the way, tends to stick for a few seconds after you floor it. There are quite a few mountain passes between here and Santa Monica.

This is going to be a rough landing.

We make the best of it until we're finally able to exit the freeway, but then we hit a red light three blocks from the office. The idle has dropped all the way to normal — a most ominous sign. Green light. No power in 1st. The engine would strongly prefer to stall. Feather the clutch, pump the gas, hope for the best. The Yugo hobby-horses through the intersection as if it's having a seizure.

By a minor miracle, we get it into 2nd gear. No clue how fast we're going, we just can't afford to scrub speed until we reach the ramp that leads down to our underground garage. Two blocks to go. Here comes a 90-degree right-hander. A lady at the bus stop gives us the stink-eye as she witnesses what is likely the first-ever instance of a Yugo squealing its tires all the way through the corner of Cloverfield and Broadway. Green light ahead, and it's the last one before the garage. One more hard right and we're golden. The 6-inch-wide Kumhos shriek their approval. We can practically coast it in from here.

As it turns out, we need a bit more throttle to go three levels down. This entails flooring it a few more times and waiting for the cable to unstick while dodging large concrete posts. But there's no stopping us now. Back to the feather-and-pump routine for the final parking maneuver. We call it good and cut the engine, leaning back in something like a state of shock.

We just drove 900 miles in a $950 Yugo, and it was 90 percent copacetic. We even averaged 30.1 miles per gallon (the odometer does work, remember), beating the EPA's highway estimate of 29 mpg.

Our friend at Bosnia Express was exactly right.

We need a drink.