By on February 14, 2013

 

Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.

Despite living in California for nearly eight years now, and recently becoming a citizen of these United States, I still consider myself to be an Englishman. To be English in America is a generally pleasant experience – no man will ever get tired of pretty girls telling him how cute his accent is – but it is also a life full of little differences which remind you every day that this is not your home, even though it is where you live.

One such difference I have noted, particularly around this site, is the American perception of Volkswagen, which I find quite puzzling.

So please indulge me by engaging in a brief mind exercise and bounce this scenario around your brain for a moment: What if everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen?

What did you come up with? Likely some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare in which you wake up late, the shower burns you, the handle falls off your coffee mug, the toaster electrocutes you and, of course, your car doesn’t start. Which, paradoxically, would be the exact opposite of what came to my mind. In fact during the late 1980’s “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” was the slogan under which English VW’s were marketed.

Those were halcyon days for VW advertising, and I don’t just say that to ingratiate myself with the management here. The ads not only won multiple awards, but they ingrained on an impressionable populace the notion that Volkswagen equals reliability. Given whom they were up against in Europe at the time – Fiat, Alfa, Skoda, Lada, Lancia, Rover etc. – this was a message well received by the English public, and VW sales did very nicely. My old man had two Mark II GTI’s in that era, the first being written off by an American coming out of an airbase and forgetting which country he was in, and the second seeing daily service until its honorable discharge. Both of them, while they remained right side up, were totally reliable and compared to my dad’s previous car, a Rover SD1, that was a genuine revelation.

My own first car was also a VW. I had a twelve year old, late 80’s Polo shooting brake – which I beat like a rented mule but couldn’t kill off despite my best hooning efforts and laissez faire attitude towards maintenance. In addition I have driven VW’s of a more recent vintage, I know many people who owned or currently own them, and out of all those people I struggle to think of one who had the proverbial “lemon” or “garage queen”. So where is the disconnect? Honestly, I’m asking! I look forward to reading your thoughts below on how these two very different perceptions about the same product can exist. I will even throw a couple of ideas out there myself, beyond the distinct possibility I was brainwashed into believing VW’s are great by Mad Men.

Firstly, I think Skoda was a massive coup for VW in Europe. It is hard to overstate what a joke Skoda was in the latter part of the last century, but once they came fully under the VW umbrella in 2000 the turnaround in public perception was remarkably quick – I mean so quick it makes Kia and Hyundai look like pikers. Going from less than zero to being the thinking (if thrifty) man’s choice in 5 years or so is quite a feat. VW very literally staked their reputation on Skoda by courageously advertising the brand as “Skoda, made by Volkswagen”. Fortunately that risk paid off and the public perception of VW is much better for it – after all if they can do the impossible with their budget brand then the premium version must be amazing, right?

Secondly I think that the general perception of German automobiles in Europe is rather untarnished compared to here in the US. An Englishman may question Germany’s ability to play football, but their industrial capability is beyond reproach. The reason for this is twofold: compared to other European volume manufacturers, like the aforementioned Rover, Fiat and Renault, German brands are perceived to be light years ahead in desirability and reliability. Also, perhaps more importantly, the Japanese have not made anywhere near such a big impression on the European market as they have over here. In America Toyota’s are ubiquitous and the gold standard for reliability, but in England they are rare and the brand is not well understood – Wolfsburg is certainly not losing any sleep over being able to avoid that comparison.

I would also suggest that VW’s focus in the segments that Europeans care about most – the small to mid size – gives the brand more positive mindshare over there than the same cars could ever achieve in the land of the F-150 and luxo-barge. Finally I will go out on a limb and guess that the dealer experience closer to the mothership is a bit more pleasant, but then having teeth pulled is more pleasant than any US dealership experience.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is all she wrote. I shan’t describe the tortures threatened for newbies exceeding their word limit – suffice to say that I dare not continue and must reluctantly pass the torch on to you. Why do you think VW has such a poor reputation in this country? Poor amongst the cognoscenti on this site at least, sales seem to be going gangbusters with the wider public.

Andrew Nevick is a lapsed Englishman who lives in rural San Diego county and programs mobile software for a living, mainly iPhone and Android games. He drives a Prius and rides a Ducati, both thrill him, in different ways.

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145 Comments on “If Only Everything In Life Was As Reliable As A Volkswagen… A Future Writer Story....”


  • avatar
    CJinSD

    It is just a matter of perspective. Living in the US, VW ownership is often the worst experience with mechanical incompetence that we encounter. Living in the UK…

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      Zing! And for a stereotype defying face-off (for both countries, who invented radar?) which is worse: blaupunkt or lucas?

      • 0 avatar
        nrd515

        I can’t imagine anything worse than Lucas. Just the name on something totally unrelated to Lucas Electric brings back memories of my best friend’s dad’s adventures with British cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Gordon

        “I can’t imagine anything worse than Lucas.”

        Really? Try Magneti Marelli for starters Delco-remy or rather don’t.

        Marelli stuff is particularly awful. In the 50′s racing teams would strip ferraris of every bit of marelli gear and replace it with lucas items. Lucas made particularly good magnetos which racing teams loved.

      • 0 avatar
        Southern Perspective

        Many years ago, an automotive magazine, I believe it was Motor Trend, equated Lucas with “The Prince of Darkness” due to the unreliability of Lucas’ wiring harnesses. I thought it was amusing at the time.

  • avatar
    Thomas Kreutzer

    Great article! Really engaging – now, and I write this after a terrrible experience with a 2002 Golf TDI, if only you were doing something other than defending VW’s honor…

    You got my vote then and you get it again now. Really, really well done.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      I beg to differ; the article was about advertising, marketing, and perceptions of quality, but told us nothing about actual vehicle quality. It was equivalent to reviewing vehicle handling based on an auto manufacturers Superbowl ad.

      Throw in some guesses, perceptions, and recollections and you have the same insight any barstool pundit can offer.

      Some actual data comparing the reliability of differing European makes and models would have been interesting. Unfortunately, this article was reliably uninformative from start to finish.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    If Volkswagen could build the stone cold reliable auto you refer too, they could conceivably gain significant share if not conquer the US market. I argue this because of their significant “war chest” gained from otherwise global dominance, this is a company who if motivated to spend can “shoot and miss” with product probably several times and still outspend/outmarket their competitors. Their current US share is 4.3% according to this random googled site, and I’m shocked its that much. Quirky or trendy only gets you so far, just ask Saab.

    http://www.goodcarbadcar DOT net/2012/02/us-auto-brand-market-share-january-2012.html

  • avatar
    hf_auto

    It would be very interesting to compare reliability data between identical cars in the US and Europe. Unfortunately, VW is probably the only entity with that data.

    My personal experience with VW was that the dealer service departments are completely clueless (unable to diagnose basic issues, overfilling oil, tearing upholstery, blatantly obvious warranty fraud…)- that can’t help the reliability scores. No exageration, between myself and 4 other VW owners I know, the cars have come out of regularly scheduled maintenance in worse shape than they went in EVERY.SINGLE.TIME.

    I soon started taking the car to an independent mechanic and the difference was night & day.

  • avatar
    tkewley

    A couple of factors, one of which you note: perception. Relative to a Rover, Lancia, or (shudder) Lada, VW products may as well be built by Toyota in terms of reliability. The US is a more competitive market, where the true poor-quality players (with the curious exception of Land Rover) have been driven out. Here, VW lags towards the bottom of the benchmark quality rankings (JD Power). In addition, many of the VW products sold in the US over the last 30 years were built at their Mexican plant. The cars built there do not seem to have been comparable in reliability to their German built counterparts.

    • 0 avatar

      One thing I noticed about Mexicans is their odd reliability swings, depending on how cheap they are told to do build. PT Cruiser is a great example of that. By the end of life its examples became complete trash. But they could do it well, too, if only asked. So it’s completely in the hands of WV. If their Mexican cars are junk, it’s only because VW set such goalposts.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      “The cars built there do not seem to have been comparable in reliability to their German built counterparts”

      I’m curious as to which models & years you’re referring to. The MkV Jetta made in Mexico is one of the most reliable (or least disastrous, depending on your view) VWs according to CR and TrueDelta

    • 0 avatar
      Acd

      Look at what the Brits were comparing VW reliabilty to: British Elend–oops I mean Leyland, the remains of Chrysler/Rootes and uninspired Vauxhalls. BL in the late 70′s/early 80′s made Fiat look like Toyota or Honda for reliability. Compared to a Triumph Dolomite, Austin Allegro or Morris Marina a VW Golf is revelation. Sure the plastic bits may fall off the VW and some of the electrics are suspect but compared to the sorry state of BL cars they were carved from solid blocks of granite.

      There is a reason why the British car industry has all but disappeared: they built crap for decades and almost everyone built cars better. Once imports began flowing into the market in the 70′s customers realized that they didn’t have to put up with crappy British cars and they had better alternatives.

  • avatar
    spreadsheet monkey

    So accurate! Living in the UK, and seeing the way that VWs are so revered for quality, I find it strange to read such negative opinions on this site.

    I think one of the main reasons for the difference in reliability (perceived or otherwise) is that European VWs are mostly assembled in Wolfsburg, whereas VWs for the North American market are assembled in Mexico or Tennessee.

    • 0 avatar
      ash78

      Not entirely true, but it does depend on the year. We have both Emden and Mosel-assembled Passats, and I previously had a Mexican Golf.

      The paradox about factory location is that the cars INTENDED to be made cheaper are often made in the cheaper factories (eg Puebla). That doesn’t mean the Mexicans can’t build a good car, it just means the Germans forced the Mexicans to build the cheap car :D

      The Tennessee factory is allegedly as good as anything VW has worldwide. It’s simply a currency hedge in order to stabilize their cost structure while increasing US sales.

      In other words, I no longer subscribe the old notion (which was once true) that the factory is inherently the reason behind the quality.

      30 miles from me in Alabama is a Mercedes factory that builds every ML, GL, and R-class for the world. Our Hyundai factory builds worldwide models, as well. They’re in-differentiable from their Austrian, German, or Korean-built counterparts.

      btw, love the screen name. I’m a spreadsheet monkey, too :D

      • 0 avatar
        hf_auto

        It depends how you define “reliability”. The bathtub curve is a fundamental concept in reliability engineering- the observed failure rate in a car is shaped like a bathtub (high failure rates at the start and end of life with a lower rate in the middle. Random design-related failures occur at a flat rate across the life of the car. Manufacturing issues manifest at a high rate at the start of life. Wear-out issues occur at the end. Given today’s reliability, that probably means that one out of every four cars out of a “poor” plant will have a small issue that an identical one out of a “good” plant wouldn’t have- it’s pretty minor, and a non-issue after the first ~6 months of ownership.

        Ideally, VW is working to homogenize all of their factories such that they have identical reliability rates. Realistically, each factory has its own management that champions independent reliability efforts and operates on different budgets (i.e. your cheap car paradox). Additionally, plants likely have different tools with different capabilities in different locations just due to geography and sourcing constraints.

        In my past life as a design engineer, I ran a big statistical study on an identical part installed in two badge-engineered platforms. In one car, the number-1 warranty hit on the part was “loose part”, that same failure mode didn’t even show up in the warranty data for the other division. Everyone chalked it up to one division not paying out warranties as much as the other. Both companies were following the same installation instructions, but it turned out the two plants had different standard torque requirements for fasteners because the no-warranty division had championed a big torque retention study. These little details make a big difference in today’s 6-sigma environment.

      • 0 avatar

        The WV bathtub’s bottom is too high.

    • 0 avatar
      icemilkcoffee

      I think VW’s slide started with their Pennsylvania plant. That plant put out some horrible cars with tacky trims. I had a Rabbit made in Penn, and it was just nightmaish.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        VW’s quality began declining with the rear-engine 411, and the Dasher and Rabbit were even worse.

        The Pennsylvania-built Rabbits weren’t any worse than their German-built counterparts in reliability. The problem was that a former GM official at VW of America used the contemporary Chevrolet Malibu as the inspiration for the interior trim and chassis tuning of American-built Rabbits.

  • avatar
    Off a Cliff

    First: I loved the article, it’s a nice change of perspective, though VW love is normal around here (see double Phaeton ownership and a green S5).

    Second, in my own personal experience, I have seen less-than-stellar reliability out of VW’s. One’s knowledge in no way is statistically significant, but I’ll add my $0.02. My father owned a few VW’s, one an old Scirocco, and most recently a 2002 Jetta, which he poured so much money into to keep running correctly (I say correctly, because it never left him stranded, only limping), it was a godsend when somebody hit it.

    More recently, a friend of mine owned a 2009 Jetta TDI, with a stick. He drove almost exclusively highway (45mpg around Ohio ain’t bad). Turbo blew up in the fall and the dealer pursuaded him to get a 2012 Passat TDI, with a stick. 3 months in, the turbo blew. I was shocked, and he was pissed.

    Now, would VW make all their money if all their turbos blew up between 3 months and 3 years. No. This is only experience with people I know. Maybe I’m the one who’s cursed ;)

  • avatar
    Pch101

    We all base our comparisons on what we know. Comparing VW to Rover makes the VW look far better than comparing it to a Toyota.

    The average American also drives more than does the average Brit, so Americans will encounter the drawbacks of bad engineering, design and assembly that much sooner.

    Some of this is a matter of statistics. The mass production system devised by Henry Ford and which was largely copied by the Europeans and the other American automakers had an inherent defect rate of about 10%. Naturally, you could be lucky and always draw a straw from the 90% pile (and become a fanboy), or else you could get one of the 10% and possibly be inspired to buy something else.

    Toyota introduced lean production to auto making, which reduced the defect rate. While the defect rate isn’t zero, it’s a lot closer to 0% than it is to 10%. American consumers began to discover this, and despite the howl of the Detroit fanboys, increasingly saw that there was a genuine quantitative difference in the reliability of Toyotas, Hondas, and the like. American automakers were slow to copy this innovation in production methods, and paid the price for their intransigence. (The Germans were also slow in copying it, but they were niche players and could use other features such as styling and road feel to carve out a niche in the US market.)

    In contrast, while the Americans were being inundated with Japanese vehicles during the 70s and 80s, the Europeans were working fairly hard to use trade barriers in order minimize their presence. As a result, the Japanese have never really gained the foothold in Europe that they did in the US. And for a variety of reasons, they probably never will.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      In addition, I would add that cars from the Japanese big 3 are generally designed for US tastes and manufactured in North America. The parts needed for repairs are readily available and fairly priced. To be fair, domestic brands like Ford have also become reliable with even better parts availability, especially in rural areas.

      My Honda Accord needed some repairs under warranty, but because repairs generally got done the same day with no out-of-pocket cost to me, those problems didn’t cause me too much grief. In contrast, friends with Volkswagen cars seemed to have more cases where repairs were delayed while the dealer waited on parts. Most Americans are dependent on their car to get to work and losing use of your car for the next morning is an enormous inconvenience. Reduce the inconvenience of Volkswagen repairs and maybe the perception of quality would improve.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Gordon

      “Comparing VW to Rover makes the VW look far better than comparing it to a Toyota.”

      Post 1990 Rovers were far better than VWs.

  • avatar
    ash78

    Here’s the issue, coming from a 34-year-old American whose family has owned 23 out of the past 27 cars as VWs. In the US, at least until recently, VW were simply niche players. Under 3% market share with a commensurate dealer network. Outside of cities with 250k+ people, it could be often rare to find a dealer at all. Why did we like them? Because for a mainstream brand, they simply offered a better driving experience than the junk coming from the US (1970s-80s) or the soulless appliances coming from Asia (same period). Further, they were a way to stand out from a crowd a little more, sort of like “the thinking man’s BMW”

    Three main problems with VW in the US:

    1. Thin dealer and parts network: With little effort expended in the US for 30 years or so, VW just made a lot of enemies by not honoring warranties, having parts that were simply too expensive, and labor that was often more expensive than the competition. While the initial ownership experience and quality were good, the longer-term experience soured MANY people to the brand as a whole. Compare this with the European juggernaut VW, who has 40%+ market share in most countries.

    2. US vs European duty cycles: Americans keep their cars, on average, longer than Europeans. We also use them more heavily on a daily basis. It’s brutal. When you add in the fact that many of us begin to take our cars for granted on maintenance, VW simply fell behind in offering the US market something that favored longevity over quality. Who stepped in to save the day? The Japanese, and it’s a reputation they’re still riding today.

    3. Unnecessary complexity: In short, I like to say that VW tries to offer too much up front, with no regard to longevity. Engineering for engineering’s sake, which often results in excessive labor costs for things like timing belts and control arms. The cars often seem designed purely by engineers, without much practical regard for long-term serviceability.

    That’s it in a nutshell. VWs are all I’ve owned, and saving money through DIY maintenance and repair has been the only reason I’ve stuck around. I don’t think I’ll fall for their siren song again, which would make me the first generation in three to break the “VW cycle” that my grandfather started in Washington DC in the late 1950s.

    They may be “ready for prime time” now, but they’ll have to earn my trust back over the next decade. The competition has really closed the gap in the past few years, so VW’s differentiation is virtually nonexistent anymore.

    • 0 avatar
      jz78817

      re: #3 “German Engineering” = “Why use one moving part when six will do?”

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Bingo! The door latch and handle mechanisms on my 1997 Passat are the most complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions that I have ever seen on any automobile. They work perfectly when new, lubricated, and properly adjusted. After that it’s all downhill (and at the bottom of the hill, people can be seen literally yanking the handle off right of the door in an attempt to open it).

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff Weimer

        Exactly. I mean, vacuum operated door locks.

    • 0 avatar

      Have VW ever offered anything as complex as Civic? Remember that vacuum diagram posted at TTAC. It was more intricate than Citroen’s airbag suspension!

      • 0 avatar
        jz78817

        well, the rat’s nest in the CVCC engine was probably to squeeze a couple more years out of carburetion; IIRC Volkswagen had transitioned to fuel injection by then.

      • 0 avatar
        icemilkcoffee

        VW’s had a rat’s nest of vacuum hoses all through its CIS years. Worse yet, VW’s vacuum hoses were wll slip-ons with no clamps at all. With age a lot of these would just slip off at random. I remember I had to plug them back at random on my ’85 Cabrio.

    • 0 avatar
      wsn

      “Here’s the issue, coming from a 34-year-old American whose family has owned 23 out of the past 27 cars as VWs. In the US, at least until recently, VW were simply niche players. ”

      WOW and WOW. You owned 23 VWs and still don’t know VW once had 50% of US import market share (and thus was not a niche player at all)?

      I mean, it’s not like Americans never tried VW before. They chose not to buy anymore, after their first hand experience.

      • 0 avatar
        slawinlaw

        Wow! and Double Wow! VW’s high water mark in the US was 7% of US auto sales in 1970. The percentage fell from that point on due in part to increasing sales by Japanese mamufacturers. That qualifies as a niche player.

      • 0 avatar
        WRohrl

        50% of IMPORT market share is nowhere near the same as overall market share. At that time what was the total market share of ALL imports together?

        50% of a very small slice of the pie gives you half that slice. Easily still a niche player compared to the whole.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        It depends on how you define “niche player.”

        In this country, VW’s sales peaked in 1970 at around 500,000. VW easily outsold AMC that year, along with Chrysler Division, Cadillac and even Mercury. That figure was also close to such established players as Oldsmobile and Dodge. Sales began falling in the early 1970s as first Toyota and Nissan, and then Honda, began chipping away at VW’s customer base with more modern vehicles.

        In the late 1960s and early 1970s, VW was not a niche player.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    I think that you hit the nail on the head: Over here, the quality benchmark is Toyota and Honda. Against that standard, VW’s are horrible. But held up against your average Euro brand, VW’s are indeed a shining star…

    Some of the problems also stem from the vast majority of mechanics having pretty much no experience with European cars. If you don’t go to a Euro car specialist or a dealer (and even that’s iffy), you are going to get hosed. Badly. I can only imagine what would happen if I tried to get Pep Boys or Firestone to change my timing belt. It’s not especially difficult if you’ve done it before, but it’s not something a mechanic just propping open the hood is EVER going to figure out. They aren’t necessarily “good” or “bad”, but they ARE different.

    To the posters blaming VW’s troubles on their Mexican assembly plant: I have a German-built B5 Passat (it was never built in Mexico), and while I, personally, haven’t had much trouble with it (ain’t a Camry, but not a shop-queen either), and I don’t want to drive anything else, the model does not exactly have a stellar reputation for reliability or longevity.

    • 0 avatar
      jz78817

      assembly location is a canard employed by people looking for excuses. Design flaws aren’t dependent on assembly location. if we were talking about fit and finish or parts compromised during the assembly process, that’d be another story.

    • 0 avatar
      Ubermensch

      Exactly. I’m not buying the Mexican vs German built argument. My German built B5 Passat was terrible. The failures also weren’t maintenance related as I went above and beyond the book. The cars are just not engineered for durability or longevity.

      • 0 avatar
        ash78

        Hear, hear. Our daily drivers are ’98 and ’01 Passats (pray for me). While more reliable than most, the little annoyance add up to something maddening.

        With baby #2 on the way, the idea of my wife continuing to drive an 11-year-old VW is bordering on spousal abuse :D

      • 0 avatar
        sirwired

        I guess I’ve been lucky with my car. In 118k with my ’04 1.8T I’ve done (out-of-warranty) the axles (torn boots), a wheel bearing, and an alternator. Only the bearing required a shop; the axles and alternator were extremely easy DIY jobs. Again, not a Camry, but not something to be angry about either.

        But I’m under no illusion I’m going to pile on another 100k without having to do something annoying to it, like track down a vague CEL, fix vac leaks, or service the trouble-prone PCV system.

  • avatar
    Ubermensch

    I think the main reason VW’s reputation is not good in the U.S. is what you already stated in the article. Lack of Japanese brand penetration in Europe as a means of perspective. The reliability of Japanese brands starting the 80s and beyond was a revelation for Americans, something Europe has yet to experience.

    The secondary issue is the terrible dealer service experience, poor warranty support, and high parts cost for U.S. customers. VW of America has done more to damage the brand than the badly engineered cars have.

  • avatar
    Johann

    You can do this exact same thing in South Africa (where I grew up – but I now live in London). There VW has the biggest market share of any country where VW operates outside of Germany. And they are perceived as bullet proof. There you are either a VW man or a Toyota man. Nothing else counts as a real car.

    But I digress. In my mind I always thought the reason for the American view of VW is two fold. First poorly trained dealer technicians and sales staff and second (and most importantly) where the cars were built. In the formative years in the USA when this “perception” was formed, your Rabbits were (poorly?) built in Westmoreland County. And the Golf VI and Jetta comes from Mexico. I thus don’t think a European and German built Golf VI is quite the same as an American Golf VI. Maybe I’m wrong.

    But a lot of this is to do with the placebo effect. People tend to believe what their parents tell them or more markedly, the advertising people.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      The formative years were when VW sold only German air cooled cars here. They started being problematic about the time fuel injection was added, and then the Dasher(all German) and Rabbit(German for the first three years) finished off the good will they’d built up in the ’50s and ’60s. The Pennsylvania Rabbits weren’t any less reliable than the ’75-’77 Rabbits, but they were trimmed like Chevrolets. Making cars in North America has done nothing to improve our perception of VW, but the damage was done by VW’s inability to replace their simple, reliable, pre-WWII technology products with simple, reliable, modern ones.

      The other thing you don’t know is that VW once had the most vaunted reputation for quality and dependability of any affordable car in the US. They ruined it with the 411, Super Beetle, Dasher and Rabbit. They turned around public perception and collapsed their market with nothing to do with where they built factories.

      • 0 avatar
        Johann

        A very reasoned reply. I thus stand corrected re the factories’ location(s). The problem started decades before that then.

      • 0 avatar
        DC Bruce

        Exactly right. I remember a friend of mine bought a new Audi Fox (the upscale clone of the VW Dasher) the same year as I bought a Mazda RX-2 rotary (1973). Beginning almost immediately, he had problems with the Audi. Meanwhile, the Mazda kept whirring along, trouble-free. In 5 years of ownership, I think the only repair was replacing a water pump that had a bearing about to fail. By the end of the time I owned the Mazda, the seals were obviously failing as the car had all of the symptoms of a loss of compression.

        The absolutely most trouble-plagued car I have ever owned in 40 years of car ownership was a 1980 Audio 5000 diesel, purchased new. The other cars I have owned include two Fords (Mustang GT and Taurus SHO), a Jeep Cherokee, two Toyota Previas, an Accord, a Pilot, a BMW and a Saab 9-5. All of these, except the first Previa, I owned for at least 5 years; many for longer.

        The revelation that Toyota brought to the automotive market — and that the Europeans and the Brits insulated themselves from — was that a car, especially a luxury car, should be reliable.

        As good an example of “competition improves the breed” as I can imagine.

        And it’s kind of ironic that the reliability of the European Volkswagen Beetle (as compared to American cars) in the 1960s and early 1970s should have started the American “breed” improving QA but didn’t.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        VWs of the 1960s didn’t spark a quality revolution in this country for a variety of reasons.

        VWs weren’t THAT much more reliable than most American cars of the time. VWs had better BUILD QUALITY, but that is not the same thing as reliability. American drivetrains were pretty well sorted out by the l960s, and if the basic chassis bits were not the most sophisticated in the world, they were well-suited to typical American use (and abuse).

        Two, VWs were seen as a second car or a “fun” car during the prosperous 1960s. VW wasn’t competing in the heart of the American market. Most people weren’t going to trade their Cutlass Supreme or Galaxie 500 for a Beetle. If a few low-profit Corvair or Falcon sales were lost to the Beetle…GM or Ford could live with that. They really wanted to sell you an intermediate or full-size car anyway. That is where both companies made their real money.

        Finally, the Japanese had perfect timing. They had improved their offerings by the late 1970s. Not only was VW stumbling with the front-wheel-drive Rabbit and Dasher, but the Big Three were desperately trying to meet the demand for better fuel economy and cleaner emissions with downsized drivetrains and bend-to-fit technology.

        The Japanese saw that opening and drove right through it. They then upsized their offerings in the 1980s, just as the Big Three were switching to smaller front-wheel-drive offerings to improve fuel economy.

        By the late 1980s, a Honda Accord was roughly the same size as an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, but with better build quality and reliability, and the rest is history…

  • avatar
    Acubra

    I see a few reasons for the difference:
    1.
    US Spec is so much higher than typical EU. I would not be surprised if A/C is still an option over there. Same applies to power anything.
    2.
    As mentioned above – qualification of service folks. I’d add suggested lubricants and service intervals that do not reflect actual requirements.
    3.
    Mexico assembly and local sourcing.
    4.
    Average level of abuse and miles driven.

    All that combined with very lean service life margins and redundant durability result in what we have here.

    • 0 avatar
      Johann

      I beg to differ on point 1. I’m shocked every single time I see a US test of a Golf GTI to see:

      1. a basic three knob tiny screen RNS 310 sat nav
      2. no climatronic

      Both of those are pretty much standard on a Golf GTI in Europe. You won’t dream of offering a near top of the range car here without the RNS 510 sat nav or climatronic.

      • 0 avatar
        ash78

        Johann, the perception difference is also about price. The GTI sells in the US for about 80% the amount of an entry-level salary for a university-educated person. In most of Europe, it’s probably closer to 125% (based on my informal research; I refuse to do direct currency translations because they’re fallacious).

        And in the US, the car is aimed almost strictly at 18-25 y/o males, while the Golf in general is a much broader, more general-purpose family car in Europe. Nobody here would expect a GTI to have Climatronic. It would not be a selling point.

      • 0 avatar
        Johann

        Fair enough ash78. I get that. Over here a Golf GTI is not cheap, nor aimed at that demographic. The average salary in the UK is something like £32,000 and a GTI with options can easily cost nearly that much. I don’t know the average salary in the US nor what sort of VW that would net you…

      • 0 avatar
        ash78

        Avg US salary is around $50k, give or take, across all societal segments and ages. That could get you two GTIs, or more likely a “Passat and a half” if we’re comparing an average person to a car they’d more likely buy.

        (I made my earlier reference to a young person’s starting salary because that’s the GTI’s market position).

        My first car was a Golf III (1995-2001) and I still dislike how the US, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia tend to demonize hatchbacks for some reason. Hatches and wagons are by far the best compromise for most people, worldwide.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        @ash78

        No, the GTI is not aimed at guys just out of college. They can’t afford them or the insurance for them. They do buy them used. GTIs are aimed squarely at middle-aged dudes who want to feel young. If I hadn’t moved on to BMWs I probably would have one in my garage, though it would be the TDI with GTI trimmings version.

        All I can say on the subject as a whole is that I, and everyone I know who has had VWs has enjoyed them thoroughly. And being in New England that is a lot of people. VW didn’t get to be the #2 or #3 car maker in the world building junk. In my direct experience, Japanese perfection is a much bigger myth than German unreliability.

      • 0 avatar
        Ubermensch

        @krhodes1
        “In my direct experience, Japanese perfection is a much bigger myth than German unreliability.”

        Unfortunately, all of the available data disagrees with this assessment. I don’t think anyone is claiming that Japanese cars are examples of “perfection”, just that they are much more reliable than German makes.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        @ubermensch

        I don’t disagree that Japanese cars are somewhat more reliable. I just don’t think the difference is anywhere NEAR what it is made out to be on this forum.

        Japanese cars are CERTAINLY more reliable in the rust department though, in my local climate. You can fix anything but rust.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “US Spec is so much higher than typical EU.”

      This is generally true of the German luxury brands. We don’t get the lower end models, and the level of standard equipment is higher.

      But that isn’t often the case with the VW branded cars. That’s especially true as of late, now that there are specific US variations of the Jetta and Passat. Those cars are decontented in order to hit lower US price points.

  • avatar

    In BRazil VW got a jump start on the reliability perception due to the Fusca (Beetle). Comparing to other cars from that period, the VW was tougher and easier to fix. Starting from the 90s on VW lead on this front was gradually eroded to the point that for the general public, they pretty much lump all the Big Brazilian 4 (Fiat, VW, GM and Ford) together while VW and Fiat are still considered easier and cheaper to maintain.

    As to the new brands, Renault has carved out pretty good perceptions for themselves while the PSA twins are still seen as iffy.

    The Japanese..Some love them, some despise them. They have gotten a pretty good reputation for reliability though some still think their maintenance in too expensive. Now, with Toyota launching the Etios and Hyundai the HB20, they are reaching into the (cheap) bread and butter of the market. The HB20 in particular seems off to a rocky start while the Etios may have some trouble. Not because of quality, it seems to be a well engineered car without any glaring mechanical defficiencies, but the off putting design may hold it off from ever reaching the top of the sales charts.

    In a nutshell, Brazilians perceive VW as reliable but not as head and shoulders above everybody else in the market.

  • avatar
    MBella

    I think it’s a couple of things. First, the cars are very sensitive to the conditions they are subjected to. Michigan roads and Lower Saxony roads are too very different things. The roads here eat the cars up. Second, they have electrical issues and coolant leaks that other cars just don’t have anymore. Also, when something goes wrong, the price for a repair is in the Mercedes and BMW price range than a Toyota or Honda would be. Last, the dealers have some really unqualified techs fixing their cars. I started out in a VW dealer when I was 19, still in school, and had very little knowledge over all. Cars came back all the time because there weren’t enough knowledgeable techs working there. This would test the patience of the customers and help increase the perception of unreliability.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    VW is arguably the best at marketing their wares of all the car makers operating in the US.
    However, as has been stated on this site by many others, there is no more incompetent dealer body than VW’s. Couple this with spotty quality, and the brands dismal doestic reputation is sealed. My own theory is that VW is will aware of this but has chosen a bottom feeding work around instead of fixing the root cause of the problem. Their solution has been to market to the young buyers who want a :sporty” ride but do not have enough experience to know how badly they are getting hosed. Eventually, they wise up and swear off the brand. VW’s stategy is to develop more clever commercials to lure another group of young customers to replace the ones who have left the fold.
    If I had the time, I would plot VWs sales in the US against a graph of the population of 18-24 year olds. If my theory is correct, the two curves would have the same shape, but be offset to reflect the “disenchantment” interval.

  • avatar
    Jellodyne

    VWs have always had good mechanical reliability. And thanks to Joe Lucas, the Brits assume the electricals are going to go bad anyway.

  • avatar
    AMC_CJ

    Let me answer you then, keeping in mind there is a 01′ Jetta with the front suspension taken apart in my garage, and I’m suppose to be a professional technician with a degree in Automotive Technolgy (for what that might be worth). Yes, they drive nice, ride nice, and I can’t think of another car in that segment circa-01′ that could compare to that Jetta (small, but “premium”). But, like german cars in general, they’re pretty much crap….

    Before my wife met me she had multi;le problems (while still making payments, mind you) with
    - The plastic water pump (german engineering right?)
    - Various sensors and emission devices faulting
    - Various other gremlins, god knows what

    Since meeting me;
    - 2 Ignition modules. Plastic cracking, letting in moisture, mayhem follows.
    - Various coolant leaks, once again, PLASTIC pieces cracking and leaking
    - I swear if you just stare at that dipstick tube hard-enough it breaks off
    - This stupid plastic vacuum cleaner thing mounted on the engine (I know, I’m suppose to be a professional here, but I’ve never seen this before) completly falling apart.
    - And currently, the wheel-hub bearing.
    Oh, and there are various wires completly flaking apart and I’m just waiting for the problems this is going to cause.

    We got a 2012 Mustang for her, as we just don’t trust the Jetta beyond that of a daily-beater for commuting. Which, by the way, in the same time my daily beater, a 78′Chevy Malibu, has had far less problems in the same time frame.

    VW’s are garbage, and the Germans in general have a difficult time with electrical engineering (and they love using plastic where they shouldn’t, even on the large Mercedes diesel engines). That’s why when Mercedes bought out Chrysler they immediately used/stole all of Chrysler’s electronics systems as MB were so far behind, gave Chrysler some outdated platforms, then dumped them. Most people don’t know that; now you do.

    • 0 avatar
      roverv8i

      Lot of mention of plastic and electrical problems. It would be interesting to see this data over time. Most people do not consider outside factors that come into play here. Since the mid 90′s RoHS and REACH in the EU have worked to limit or ban more and more substances requiring changes to design. Things such as no lead in solder and the resultant tin whiskers among other issues. They are working to eliminate many Phthalates that are used in PVC as a plasticizers (this makes your cable insulation flexible instead of breaking when you bend the cable). Did the Germans not handle these changes as well or maybe take the lead in making them before they new designs were proven? I think of the change to clear coat paint and all the cars with it falling off a few years later.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      “This stupid plastic vacuum cleaner thing mounted on the engine (I know, I’m suppose to be a professional here, but I’ve never seen this before) completly falling apart.”

      You mean the secondary air pump? That is pretty much standard equipment on any naturally aspirated car with a catalytic converter. It blows air into the cat to warm it up quicker and get it working in it’s efficiency range.

      ” That’s why when Mercedes bought out Chrysler they immediately used/stole all of Chrysler’s electronics systems as MB were so far behind, gave Chrysler some outdated platforms, then dumped them. Most people don’t know that; now you do.”

      Do you have some proof? MB electronics were way more advanced before they bought Chrysler, and after. Not that it doesn’t create a certain amount useless complexity, but to suggest that Chrysler electronics are more advanced, and that Daimler stole them is just plain wrong. Chrysler engineers are still trying to figure out how they can use some of the systems that the Germans left in Auburn Hills when they left.

    • 0 avatar
      Numbers_Matching

      ‘That’s why when Mercedes bought out Chrysler they immediately used/stole all of Chrysler’s electronics systems as MB were so far behind, gave Chrysler some outdated platforms, then dumped them. Most people don’t know that; now you do.’
      CJ – that’s absolutely ridiculous. The MB components given to Chrysler to form the LX platform were not the most advanced at the time, but were light-years ahead of anything developed in-house at the ‘Tech Center’.
      Also – do some research on MB, they (when including Daimler-Benz) have more patents and resources than any other auto maker.

  • avatar

    Although I liked the piece, I think there is a credibility issue when an author states “An Englishman may question Germany’s ability to play football” since one need only look at the last, oh, 80 years of World Cup play to see that the English made it to the finals a grand total of once, admittedly winning that game, while the Germans managed it seven times, only winning three. So, this is as delusional as saying: “An Englishman may question Germany’s ability to cook…” That said, living among the Germans as I do VW certainly occupies a high place on the podium of beloved car manufacturers and locals are astonished when I mention North American views on VW reliability. But then again, Germans think Jeeps are great.

  • avatar
    TOTitan

    There is one aspect to car ownership that VW does better than anyone else…Chassis, steering, ride, and handling all are light years better than any of their competitors. My daughter has a 08 Rabbit (German built)that has gone 70,000 miles in 4 1/2 years and has had no issues….as in zero. Every time I drive it I cant help but smile because its just damn fun to drive.

    • 0 avatar

      I respect your opinion, but…Different strokes for different folks. All that you described is what I don’t like about VW. I think Ford, Renault and Fiat do all that better than VW. GM is usually more comfortable than VW. So, the fact is, there are just no absolutes in the automobile world. No car, or brand, will ever offer everything to everybody. One brand might do it all for you, but it’ll be just for you.

      • 0 avatar
        TOTitan

        With all due respect Im not sure why you wrote “One brand might do it all for you, but it’ll be just for you.” Im pretty sure that I wrote “My daughter has a 08 Rabbit”. Here’s a list of the other cars I own, all of which are completely different from each other:

        68 Plymouth Barracuda 340: one lap Valient clone
        69 Plymouth Roadrunner Hemi: numbers matching
        72 Datsun 240Z: set up for road racing
        03 Infiniti Q45
        04 Nissan Titan
        12 VW Sportwagon TDI

      • 0 avatar

        it was meant as an impersonal you. Maybe i should’ve used the british impersonal ‘one’. Btw, great list o f cars.

      • 0 avatar
        TOTitan

        Thanks Marcelo. I’ve pretty well got it covered….from mind bending power and 5 mpg to clean, quiet 40 mpg diesel cruiser.

    • 0 avatar
      CrapBox

      That’s my experience too. My 2007 Rabbit has motored along nicely for 143,000 km. The only thing I can complain about is that the suspension squeaks a bit when the temperature drops below -20 celcius.

    • 0 avatar
      wsn

      “There is one aspect to car ownership that VW does better than anyone else…Chassis, steering, ride, and handling all are light years better than any of their competitors. ”

      I.e. nothing that can be measured, and thus a fanboy’s dream can live on.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    Some observations:

    “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen”

    This isn’t the ’80′s anymore and thank God life, today, is generally more reliable than a Volkswagen.

    “in the land of the F-150 and luxo-barge”

    F-150′s & SUV’s, yes; luxo-barge’s, no! They went out with the Deuce and a Quarter.

    “but then having teeth pulled is more pleasant than any US dealership experience.”

    Not necessarily, I’ve had good and bad with both the domestics and Japanese. Sounds like an unknowledgeable pile-on statement in its absoluteness.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Andrew;

    I gave your first story a so-so vote – not because there was anything WRONG with it, but I perhaps expected more of the King’s English – please don’t be afraid to use it, it would be a breath of fresh air, besides, we are pretty familiar with the different terms used, such as “saloon”, “boot” and “bonnet”, etc.

    Now I have to go back and vote ‘good’ if it’ll let me.

    Nice effort and a great insight on the differences how ‘reliability’ is measured across the pond.

    Cheerio!

  • avatar
    Caraholica

    Great article! Nice to see some good writing and a different point of view.

    VW of course was a gold standard in the US until the early 70′s and the crumbling dealer network followed by a factory hard line with dealers on fixing the Golf and successor problems. The poor reliability ratings were and are well earned, particularly since the standard has risen considerable thanks to the japanese who actually cared about the US perception of their cars.

    This article is a good reminder that the US isnt the center of the automotive universe that it once was. And I still love VW. Would love them better if their pricing followed the image of an earnest and fun everyman’s alternative car.

  • avatar
    BobAsh

    It’s a perception thing. I live in Czech Republic, where Škodas are made and even other VW products are extremely popular – especially VWs and Audis.

    Everyone still talks about “rock solid German engineering”, raves about reliability and so on. And no one is bothered by grenading 2.0 TDI engines, even worse 1.2 TSI engines and similar teething problems with .2 MPI (formerly HTP), which were all cases of company letting customers do the product testing.

    The reasons are several:
    1) There are other European brands which are even more crappy. Namely, anything French and Italian.
    2) Europeans are extremely conservative in perception. The fact that Golf II was bulletproof is enough for them to be persuaded that Golf VI TDI will be the same. Which it isn’t (look at the raliability studies).
    3) Europeans care about “perceived quality”, not reliability. American cars are shitty, because they have cheap plastic interiors. To European, cheap plastic interior means low quality. No one thinks about the possibility that the money for the nice plastics were saved somewhere else – like in engine testing and development.

  • avatar
    b787

    As an European, I have been wondering that for years. While Toyotas also have a reputation for reliability, many people prefer German cars which are thought to be better built and longer lasting. It may be a false perception, however, as VW doesn’t do very well in European reliability surveys either: http://www.reliabilityindex.com/manufacturer

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      It all depends on the methodology.

      http://www.polodriver.com/polo-2009/polo-takes-gold-award-in-tuvauto-bild-report/

      • 0 avatar
        b787

        Yeah, that is why I take all reliability studies with a grain of salt. For example: in Warranty Direct study Porsche is rock bottom while it is among the best in TUV study. There are some inconsistencies even in TUV study itself – Golf Plus is consistently ranked superior to normal Golf although the two are technically almost identical. A possible explanation lies in demographics: Golf Plus is purchased mostly by older drivers, which generally drive less aggressively than younger drivers.

        Full TUV study here: http://www.bild.de/auto/service/gebrauchtwagen/autobild-tuev-report-2013-tops-flops-27547974.bild.html

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        If I understand it correctly, the TUV results are derived from vehicle inspections. That wouldn’t measure reliability per se, as it measures particular defects (a) that are of particular interest to the government and (b) that are caught at one single point in time, not a comprehensive listing of all of the issues that occurred to date (including problems that may not be ideal for the customer but aren’t part of the inspection.)

        The warranty claim data should be more useful. The warranty company is effectively an insurance company, and they manage to stay in business by adequately forecasting risk and pricing it correctly. Comparing the cost of aftermarket warranties should be a pretty good way of gauging the odds in the real world.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        Pch101 is correct. The TUV doesn’t capture problems unless they aren’t dealt with through service or repair before annual government inspection. It is interesting to see what cars do well, but in some cases they are merely cars that don’t acquire many miles as they’re owned by only very wealthy people who have three cars or more. It is valid for comparing similar cars such as a Polo to a Clio, or a 3-series to a C-class though.

      • 0 avatar
        TornadoRot

        Yes, a Golf Plus purchased by mostly older drivers is much more likely to have been regularly serviced and having necessary repairs done before they are inspected by the TÜV. And this is probably also true for the majority of mid to top-range cars, while the owners of low-end cars are much more likely to wait for repairs after the car has been inspected by the TÜV and only do so much to pass the inspection the second time.
        Of course, other than that, drivetrain issues, electronic faults and stuff like that doesn’t even go into the report, so the Golf Plus can be on it’s 2nd TDI engine or on it’s 3rd DSG gearbox and it will still pass with flying colors and get a perfect score.

    • 0 avatar
      wsn

      @b787, as an Asian myself, I can tell you that racial perception is a big factor.

      Caucasian is superior than Asian. That’s (unfortunately) what many of my own ethnic background choose to believe.

      If Toyota is another German brand …

  • avatar
    200k-min

    I only have anecdotal evidence of VW reliability as I’ve never owned one. Growing up my mother had an early 80′s rabbit which was ok, but had an unfixable problem with the AC. That wasn’t much compared to the GM vehicles they drove in that era.

    Many (many) of my friends have owned VW’s (and Audi) from the late 90′s thru about 2010. None, I repeat, NONE of them own VW metal anymore. Most have switched to Japanese or American steel. Why? Problems on top of problems and all VERY expensive to fix.

    Meanwhile I’ve owned the same Honda Accord that has only needed regular maintenance the entire time and 200,000 miles. Now I’m sure that there are bad Honda’s and really good VW’s but this is just my anecdotal evidence. When talking cars with a friend the other day and mentioning Audi his response was “nice cars, lease – don’t buy, it won’t last like your Honda.” He was a former A6 owner and now Lexus driver.

    • 0 avatar

      Still amazed at the bad VAG reputation. Ten cars may not be a large sample, but I have owned 8 VWs and 2 Audis and have no complaints. Current daily driver is aa ’01 A4 2.8Q with 150k miles…I continue to love it. It is definitely the best car I’ve owned since my Mk II GTI. Reading TTAC comments about how bad they are makes me feel special. Or lucky?

      • 0 avatar
        Dingleberrypiez

        WC, do you have any experience with Japanese cars? I was a VW guy in my youth. I had my share of issues with the VWs, but considered odd repairs par for the course. After a particularly annoying string of events with my Mk2 GLI 16v (with only 92k), I switched to a 100k mile Tacoma. What a revelation. I never realized how reliable and stress free an automobile could be, well up to 200k miles.

        I know, another boring story about reliable Toyotas. About as cliched as the shitty VW story. I guess that tells you something.

  • avatar
    Beerboy12

    Here is my take. In the US gas is cheap. The roads are longer, straighter and wider than UK / Europe and often in bad condition. As a result American cars are heavy and the engines are low stress units able to eat up miles and not being to worried about consumed gas. Low stress motors are more reliable and cheap to maintain.
    Smaller, narrow roads demand a more agile car and high gas costs demand a high stress, small engine. High stress motors are more expensive to maintain and when you introduce these cars to people who have a different set of priorities there are going to be some challenges.
    Given the current poor economic state and rising gas prices (relative to income) in the US there is bound to be a change in priorities but the long distances and poor roads remain.
    Thanks to @Johann, here is another thing, in South Africa, where gas prices are every bit as high as the UK, they to have long distance commutes at high speeds, VW is as popular as Toyota. Food for thought!

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      Hondas aren’t exactly noted for having “low stress” engines, and I doubt many Americans would say that a VW is as reliable as a Honda.

      For that matter, the chief knock that British car magazines have against Honda and Toyota is that their vehicles are reliable, but boring. Both brands score at or near the top of British reliability surveys.

      • 0 avatar
        Beerboy12

        US models of Honda generally have bigger motors than elsewhere, therefore less stress but even so Honda’s do carry the flag for reliability. Honda’s just don’t handle as well as VW’s and that is also part of my point. Handling is much more important in the UK and other markets so the combination of “good” (as opposed to ultimate) reliability and handling is what makes VW a winner in the UK.

      • 0 avatar
        wsn

        By your logic, you need to prove that VWs sold in the US have smaller engines than Hondas sold in the US.

  • avatar
    lon888

    Here are my 2 cents. I drove Hondas exclusively from 1988 to 2011. they were ultra-reliable with only 3 trips to a service bay that entire time. Location for the factory can make a difference or can make no difference. Here are my points:
    1. I remember the Stirling 825 debacle/disaster. Rover badge engineered a Honda-based product and proved that the Brits built the most unreliable cars in the world. The Stirling literally fell apart underneath you and had infamous British unreliability.
    2. My last Honda was a 2005 Civic Si. The car was built in the U.K. and after 170000 miles it never darkened a Honda service bay. It was screwed together extremely well and did a great job getting me here and there.
    My latest car is a 2012 GTI. So far, it has been completely reliable but then again its only got 26,000 miles on the clock. I hope its long term relaiblity will be acceptable but if it will be is completely a crap shoot. I really hope it is reliable because doing any work on it is a nightmare due to its over-complexity.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    Very interesting thread. Another difference between owning a car in the UK vs. the US is that in England, many cars are company-owned (or leased) so the car is part of their compensation. So many VW/Audi drivers there only have them for 2-3 years and they are always under warranty.
    I do have a preference for German engineering as far as the driving experience is concerned. It’s the ownership experience that is sub-par, especially when compared to comparable models from Japan. It often seems to me that the German automakers (and their suppliers) do little or no testing prior to manufacturing. It is also reflected in the Germans’ poor resale values. They can, therefore, be good values if one is mechanically handy (or has good local independent mechanics).

  • avatar

    Nicely written and good food for thought. But then, I’m a part-time writer, an anglophile, and have owned the better part of a dozen VWs since the late 1980s with very few complaints. I’m constantly baffled to read Volkswagen reliability and quality issues described as pervasive or rampant…it’s almost as though the people who are willing to bash VW are supplied with cars whose deficiencies provide the impetus. It couldn’t be that those of us without such bad experiences are brainwashed into loving our little cars from Wolfsburg, right?…

  • avatar
    Mykl

    Toyotas and Hondas have a reputation for reliability, but they also have a reputation for disolving into a pile of rust in a very short amount of time. Since the UK tends towards the moist side climate-wise, you all can connect the dots. It doesn’t matter how reliable a Toyota engine is over 300k miles if the chassis literally falls apart around it. I remember the ’80′s Toyota Celica we had when I was a kid in midwest America (four seasons). Less than ten years in and that car was on its way to a scrap yard.

    I bought a brand new GTI in late ’09 (’10 model) and it has given me no issues that have not been cured by the warranty. I’m not particularly nervous about its ability to serve me reliably over the next 100k miles, and I’m certainly not worried that it’s going to rust out on me.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      That reputation is about 20 years out of date. The roads are salted quite heavily here in Pennsylvania during the winter months, and 10-15 year-old Hondas and Toyotas don’t fare any worse than VWs in that regard.

      • 0 avatar
        Mykl

        You’re right, even if I’ve seen plenty of mid ’90′s Hondas that would disagree; but most of those are at least still on the road.

        The point I was trying to make is that at the tail end of the Japanese auto invasion of America (1980′s) they were still having massive body rot issues, and that perhaps that’s why they never really caught fire in certain regions of Europe.

        Just like it might take VW decades for people to forget about some of the massive reliability issues we’ve seen in the US over a majority of the last ten years.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        “at the tail end of the Japanese auto invasion of America (1980′s) they were still having massive body rot issues, and that perhaps that’s why they never really caught fire in certain regions of Europe.”

        While the Japanese were gaining ground in the US, much of Europe was using quotas and tariffs to keep the Japanese out. They saw what was happening to Detroit, and they didn’t want the experience to be repeated in Europe. As a result, sales volumes were lower and distribution more limited; today, the barriers are fewer and less onerous, but the opportunity to support dramatic growth has been lost.

        The company car market can also work against the Japanese. Reliability is less important in a leasing culture, and the fleet market tends to favor domestic producers.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        They sure do in Maine. I see rampant rust on sub 10yo Japanese cars, Hondas and Mazdas particularly.

        But to us, a car from PA is a “clean Southern ride”…

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        There are really two Pennsylvanias. The southeastern region (Philadelphia through Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton) and southcentral region (Harrisburg-Gettysburg-Greencastle) parts of the state have a more temperate climate.

        The western and northern parts of the state have much harsher winters. Road salt use is very heavy, and the roads are in relatively poor condition. In those areas, you are less likely to see a 15-year-old VW than a 15-year-old Honda or Toyota. The most common vehicles of this vintage are GM and Ford pickups and SUVs.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Living in Western PA for my entire life, I can more or less confirm Geeber’s comments. I hardly ever see anything Toyonda pre ’96-97 anymore. I read Murliee’s articles and in other regions true Japanese cars north of 250K are still daily runabouts, so its not as if the cars couldn’t handle the miles, the salt and climate got them all here.

        The GM/Ford trucks are most common in these parts I would think for three reasons:

        -High sales volume to the region(s) in the past thirty years.
        -Ease of repair and parts availability.
        -Necessity of 4×4 in any region outside of suburbia due to climate and geography, or in Pittsburghese “Yinz guys need good 4×4 aut in the cut”

      • 0 avatar
        Mykl

        @Pch101, I didn’t realize that was the actual reason. But given the Canada-lite climate of the UK and some of the other posts regarding how prone to rust ’80′s Japanese cars are, and to a slightly lesser extent their ’90′s cars, is it so unreasonable to believe that they wouldn’t have made a huge splash in that market because of body rot issues?

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        “is it so unreasonable to believe that they wouldn’t have made a huge splash in that market because of body rot issues?”

        First, you would have to prove that they had unique issues. Then, you’d have to show that the market was aware of them and made purchase decisions based upon that information. I don’t think that you’ve established any of that to be true.

      • 0 avatar
        Mykl

        The idea that the image of Japanese brand cars in the UK might suffer after enough people spend money on cars that evaporate into piles of rust in a relatively short period of time is not without merritt. My theory was only incorrect because there weren’t enough Japanese cars sold in the UK to sour public opinion in the first place, not because the theory was unreasonable.

        As far as proving they have unique issues….. if you need somebody to show you that ’70′s and ’80′s Japanese cars were more prone to rust issues than their competitors I’m not going to bother trying because all you want is an argument.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    If I’m going to end up with Porsche esque repair bills, I might as well own one. I hardly think VW owners know what they’re in for after the warranty is up, but check with your independent mechanic if he’s even willing to work on it. And who cares about the driving experience, it’s a FWD.

    • 0 avatar
      Mykl

      “And who cares about the driving experience, it’s a FWD.”

      I care, and who are you to tell me that I shouldn’t care?

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        OK, I apologize, but now I’m intrigued.. Tell me more about this driving experience..

      • 0 avatar
        Mykl

        I shouldn’t post while I’m at work, I get snappy. Sorry for that; I did find your post kind of irritating but not so much that I should be a tool about it.

        I can appreciate a preference for certain drivetrain configurations and a bias against others. But I personally actually enjoy FWD when packaged and presented a certain way, and at worst am simply indifferent when used on pedestrian cars that exist as transportation appliances.

        I’ll always look at cars like V-8 Mustangs and Corvettes and such and drool and think about how much crazy fun those cars must be on a track or at an autocross, but I also see a car that must be driven with extreme care on some of the roads I enjoy most because of how a simple ham-fisted moment on the throttle will put you sideways through a tree. This is where FWD is great, when pretending to be a tarmac-rally driver down b-roads of questionable quality (bumps, ruts, random gravel, etc), they tend to be forgiving enough to allow you to make some mistakes and drive away from it; because when you have a butt pucker moment and have to use the throttle to get the car under control there’s absolutely no risk of dipping just a hair too deep and losing the car.

        That safety net that FWD offers means that I can enjoy driving aggressively more often than I would if I had to worry about power-on oversteer. As much as I appreciate power oversteer (and love it), there are times when I absolutely do not enjoy it and really don’t even want the possibility of it happening.

  • avatar
    indyb6

    My experience with a German built B6 Passat with <60k Miles:
    - Bought the car with CPO Warranty at 30k miles on the clock
    - Sold the car with 53k on the clock (1yr 6months ownership)
    Items replaced/repaired under warranty:
    - High Pressure Fuel Pump
    - Low Pressure Fuel Pump
    - Cam Follower
    - Cylinder Head
    - Fuel Sensor
    - Pressure Control Valve
    - Transmission Mounts (transmission bolts stripped
    and tranny left hanging while driving)
    - Premium 7 Radio (Would not read CDs)
    - Satellite Receiver
    - Garage Homelink
    - Rear Sunshade
    - Some other stuff I don't recall

    I was active on vwvortex and passatworld, so I at
    least knew about the whole CAM Follower issue. I
    kept myself up-to date on TSBs and requested the
    dealership to perform them. Engine (Code BPY) burned ~2qt oil between oil changes in mid-west winter (Mobile1 0W40).

    The dealership experience was great and they did not ask any questions. They just replaced all the broken stuff. They always answered my questions regarding the engine and components and the intricacies of how they worked. They were extremely courteous and always willing to work around my schedule.

    Now, this was my first car and I was pretty enthusiastic about it. But the fact that I knew my engine code and was talking about camshaft followers and HPFP/LPFP with my family over Christmas break while a loaner B7 Passat sat outside in the driveway should be an indicator of why VWs have a horrible reputation for reliability.

    Did I enjoy the precision welds, the modding potential, the balanced ride (relatively, talking about mid-sizers), the interior build quality, the satisfying thump of doors, the heavy & solid feeling trunk, trunk hinges that did not protrude, clean lines inside and out and the understated design?? Heck YES!!

    But when I had to take time off work to visit the dealership, come to work with loaner cars almost every month and ask for temp parking permits, read up on forums to watch out for potential upcoming issues and overall be consumed by my car most of the time – I realized it was time to stop. Maybe I got a bad car. Maybe it was pure luck. But it did leave a sour taste, which will take a while to overcome.

  • avatar
    balletto

    I seriously considered buying a VW a few weeks ago, a Jetta GLI. It was definitely the right combination of powertrain, space, features, mileage, and price that I was looking for. But…

    …the one I test drove had what sounded to be loose heat shields. On a car with about 50 miles on the odometer. Combine that with all of the other horror stories I’ve read convinced me that while that car would be great for a few years, future maintenance and repairs would start to drag.

    I ended up buying a year-old 2012 Acura TSX. It’s about 200# heavier than the Jetta, and only has a 5 speed automatic, but I feel like I’ve got a much better chance of the TSX making it through my planned 10 year ownership period without my having to spend big $$$ on repairs.

  • avatar
    Rday

    To me VW is even less reliable than the domestics. So I would never buy them again. I have had many of their products and they caused me many hours of grief. Well written article. Just proves that Americans really know their cars and Europeans are not all that smart when it comes to autos.

  • avatar
    katmai

    My perspective is from owning a string of VWs including a 72 Bus, 73 Super Beetle, 77 Rabbit, 84 Vanagon, 91 Vanagon, and 2003 turbo New Beetle. I’ve also owned an 84 Honda Civic (310K miles and still going strong when I sold it), an 87 Accord (412K miles, original powertrain w/no overhauls, ran great when it rusted through), and a 99 Acura RL (nice cruiser, but horribly boring).

    Vanagon: Terrific vehicle, apotheosis of the rear-engined VW. Syncro is even better. Let down by a horrible kludge of an engine and cooling system, one almost designed to fail via its complexity (required by VW’s putting a water jacket around an air-cooled engine) and its lack of real head gaskets.

    Golf mk1: Marvelous car let down by subpar electrical system and by terrible dealer service departments. Electrical failures seem to be caused by 1) lack of proper sealing at connectors, 2) chafing of wires (seems not to have been debugged properly in testing, which I think applies to many faults in past and present European cars), and 3) poor quality control by suppliers (ex: VDO odometers, foil circuits in instrument clusters, fusebox and relay failures, premature alternator
    failures, etc).

    Golf mk2: See above.

    Golf mk3: Even better car, now with more electrical parts to go wrong, including defective-by-design power window regulators. More electrical modules, which seem to be built to a low quality specification judging by failures.

    Golf mk4, New Beetle, B5/5.5 Passat, Audi TT : Terrific, beautifully designed, substantial cars, wonderful to drive when everything worked. Terrible reliability, with multiple replacements of the same electrical parts needed to get one which worked (6 brake-light switches? Really?). Again, supplier problems all over the place–see coil packs, water pumps, door microswitches, audio systems which repeatedly drained batteries, window regulators, trim which simply fell off, etc, etc. Many dealers were simply unable to diagnose and fix these cars. The electrical system in particular seems to have been poorly designed for use in the real world, and seems too complex for the dealers to understand, even with the help of the built-in diagnostics. Cars are consistently received in worse condition (upholstery smeared with grease, body damage, parts not reattached properly resulting in more damage, new water leaks, and often the original problem(s) left unfixed) after being taken to the dealer for repairs. Customers are met with stonewalling by dealers and by VWOA.

    Golf mk5 and B6 Passat: supplier quality-control problems seem to have lessened, but dealer service is still terrible. Same design problems continue: poorly-designed wiring which gets chafed or corroded, electronic modules with sometimes shaky reliability, overly-complex or poorly-made mechanisms for power steering wheel adjustment and electric parking brakes, etc.

    Passat CC and NMS Passat: Dealer service is still consistently terrible. Cars still suffer from design failures such as cracking rear panels in the CC and creaks and rattles in both vehicles. Neither is a paragon of electrical reliability, though they seem to have improved from earlier models.

    Others made the important point that a good driving experience does not and should not need to be accompanied by a bad ownership experience.

    In general, VW and other German automakers’ designs tend to be quite complex, although the same is true for any well-optioned modern vehicle, such as those made by Lexus.

    Complexity vs. cutting-edge features is not an either/or proposition; they are not the enemies of reliability as is generally supposed–lack of proper testing and quality specs is.

    When the engineers design an engine, transmission, or electrical system, it needs to be examined for ways to add simplicity and reliability–almost an editing process, if you will. Ditto for body assemblies–might this have prevented the leaking A-pillars of Golf 5s? Must an electrical module be placed where it will inevitably encounter water & thus relies on just the sealing of its case to survive? Must another module be placed at the lowest point in the trunk (again, no redundancy to survive water intrustion)? Must a CAN-based module be used for power windows when a motor with resistance sensor to guard against pinching could work just as well (this could still be controlled by another module to allow closing of windows via a remote)?

    The points made about the EU requiring different chemistry for rubber and plastics as compared to Japan and the US is a good one. Over the course of 30 years, I’ve consistently seen that Japanese (Honda/Toyota) plastic and rubber items hold up consistently well, even in the cold of Ohio and the heat of South Carolina. The German rubber items tend to look old before their time, and the German plastics have to be handled with care after just a few years; after 15 years, they’re very fragile indeed.

    VW needs to adopt the quality standards for suppliers used by Honda and Toyota. VW needs to debug its design and construction methods far more rigorously–again, the expertise is out there, at Toyota and Honda. VW vehicles are appealingly designed and perform well–the hard stuff–but the tedious task of thorough debugging seems to be left to customers, which is not how one makes repeat sales here. This problem is shared by the other German automakers. VW needs especially to figure out how to drastically upgrade standards in its service departments, ending repeated visits to fix the same problem, and VWOA and/or Germany need to quit stonewalling legitimate warranty claims.

    Another drastic need: a better warranty. Try five years/100,000 miles (not excluding electrical parts) to change peoples’ perception of VW/Audi quality.

  • avatar
    Littlecarrot

    My wife recently bought her first new car in 30 years: a VW TDI Jetta Sportwagen with a 6 speed manual. After test driving many cars, including the new Accord and the new Mazda6, she fell in love with the Jetta’s high quality interior, storage space, quiet ride,and the torquey diesel. The 66 months at zero percent interest didn’t hurt either. Because she uses the car heavily for her work as a hospice nurse, fuel mileage was important. As a Consumer Reports fan-boy (since the early ’70s) this wasn’t the most sensible choice–but it’s clearly an enjoyable car, much more than the others we drove. Consumer Reports does have this model on its “recommended” list. We did puchase the 100K warranty,and if we find its been reliable after 100k, we’ll keep it longer. After having a Subaru Legacy for 216K miles (and two sets of headgaskets, three clutches, etc.) we’re used to going to our local repair shop.

  • avatar
    daviel

    I enjoyed your article; you have my vote. I disagree with your thesis. Why don’t you buy a VW over here and report back in a year?

  • avatar
    Tifighter

    Regarding the Skoda-Hyundai comparison. Correct me if I’m wrong, but after VW came around, they stopped building Skodas, built a new plant, and started building Volkswagens with slightly different sheet metal and badges. Hyundai didn’t have a parent with platforms to borrow and had to develop most everything, save for some engine know-how from Mitsubishi in the beginning, themselves. Seems more impressive to me.

    Interesting article and comments. My favorite so far.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      The only Skoda I recall seeing was in Ireland (in 2009), it was an identical looking copy of a 2000ish Passat. I didn’t know what a Skoda was at the time, so I stopped and looked at it because although it was a US looking Passat, the badges were different. I figured “Skoda” was some sort of aftermarket thing over there.

  • avatar
    Marko

    Anecdotally, it seems like 90% of VW horror stories are from 1998-2005 (and a few 2006-2008 models, especially those with the 2.0T FSI and/or DSG). If only VW could hire Lacuna, Inc. to erase any memories of VWs from this era…

  • avatar
    RatherhaveaBuick

    Damn, remember when companies knew how to advertise cars?

    That first ad is actually kind of beautiful, the second hilarious.

    • 0 avatar
      Summicron

      That first ad is the most masterful manipulation of Urban Peril archetypes I’ve ever seen. Stunning in its non-PC honesty.

      But it’s hilarious that the magic chariot coming to rescue the Anglo angel is a puffy little skinny-door, tiny-wheel VW.

      For *that* to symbolize safety, security and affluence shows the Brits to have been raised on a very thin gruel indeed.

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    Very good article. This got the VW bashers on their toes. Everyone talks about Toyota & Honda being the most reliable cars on the road. No one mentions broken wiring harness in the front doors so the window stop working Engine oil leaks or Honda transmissions & cat converters that go bad. For some reason these repairs are forgotten when they keep the cars for 10 years. I have worked on many Asian cars and they have their problems also. Over the years i have owned over 70 cars. I usually only keep a car a few years and if i can i flip it for a better car. The one car that stands out is a 1986 Toyota Camry that i purchased with 83,000 miles on the clock and gave to my son in law. He used it to drive to his Harlem station house. That car broke down 3 times in Harlem coming and going and one time he had to pull his gun to keep from getting hurt. He put the car up for sale and someone called to look at it. He went out to the garage to be sure the car would start which it did and went back in the house for coffee. 15 minutes later he noticed smoke coming down the driveway and noticed the car was on fire. Got the fire out but long story short the follow bought the car but my son in law did not speak to me for 6 months. He has been driving dodge mini vans since and is very happy. Cars are cars not all are bad not all are good. As far as VW GTI being only sold to younger drivers i am on my second VW GTI and love it. I am now 76 years old and my wife also drives a 4 door GTI. And by the way the VW dealer i deal with is worth his weight in gold. I go there for my
    10,000 mile service and they do very nice work. I guess in the end you drive what turns you on. Life is short enjoy yourself.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    I’ve had 2 aircooled and 3 watercooled VW’s, and my take is that VW’s fail here in the US for the same reason the british cars fail- their cooling system is very marginal. All of the watercooled cars had various cooling system issues. There are also various electrical connectors in the engine bay which seem to fall apart after a few years just from the engine bay heat.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      I have a total VW-worshipping uncle who has and continues to exclusively own VW Beetles of the air-cooled variety who is far more intelligent than I am and has always insisted that VW’s finest products were air-cooled.

      He can and does tear down complete vintage Beetles and rebuild them as a hobby, so who am I to argue with him?

  • avatar
    NeinNeinNein

    Here’s the reality. As a VAG VW/Audi owner—3 main things happen. 1. You’re stoked on the car as it has little to no issues. 2. You’re ok with the car as it has a few issues that you deal with because the German driving experience is superior to what US and Japanese models offer—-and so you write it off as part of the Faustian bargain you’ve accepted about your VAG car–it breaks and you either pay to fix it or do it yourself.
    3. You cant take or afford the issues –large or smal–so you bail–pissed and tell everyone you know about how garbage the car was.

    Maybe you’re #1 or #2 and have yet to get to #3 yet but its coming! haHhahaha. Who knows? Just roll with it.
    VW’s and Audi’s have a HUGE following–for a reason. They’re great cars when they run. So here’s to yours and MINE running—as I am at the point where I just cant see myself driving anything else for a while.

    • 0 avatar
      Robbie

      As a person who finds himself in World #1, these words of wisdom now have me reconsidering my plan to buy another VW anytime soon. Better keep my “Type I VW” a few years more then…

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    I think the author posits and interesting and in many ways eternal question among car enthusiasts. That being said, his answers and theories are unsatisfying, as he focuses more on advertising than anything. The lack of major Japanese seems like the most plausible, but at the same time, is still unsatisfying.

  • avatar
    jeffzekas

    Well, let’s see: our Rabbit Diesel went 150,000 miles before the motor blew up, whilst the Toyota Corolla went 240,000 miles on the original engine. My son’s Jetta had constant electrical problems. My brother’s Eurovan had parts FALL OFF. Heck, even the Austin Healey that dad owned wasn’t as absurd as the parade of VW’s which have failed to live up to even the most meager definition of “reliable”. Perhaps the British-English meaning of the word “reliable” is different than the American-English meaning of the word “reliable”?

  • avatar
    dadude53

    I think people that buy VW`s today somewhere in their mind follow the stereotype of reliability, German engineering, good service etc. the company created in the `50s and `60s.Following a pipe dream that VW is still what it once was. Like with so many other things in life it changed, and not to the better. I still remember where service technicians from Germany would travel from dealer to dealer to assure he had all the parts he needed. Of course the product portfolio drastically increased over time and no dealer can stock all the parts necessary. But like with the launch of the New New Beetle or just The Beetle now, failing window regulator motors left and right with customers waiting to be helped or can`t be helped at all is a disgrace for such a company.
    I guess that people today just have to realize that VW as of the mid `70s actually means AUDI and that VW is like any other car company or actually worse to some.
    Their reliability numbers in Europe compared to the US are no better at all. Just check Germans Auto Bild 100.000Km reviews and you won`t find a VW product anywhere in the top 5.
    Those numbers go out to the Japanese, just like in the U.S.
    And like a comment before stated, if VW can use 6 parts instead of two to make the component work, they will go with 6. The old statement from Ferdinand Porsche, that parts you don`t need, can`t fail is obsolete with VW.

  • avatar
    manbridge

    At least from a component perspective, no one’s mentioned political/societal pressure to conform to a warped ideal. The green movement has sadly infected automobiles as well as every other aspect of modern life. From this we get BMW using recycled plastics in cooling systems which fail way too soon. Paint that can’t be expected to last 10 years w/o fading or lifting. Rubber that contains more filler than actual, well, rubber.

    While they have some goofy engineering (window reg design), I believe VW as well as many other makes suffer from policy makers who’ve never worked on a car much less actually understand their worth in modern times.

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    Good story.
    My Mk3 1995 Golf has 267,000 miles and is still going strong. THis month, I spent about $1000 on it for repairs, that may or may not be it for the year, not much for such an antique. I still drive it like its new, its quick, fast, tossable, and everything works – well except the radio. I have kept up on repaires and maintenance. I sometimes grouse about repair bills, bit then my friend with the five year honda has a routine 75000 mike visit the the dealer, and its 2000 bucks for all sorts of things. Or my three year old mustang GT friend who needs $3000 tires and brakes. And neither of them gets a reliable 30 mpg.

    I have a good mechanic, but i have to tell u that the dealer experience was great – they even washed the car for me during routine visits, but they were expensive. A private mechanic is the way to go.

    I guess its perception after all.

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    PS never had a single problem with getting parts. but then i live in Philadelphia, kinda in the middle of things.

  • avatar
    svan

    I personally think VW’s have gotten a reputation for being crappy because they are (a) occasionally iconic designs like the (Not in any way new) Beetle, 80′s Cabrio, and Westfalia and (b) occasionally very long-lived. If most people see a lot of ancient VW’s running around occasionally coughing smoke they attract a certain image.

    Brands are always remembered for their mistakes. VW, the big 3 have been around since the war, and they’ve all shipped lemons. The japanese entrants from the 80′s are accumulating this baggage, too. Korean entrants can do no wrong these days, but they are the youngest brands in the market.

    Engineering sense dictates that if you buy version 1 of a new model you’re going to get stuck with problems that they eventually shake out by a later version. I don’t mean model revs, I mean midmodel revisions to casts, processes, suppliers, materials, whatever, that don’t make it into a press release. VW’s engineering lifetimes (model runs) are among the longest in the industry, and that gives me a great deal of confidence in their late-model products. Enough that I bought one right before MQB landed (’12 TDI).

    Euopeans might also be taking the perspective that there is more to life than what something costs in dollars and cents.


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