Honestly, if you are looking for cheap and easy, I'd go with the 2.0. I had my 2.0 5-speed all through college (undergrad and graduate) and it served me very, very well. Barely anything put into it until the last year or so I had it and that was just because of age mostly (brakes, a wheel bearing, tires...) nothing severe though. Maintenance is much cheaper on a 2.0. The timing belt service is about half the price on the 2.0 than the 1.8T. I have a GTI now with the 1.8T and its fun. I do love it. But I only get maybe 1-2mpg better around town with it than my 2.0. It can do better but you have to stay out of boost, and that's no fun But the 1.8T takes premium fuel, so I'm losing the cost race...the ratio of improved MPG does not match the fuel difference. 2.0 takes regular and *can* run on conventional oil (though I only ran synth in mine anyway). 1.8T requires at least 91 octane and must run on synth. You will have sludge problems if you have a 1.8T that ran conventional or too infrequent oil changes. Not as much of an issue as with the Passats though.
5-speeds are sturdy. Only problem I had was the shift carrier broke, but it was plastic. That's only a problem on the '98 and '99 cars I believe. The 2.0 5-speed is about the most bullet proof combo you'll get on a mk4. I loved mine. Had it for 6 1/2 years and miss it everyday (totaled in an accident last fall )