By on March 6, 2013

My TDI in Japan

The engine quit with a sudden un-dramatic snap, and the little Golf TDI began to slough off speed. Reflexively, I bumped the gearshift lever into neutral, flicked on my signal and began moving towards the left edge of the expressway. My exit was less than a mile away and, rather than stop alongside the highway, I used my momentum to coast up the off-ramp and over the small knoll that stood between the expressway and the toll plaza. I stopped there, on the back side of the hill where the road widened on the approach to the toll booths, to avoid blocking traffic and dug out my cell phone to call for a tow truck. I didn’t know it then, but it was the last time that I would ever sit behind the wheel of the little car, never mind the fact that it would follow me again around half of the globe.

I had purchased the dark blue VW diesel new before heading to Jamaica and the car had carried me faithfully, but not entirely without drama, during the two years I lived there. The problems were always small, window regulators, the brake like switch, an air bag light, and a check engine light among other things. They were more of a nuisance than anything else. There was a VW dealership in Kingston and they were quite professional but since I had purchased the car in the States, and then imported it to the island, none of these issues were handled under warranty. It was OK though, I really liked the car and so long as nothing big happened, I reasoned, I could foot the bill.

I check the map at a rest stop near Mt. Rokko in Hyogo Prefecture (2004)

After two years in the Caribbean, I moved to Japan, and the Volkswagen, after a delay that stretched into several months, followed me. It arrived in sorry shape, covered in filth and spattered with baked-on dead bugs from a trip across the USA on a car carrier. After so long apart, I was glad to see it and after a thorough cleaning, an oil change and a new set of tires, the car was road worthy. It was, I was told, the only Golf TDI in the country, and I enjoyed running around the Kansai region trailing a cloud of smelly black exhaust wherever I went. Unremarkable as it may have been in the USA, the car was a hit in Japan. VW fans often worked up the courage to bridge the cultural gulf to ask about it.

Times were good, for the most part. I had another broken window regulator, three out of the four VW logos spun off the center caps and I soon found out that there were no correct replacement batteries to be had, but I let these things slide. The car was unusual and quirky, after all, and inconvenience is the price you sometimes pay for cars like that.

Later when I transferred to Yokohama, I used the car to its best advantage to make the 5 hour drive down the Tomei and Meishin expressways almost every weekend to visit my wife who was at her parents’ house in Kyoto awaiting the birth of our first child. My little VW was not especially fast, but it ran well on the smooth high speed expressways of Japan. For once, it finally seemed to be just where it belonged.

On the Japanese expressway.

The car followed me to Okinawa in 2006 and, once again, it was put to work on my daily commute, a 20 minute drive that included surface streets and a bit of expressway. For the first few months, it seemed to be fine, but then, on one of my regular forays under the hood, I noticed that the coolant was low. Okinawa is hot, so I thought nothing of it and added some more coolant. A week later I got a low water alarm and, sure enough, the coolant was low again. Thus it began.

I have had to replace head gaskets before so I know what the signs are. I looked in all the usual places. There was no leaking water under the car, no sudden increase in my oil level, no oil floating on top of the coolant and no white plume out the back, so the signs were not obvious. It could be a weeping gasket, I thought, a leak small enough to suck the coolant slowly from the radiator without leaving a tell-tale trail of white smoke, so I took it to my local VW of Japan dealership to have them perform a test to see if I had combustion gases in my coolant.

It is a testament to my Japanese ability that I was able to use the language to berate the local VW technician well enough that he actually helped me. When first I arrived, he took one wide eyed look at the car and started to wave his hands. “We won’t service this.” He announced. But I wasn’t having any excuses and, after an ass chewing for the ages, he finally he agreed to perform the simple test I wanted. From the way he sucked air through his teeth as he worked, I knew it was bad news before he spoke. “It’s a head gasket,” He said sadly, “and there is no way I can fix it. We never sold these cars and we don’t have any training on them. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” This time I didn’t give him any static, his words had the ring of truth.

A look at my garage.

At home that night I got out the rebuild manual I habitually carried and looked at the job. It was nothing I wanted to tangle with, honestly, but I felt confident I could do the work if I had to. The first step was parts so I got on-line and ordered everything the manual said I would need. It took weeks for everything to arrive and, in the mean time, I made sure the coolant levels stayed high and limited my trips as much as I could. Still, unwilling to commit myself to a project of that magnitude, I continued to examine my options.

Most Japanese mechanics are excellent and I was confident that, if I could find one who was willing to work on the car, they could fix it. The problem was none of them wanted to touch it. It was an unknown, and no one was willing to take the risk. There were no Japanese rebuild manuals for the car, and since mine was written in English it was useless to them. Eventually, I learned that my local Marine Corps Base had an auto shop, so I went down to see if they had a mechanic who could work on the car. Fortunately, or so I thought at the time, there was someone.

Photo I put in Craigslist

The kid looked like a typical grease monkey. He told his boss he knew all about VW diesels and that he had worked on them when he was based in Germany. His boss seemed convinced they could handle the job and agreed to take it ,so I gave them the little car, the parts and went off confident that my worries were over.

A month later the car had not been completed and I found myself back down at the shop looking around. The kid was nowhere in sight but my car was over in the corner with its hood ajar so I went to look at it. I raised the hood and found myself looking at the shop floor – the engine was gone and my blood pressure jumped. Unhappily I tracked down the ship manager and asked what the hell was going on.

The kid, it turned out, didn’t have the experience he had claimed and there had been a problem. The manager told me that they had already ordered new parts and the work would be handed over to the lead tech who, with my rebuild manual, would put the car back together correctly. Until then I could use a small Mazda loaner and was assured that when the car was ready I would not have to pay a dime for the work. Free is good, but it wasn’t like I could do much anyhow, so I accepted their offer as graciously as I could and left them to it.

Two months later the Volkswagen came home. There were still a few issues with it, most notably a couple of the vacuum lines had been misrouted, but at least it ran. It did OK on the highway but seemed a little down on power. It didn’t matter, I told myself, I was slated to rotate home in another two months and when I got back stateside, I could get the car sorted and decide then whether or not I wanted to keep it. My plan worked for three weeks.

After an uncomfortably long wait, the tow truck arrived, carried the car home and dropped it in my driveway. The VW remained there for the rest of my time in Okinawa and, a day or two before I headed back to the States, another truck came to haul it to the port. While I completed my move and enjoyed a vacation back at home in Washington State before heading on to Buffalo, the little car was put into a container, sent across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal and up the east coast to a port in New Jersey. The first I heard of its arrival was when the shipper called to inform me that one of the world’s best traveled car had arrived with a major case of mold on the interior.

Nice and clean inside!

Although I offered to sell the car to the shipper for a reasonable cost, they elected to clean it prior to delivery and three weeks later the Golf rolled off a ramp truck at my apartment in Buffalo. It looked pretty good for all the trouble it had been through and, together, the tow truck driver and I pushed it into a parking spot. The next day, I took some photos and prepared a brief Craigslist ad explaining that the car had a blown engine and was being sold “as is.” I figured it was a long shot, but I asked $3,500.

Long shot or not, my phone rang off the hook all day long and a guy named Hank was waiting for me when I got home from work. He looked the car over quite thoroughly and offered me $2,500. We dickered for a while and then met in the middle at $3,000. The next day he came back, laid down the cash and put it on a trailer. As he rolled away, I realized that the car had become just another unhappy part of my personal history. I was happy to be rid of it.

Hank called again in mid-December. My exportation and subsequent re-importation of the little car and wreaked havoc on the title process but since I had given him the Certificate of Origin we could sort it out with just a couple of signatures. We met at a local bank and while we waited for the notary he told me the rest of the story.

My TDI back in the USA – One of the photos that went on Craigslist

The un-dramatic snapping sound I had heard had been the catastrophic destruction of the engine. One of the valves, which had probably been damaged when one of the Marine Corps’ mechanics had turned the engine over without ensuring the timing was perfect, had broken off and fallen into the cylinder bore. Once there, it had wreaked all kinds of havoc. It gouged the cylinder walls, ruined the head, broke the piston into pieces and sent metal shards out the exhaust port and into the turbo where they destroyed that part as well. According to Hank, the engine was in such poor shape he had purchased a replacement drive train for the car.

The process had been expensive, Hank told me, but the little car, with less than 30,000 miles on it, would bring good money when he went to resell it. Someone, he explained happily as we shook hands on parting, would pay good money for it. Too true, I thought, and if they have the same kind of luck I had with it, they will keep on paying for a long, long time. I hope they like lemonade.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

78 Comments on “TDI Troubles In The Land Of The Rising Sun...”


  • avatar
    Dimwit

    That’s really too bad. They are fantastic cars if they can be properly serviced.
    That’s really the key to a happy VW experience, particularly with the diesels, either a good dealer or a good independent mechanic. If you don’t have either it will not be a happy relationship.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Fantastic cars shouldn’t require good mechanics to reach 30,000 miles without electrical component replacements and engine failures.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      Dimwit is correct – you need a passionate, OCD mechanic that knows TDI engines inside and out. There is no margin for error on the valve timing. Sorry, but the commenters below who say it shouldn’t be a big deal to work on just don’t get it.

      There is so little clearance between the valves and the piston that it is incredibly easy to bend a valve while servicing the timing belt and the really bad thing is that it is impossible to know that it has even happened. The engine may run fine afterwards, maybe even for a few months, but inevitably the bent valve snaps off, as happened to the author in this story, causing major engine damage.

      You can go over to http://www.tdiclub.com and read dozens of similar stories.

  • avatar
    CoastieLenn

    I really enjoyed reading this article but I have a nagging question.

    Please forgive me if it seems that I’m prying, but…

    Why would you- as the owner of a car that you (until the last few paragraphs) had a seemingly strong love for- allow all that headache of the car following you all around the globe and experiencing the ups and downs of having the “odd car out”… only to get where the car could adequately and assuredly be fixed (presumably at a reletively reasonable cost) then turn around and sell it? Especially if it only had 30k miles on it!

    • 0 avatar

      I’d had enough. Honestly, if I had it to do over again, I would have deregistered the car when I first discovered the problem and bought some cheap hooptie from the base lemon lot for my last year or so on Okinawa. Then I would have shipped the VW home when we moved and had the job done right or sold it outright. Lesson learned.

      For all the problems I had with it, I did really want to love the little car. I think, at least I hope, my experience would have been better if I had been able to get real dealer support. In the future, I will continue to take cars with me when we go overseas – what that will be will depend upon where we go – but from now on, I will also always buy something on the local market as well.

      • 0 avatar
        dcars

        Nice Article fellow Western New Yorker. That’s the issue with VW’s; you want to love them, yet they make you poor. Over time you dislike them even more.

  • avatar
    lon888

    Ahh, the Kansai region of Japan. I miss going through Kansai Int’l airport – it’ my second favorite airport (after Changi Int’l). The infamous Japanese teeth-sucking – when they start doing that you know some bad joo-joo is going to happen.

    • 0 avatar
      Turkina

      Teeth-sucking, hand rubbing the back of the neck… “Muzukashii desu…” Roughly translated as “Oh shit, this is bad” or “No way, though I don’t want to hurt your feelings”

  • avatar
    MeaCulpa

    Military mechanics is a devious bunch. Many trained in the black art of spares ordering fueled by a customer with unlimited funds. Sort of what I imagine Ferrari mechanics to be like, but used to more expensive rides and parts that you can wrench with a sledgehammer.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Not to crap on men in uniform, but many of the military mechanics I’ve worked with are one trick ponies. They’re used to working on a select small group of vehicles with few different engines and have a difficult time adapting to complex diagnosis on many different model lines.

      Of course there are exceptions, but most of them were techs before they joined the service.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      Auto Shop where they fix civilian cars. Not the Motor Pool where they work on military vehicles. Your Auto Shop mechanic is a civilian working on base and his/her quality will vary wildly. The Motor Pool guys work on much larger diesels :)

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    It sucks that a rather straightforward repair would kill the motor.
    A friend of mine had a Mercedes diesel (5 cyl, I believe) that had the
    exhaust sucking in the coolant. The engine had 220,000 miles on it at the time. They replaced the head gasket and also found a crack in the head. Fluxed it, repaired it and then 20K later, another crack. In his case, the car wasnt worth much more than scrap but in your case, I think you made out ok.

  • avatar
    SpacemanSpiff

    Sometimes I miss our MkIV Golf Tdi. Then I remember the blown transmisson at 40k miles, or the the intake clogging up with soot and oil, or the window regulators, or the peeling trim. Glad that kid hit it and totalled it. Now I’m just waiting for someone (not VW) to offer some small diesels in the US.

  • avatar
    zerofoo

    This article is pretty upbeat for what sounds like a typical MKIV ownership experience – stockholm syndrome.

    I had two MKIV VWs – by far the worst cars I’ve owned. They had all the typical problems, window regulators, O2 sensors, MAF sensors, brake light switches,plastic water pump impellers, broken interior components – and the list goes on and on.

    My two MKIVs were a Golf 1.8T and a Jetta 2.0T – not a TDI. We got rid of the Jetta when we discovered that it had the dreaded oil consumption upside-down piston ring issue.

    They both did have the “sealed for life” automatic transmission that started shifting funky around 80k.

    I see that your TDI also has an automatic transmission. Is it, by chance, the “sealed for life” version? I think that’s they only way they offered the auto during the MKIV years. If so, you probably had another ticking time bomb right alongside the engine…..

    These cars are best forgotten. Fortunately, the MKV series that followed was a great improvement. I know, I own one.

    • 0 avatar
      dantes_inferno

      > Is it, by chance, the “sealed for life” version?

      “Sealed for life” or “lifetime fluid” is for suckers. ALL fluids break down over time. So if any car dealer (or automaker for that matter) starts spouting off about “lifetime fluids” or “sealed transmission” – AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE!!!

      I take it your MkIVs were 2002 and earlier. BTW – Your Jetta was the 115hp 2.0 8-valve (a.k.a. 2.slow) not the 2.0T (2.0Ts never existed back then). I have a 1997 Jetta 2.0 8v which now has 410,000 miles on it. Prior to the 1999-2000 model year, the 2.0 8v engines had the reputation of being bullet proof and hard to kill – and THOSE engines were manufactured in Mexico! VW made the tragic mistake of redesigning the 2.0 8V engine (which still wound up producing 115 hp – leading me to believe that the design change was more bean-counter influenced than engineering influenced) with the upside down piston ring nonsense occurring during the 1999 through 2002 production run until someone at VW had their V-8 moment and finally fixed the problem.

      The 1.8T is a solid design – the problem with those engines ranged from poor parts suppliers (see ignition coils), to poor design elements (see plastic water pump), to a combination of dealer and owner incompetence (see use of 5-30 dino oil + sludging).

      On the other hand, My 2003 Jetta 1.8T has 225,000 miles and is still going strong. Here’s how:
      (NOTE: If your car is out of warranty – AVOID THE DEALERSHIP at all costs – find a private VW mechanic)
      1) Regular oil changes at 5000 mile intervals with Liqui-Moly 0w40 (VW 502.00 spec – Made in Germany) oil instead of the factory fill Castrol syntec 5w-40.
      2) Replaced factory coils with reliable Hitachi bolt-on coils to eliminate that issue.
      3) Initial timing belt service @ 65000 miles (that’s when the original factory water pump usually disintegrates) miles using a kit with the improved aftermarket metal water pump instead of the dealer’s plastic one. After that, timing belt service can be done at 75000 mile intervals.
      4) Transmission service every 60000 miles (don’t believe the “lifetime fluid” bs – all fluids break down).
      5) Replaced rubber pvc hoses with silicone ones (eliminates a host of driveability problems)
      6) Replaced battery every 4-5 years (with all the electronic gadgets in cars these days, batteries do not last as long as they did years ago).
      7) Turbo driving habits also play a role – i.e. when parking the car immediately after driving at highway speeds, it’s a good idea to let the engine idle for a couple of minutes to allow the turbo to wind down and the circulating motor oil to cool down that critical turbo bearing properly. Failure to do so will cause the oil to cook, resulting in a sludging (coking) condition which will quickly lead the turbo to an early grave.

      Those are the only issues I’ve encountered.

      B.T.W. – I applied the same steps to my wife’s 2003 Passat 1.8T – which is currently at 170000 miles with no major issues.

      But then again, I tend to avoid purchasing any car until it has been in the production cycle for a few years – to make sure all the bugs have been worked out (my instincts as a former mechanic and a current engineer came in handy)…

      • 0 avatar
        Larry P2

        It would seem like with the elaborate and expensive and OCD maintenance suggested here, virtually any car would make it to 225,000 miles.

        • 0 avatar
          dantes_inferno

          > It would seem like with the elaborate and expensive and OCD maintenance suggested here, virtually any car would make it to 225,000 miles.

          Only elaborate and expensive if you don’t know how to turn a wrench like I do (former mechanic)!

          :)

        • 0 avatar
          corntrollio

          How is changing oil every 5K, transmission fluid every 60K, timing belt every 75K, and battery every 4-5 years (the last of which I’ve done on virtually every car I’ve owned, domestic or foreign) OCD or elaborate? The ignition coil thing and the PVC/silicon hose thing wouldn’t necessarily be intuitive, however, but those are cheap parts anyway. The turbo thing is common sense, although mitigated a bit by current turbos which will cycle coolant through if you don’t let it cool down yourself.

          It’s comments like Larry P2′s, among others, that suggest to me lots of people here are lax on maintenance. There was another comment recently, where someone suggested that his relative follows the maintenance schedule “by the book” such that all of his relative’s cars looked new to him, which adds to this perception.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        ” and THOSE engines were manufactured in Mexico! ”

        Hey, Mexican factories have a long history of making many very reliable engines.

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        ““Sealed for life” or “lifetime fluid” is for suckers. ALL fluids break down over time. So if any car dealer (or automaker for that matter) starts spouting off about “lifetime fluids” or “sealed transmission” – AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE!!!”

        Or just change it yourself at reasonable intervals regardless. Typically, it’s not like it’s unusually difficult to change the fluid, and anything without a dipstick should still have a check plug.

        Ideally, any automatic transmission would have a drain plug so you can do regular partial fluid replacements, but even non-lifetime-fluid trannies often lack those.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        “Sealed for life” or “lifetime fluid” is for suckers.”

        Exactly.

    • 0 avatar
      brettc

      That would be VW’s 01M automatic. Aka the “autotragic” as it’s known on the TDI forums. They are supposed to not require a fluid change, as long as you don’t care about it lasting that long. It’s recommended to change the fluid and filter every 30000 miles or so. Costs about $100 for a kit with the filter and VW’s specific ATF, but $100 is a lot cheaper than a VW refurb unit, which runs around $4000 to $5000 plus labour.

      I had a high mileage 2002 Golf with a manual transmission. Nice car but it wasn’t well cared for by the previous owner when I bought it. I put a bunch of new parts into it and fixed a lot of problems that resulted from general neglect/cheapness. But I ended up replacing it with a new Jetta Sportwagen since I wanted something new that I knew wasn’t tainted by someone else’s neglectful ownership.

      A4 VWs can be great cars, or horrible cars depending on how it’s been treated in the past. And even with keeping up on repairs, the “low cost” parts that were used in them sometimes fail. Luckily they’re not that difficult to keep running as long as you have an internet connection and can get tdiclub.com to load. It’s a shame that Thomas didn’t consult that site when he had the original problem. It sounds like he essentially took the car to a clueless dealer except that it was a military base instead. I’ve read way too many timing belt horror stories that were made worse by clueless independent shops and dealers. The engines aren’t hard to work on, but the tech needs to possess logic skills and common sense in order to fix them properly. A copy of VCDS is also crucial to accurately set timing after the timing belt is changed.

      It’s sad that the new owner had to replace the engine, but at least he got it cheap!

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    So much for the myth of the VW TDI. Diesels are supposed to be tough and durable. From the too many instances I am familiar with, the TDI is a very fragile piece of machinery even if it is “maintained” per the book.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      Old school diesels, yeah. But with modern diesels, everything runs under extreme pressure and heat to run clean with those impressive torque figures. It really does make them delicate instruments.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        IMO the emissions equipment is the deal breaker. Regeneration kills fuel economy, reductant injection is an added cost and parts replacements are very expensive. This is just in general, if someone had a ‘problematic’ engine *cough* powerstroke, they’re in for a whole new world of hurt.

    • 0 avatar
      JLGOLDEN

      I recently traded out of a 2012 Jetta TDI, which I thought was a great car, but I did fear long-term maintenance, based on so many frustrated & burned VW owners. Looking down the road, such as after warranty and the pre-paid manintenance plan is up, every service looked expensive. The DSG also appeared to be a real bitch to service. So, is the TDI a precision-engineered marvel, or just a manintenance and repair disaster?

  • avatar
    ant

    I know a guy who has a golf tdi. He has got north of 100k on the thing now, and really gets frustrated with the repairs, and the high cost of keeping it up.

    He was talking about getting rid of the thing, so I asked him what kind of car he would likely replace it with……

    Another golf tdi he says.

    Ha.

    I don’t get it.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    “Stockholm Syndrome” really does fit the reality of this junk. I know a very honest independent VW mechanic, when confronted with a distraught VW customer really in over their head with an epic disaster of a car, simply urges them to get rid of it as fast as possible. There are always more suckers out there “that want to love” a VW. It is so sad.

    The Truth is VWs are an epic mechanical disaster just itching to destroy the finances of the ignorant, or those suffering from TTAC’s interior fetish. What I have personally observed, and what my indie VW mechanic confirms, these cars are worse reliability wise than Range Rovers or Jaguars. They are a car that holds the owners hostage, and most of the time these owners are not high-income individuals who really suffer because of this terrible choice. And TTAC has fallen down flat never exposing them the way they deserve. VW’s unfortunately get an editorial pass on this website. They have gorgeous interiors.

    “Someone, he explained happily as we shook hands on parting, would pay good money for it.” And then, that sealed for life transmission will likely cost more to rebuild or replace that the engine. And it will fail catastrophically. It is only a matter of time.

    • 0 avatar
      TOTitan

      Larry P2 if what you say is true, I wonder why my daughters 08 Rabbit has managed to cover 75,000 miles so far with no malfunctions, or trips to the dealer at all….as in zero. I must be doing something wrong.

      • 0 avatar
        JKC

        TOTitan, I think the problem with VW’s is that when they’re good, they’re great, but when they go bad, they go horribly bad and are very expensive to put right again.

        I’m glad you’re daughter’s ’08 has served her well. Michael Koresh’s data suggests that VAG has turned a corner in regards to quality, but I was burned too badly by my last VW to trust the company (or its larcenous US dealer network) again any time soon.

        • 0 avatar
          JMII

          Yeah the VW is a love/hate thing.

          This was my experience with a ’00 Passat turbo: perfect for the first 4 years of ownership then a complete mess the next 6. Multiple broken window regulators: CHECK – leaking coolant that nobody could track down: CHECK – expensive service and parts: CHECK – random interior and exterior bits falling: CHECK. The whole experience put my wife firmly in the “never buy a VW again” camp.

          Now my brother on the other hand is on VW #3: a Passat, a Golf 337 and now a Golf R. He loves the darn things, but also leases them so his cars have never been more then 3 years old, so that might have something to do with our vastly different experiences with the brand.

      • 0 avatar
        mnm4ever

        That is because the vast majority of VW horror stories quoted by the “expert” VW haters are related to the Mk4 models. The old VW diesels were crude but never problematic. And your daughters 08 Rabbit is an MK5 which is vastly better than they used to be. But VW really did drop the ball between 99 and 05, everything was pretty bad, but the new ones are not generally worse than anything else. People like @Larry just have some real strong hate built up against VW.

        • 0 avatar
          dantes_inferno

          Hey, to each his own. However, I sure wouldn’t want to purchase a used car from one of these expert “haters” regardless of make because these individuals tend to take proper car maintenance for granted.

        • 0 avatar
          Larry P2

          Actually, I bought a very low mileage 2005 New Beetle just a couple of years ago, literally owned by a little old lady with a glove box filled with dealer services at or before every single recommended time. I doubt the thing had ever driven more than 70 mph and had less than 50,000 miles.

          And then the tragedy of that transmission, started slipping suddenly and going into its death rattle. My Indie mechanic urged me to get rid of it……”RUN……RUUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNNN” he exclaimed, and so I did, traded it to a dealer that very night.

          Were ANY american car this terrible, it would be constantly placed on “deadly sins”
          alert and lambasted forevermore.

          But this was a VW, and this is TTAC, a VW-centric site.

          • 0 avatar
            mnm4ever

            A 2005 New Beetle is still using the Mk4 platform, engines, etc. 2005 was a crossover year, they even had Mk4 and Mk5 Golfs and Jettas for sale at the same time. And you are basing your deep-seated hate for VW on ONE car that you bought used and had a bad transmission?? Seriously?

            Auto trans fail on all kinds of cars for all kinds of reasons. Your “little old lady” might have had a “teenage grandson” who neutral-dropped and drag-raced the car for all you know. Grandma might have had a habit of slamming the rolling car into park when she stopped, or shifted from reverse to drive while rolling. The trans might have been run dry of fluid for all you know. Or you simply bought the worst generation of VW product and got yourself one with a bad trans. This is a common risk buying a used car, esp with an auto trans, you might have to replace it. The repair/replacement cost on a non-DSG VW auto is no worse than most import cars.

            You should have gotten a stick, much better choice for a VW and less expensive to replace a clutch.

          • 0 avatar
            mkirk

            Sooo, this is like a Chevy Citation with a nice interior then? I got burned long ago by a MK II Jetta. It seems they managed to make these cars worse over the years somehow. I keep hearing they have turned the corner quality wise. Of course I keep hearing that about GM as well.

        • 0 avatar
          rocketrodeo

          “That is because the vast majority of VW horror stories quoted by the “expert” VW haters are related to the Mk4 models. The old VW diesels were crude but never problematic.”

          Oh, I wouldn’t say “never.” This hater was burned by his 1979 Rabbit diesel, purchased used at the local VW dealer in the early 1980s. It was reliable only in that it broke on Thursdays. The dealer was able to diagnose and order the not-in-stock parts on Friday, and I usually had the car back on the following Wednesday, $400 to $800 poorer.

          At 90K miles, after a solid year of weekly and wide-ranging electrical and mechanical issues, the random overheating problem finally resolved itself: the woodruff key that holds the timing gear to the camshaft snapped, giving me an early version of variable valve timing. Oddly, it stayed close enough to where it was supposed to be for it to continue to run, albeit badly. When it overheated for the last time, the block cracked at the front left corner where it met the head, resulting in an irreparable gush of coolant.

          I sold that miserable diesel back to the same salesman who sold it to me, with its engine in the trunk — right where VW should have left it in the first place. Fortunately for both of us, he was now working at the Honda dealer, and he felt badly enough about my experience to give me a great deal on a new Civic. In 1984 that meant anything under sticker, and a little additional creative order-sheet legerdemain made the sales manager think that the Rabbit actually had some value as a trade-in.

          There has been a Honda-built vehicle in my garage ever since. That VW taught me a lesson about reliability that even a couple of previous British cars failed to do, and seven subsequent Hondas and Acuras have *collectively* given me fewer problems than that single veedub did. Over the years since then — almost 30 now — I have watched a number of friends and acquaintances, captivated by the VW mystique, suffer from the same downwardy-spiraling cycle of inconvenience and expense. The most remarkable thing about that cycle, I think, is the way that it hasn’t changed. When you consider the changes in the industry since then, it makes it all the more amazing.

          • 0 avatar
            rocketrodeo

            The most recent test rats in this cycle are the majority of my gal’s family. Her brother, her sister-in-law, her father and his partner ALL bought new 2012 Jetta TDIs as part of group buy that the brother concocted. They had wanted her to go in on the deal too, and were a little miffed at me for nixing it in our household.

            Enough time and miles have passed to gather a few early data points. Three of the four TDIs have already spent extended time at the dealer for warranty issues. I would not have found this out had I not asked, and at this point I probably won’t ask again as I think they’re a little embarrassed.These are folks who used to rave about their Hondas.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      Larry P2′s is a popular opinion, but I usually don’t see it broken down by model and generation. It’s unfortunate VW dug this hole for themselves (& their owners) but model & generation definitely seem to matter for reliability.

      The MkIVs deserve their reputation. But available data shows a big improvement with the MkV Jetta/Golf, particularly those with the 5 cylinder. Less so for Passats, Tiguans, or Jettas & Golfs with the turbo. I own a MkV 5-pot and have had good luck. But the MkV has only been out 6 years or so. We’ll see if it holds up over the 10 years/150,000 miles I want to get out of it.

      • 0 avatar
        Larry P2

        “And you are basing your deep-seated hate for VW on ONE car that you bought used and had a bad transmission?? Seriously?”

        I am basing my opinion on my personal experience AND on the opinion of an expert mechanic that works on 100s if not 1000′s of Volkswagens every single year.

        Had that Volkswagen automatic transmission been put in any car, especially a General Motors car, you would have never had the enablers on here accusing the owner of causing the disaster. GM would have never lived down such a fiasco. Never!

        • 0 avatar
          mnm4ever

          Well I am betting an indie mechanic doesn’t have 4-5 VWs rolling into his shop every single day, so he probably doesn’t see 1000s of them a year. But lets say he sees 100s of them. You are claiming that his opinion is that a VW with a bad auto trans shouldn’t be repaired, that the entire car regardless of condition and miles should be junked? That would be one of those things that really doesn’t pass the common sense test. The road isn’t littered with dead VWs, and there are a LOT of transmission shops out there that make a living replacing them on all makes, not just VWs.

          Now granted, I am not denying that the generation of VW you had is a POS, and a trans should last longer than yours did. But you are REALLY getting worked up over something that wasn’t even a “fiasco”. Everyone knows that buying a used car out with an auto trans out of warranty is always a gamble, a bad auto is one of the main reasons people dump cars on unsuspecting buyers like you. And as for your GM comment?? Please, GM has put out garbage cars for way more than one generation, and they live down that fiasco daily. You are so blinded by your anti-VW bias that you fail to see that the majority of TTAC commenters are constantly ragging on VW, and supporting GM.

          • 0 avatar
            SpacemanSpiff

            There are plenty of specialized indy mechanics. There is a VW, Audi, Porsche and Volvo specialist that I used to use that would definitely see at least 4-5 VW/Audi products a day.

          • 0 avatar
            Larry P2

            Given that he has 12 mechanics employed at his shop, I sure hope he has more than a 100 cars a year through there.

            And if the car Blue Books for $5,000 or so, and a new tranny is going to cost about 4500, well have a party and get yourself a new transmission.

        • 0 avatar
          mkirk

          Were he basing it on a Chevy Vega he got used in 1978 they would all be agreeing with you on how GM is crap.

      • 0 avatar
        sckid213

        I know two guys with recent-model GTIs. One is a ’10, his turbo went out on his way to Vegas with 10k on the clock. My other buddy just got an ’11. Water pump replaced at 8k. And his turbo just went out at 9k.

        I really want to believe VW has turned the corner on quality but when 2/2 people I know with GTIs have issues like this it’s hard to believe.

    • 0 avatar
      MeaCulpa

      Hyperbole is such an useful word sometimes.

    • 0 avatar
      Numbers_Matching

      No – I would say Jags and Landrovers are MUCH worse than VWs as a fleet. It really is model specific with VW whereas with JLR, ALL were guaranteed to turn into horror stories.
      My GTI VR6 went 250,000 miles without issue (while auto-Xing and 1/8 mile drag strip runs) and after 8 years of ownership, was sold to another autoXer.
      VW has a large engineering empire to draw from – in some cases this provided an inroad to cost cutting and cheap parts from suppliers located in former eastern block locales. JLR – fewer resources to draw upon and a reliance on the typical British cottage industry enthusiasm that has lead to an inevitable collapse of a once great industry.
      I still love my ’81 TR8.

    • 0 avatar
      NeinNeinNein

      Our Audi has been great so far. We owned an ’02 VW Jetta wagon and it had its share of reapirs in its first 90k–we owned it from 80 to 90K but then bought a Honda civic Hybrid for my girl’s commute.
      Our 08 Audi A4 has been a pleasure.
      While the VAG cars canand do break from time to time–a lot of it is small niggling little things.
      What I did was buy some additional tools and got under the hood. With 1/2 a brain you can do probably like 75-805 of the repairs on the car.
      The reward is a beautiful looking and handling car–thats the catch.
      You want marginally better relability–go domestic. You want to never have any issues–go Japanese.
      I’m at a point in life where I actually enjoy driving–to me thats worth the hassles. So far–we’ll see how she turns out in the long run.
      I see a LOT of VW’s and Audi’s plying the roads of the USA. I can only assume thats true in Europe as well. Everyone out there doesnt have deep, unlimited pockets—so statistically—the cars must not be that bad.

      • 0 avatar
        corntrollio

        Agreed Dantes_Inferno made the most pertinent point here that probably underscores some people’s experiences with VW/Audi:

        “However, I sure wouldn’t want to purchase a used car from one of these expert “haters” regardless of make because these individuals tend to take proper car maintenance for granted.”

  • avatar

    Hey Thomas, another great article thanks! You’re crazy you know, having that blue Golf follow you around the world. Specially since you took it to countries where you’d be sitting on the wrong side of the car to drive!

    Head gasket problems leading to overheating are a pain. My Ford Ka had this problem, but it was fixed (I pray) under warranty. In my case it took almost 2 months to fix the thing cause the pressure in the coolant system didn’t go down, so it was hard to track. The car’d drive normally, then suddenly the coolant would leak completely and the car overheated. I managed to catch it 3 times and park before overheating but once it did overheat (compound that with the fact the car doesn’t have a temp gauge, just an idiot line). Eventually they took off the head gasket and fixed it (aplainar is the word in Portuguese) and also the valvetrain was changed as it showed extensive wear.

    A month later, and going trough a very hot Brazilian traffic, with a grinding one hour morning commute (20km in an hour, an hour and a half) and very high temps. Till know seems to have been fixed.

    As Thomas said, this recurring situation is a bummer. It’s the kind of thing that can make one sour on a car and make you sell a car that you really like (like in my case or Thomas’).

    The fix (picked up by the dealer who sold the Ka to me) was R$1300 or about US$650. Three days without the car for the work. I’m curious, how does that compare to America?

  • avatar
    highrpm

    Thomas,

    I have to say that your Japanese mechanic was definitely sub-par. OK so he didn’t have the manual for your engine. Well that engine isn’t particularly complicated – it’s a simple four cylinder with a simple timing belt. If he’d ever taken the head off a Honda or Nissan, then he should have been able to fix this car.

    On another note, I have known a few folks that owned a MkIV TDi. For each one, their fuel savings were more than offset by the frequent expensive repairs on these cars. I kept telling them that they would be better off to just get a Civic already.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      Call me a scaredy cat but I wouldn’t do any complex repair without a manual close by. On the other hand, there was a mechanic in Chattanooga TN who took the head off my Escort wagon (don’t ask)in a half an hour. He replaced the head gasket; including a parts run by one of the shop guys; I paid for lunch for everyone and he had rolling on I-75 in three hours. I respect ability like that.

  • avatar
    GeneralMalaise

    Very much enjoy your sagas, Mr. K!

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    I love this forum. I love how many people hate VW, Fords, GM, Chrysler
    etc. Their Honda’s and Toyota’s run 1 million miles without changing the oil. To be honest i have just about owned every brand made American, Asian, Korean & European. Over the years i must have owned about 80 cars. Some of them were great some of them were dogs. I worked on all of them and learned a lot. I am 77 years old and still enjoy driving. A car is a car treat it well and it will treat you well.I have owned Asian cars that i would never own again but have owned some American cars that i could not kill. I too owned a MKVI VW and to be honest it treated me well. A 2004 Jetta with the 8V engine that other then a temp sensor & brake light switch did me well. Sold it to the kid next door and he still has the car on the road with very few repairs 125,000 miles. Both my wife and myself have 2011 VW GTI and they treat us very well. Life is short drive what you enjoy.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    With head gasket have u tried black pepper powder into the rad, to be safe u need to pinch off the heater core hose or else changing the inside heater core is as painful as doing the head maybe even worse.
    Last time i bought a ceramic concoction which seals the head & block all in one.
    Didn’t pinched off the heater core , it didnt plugged up the core but did plugged up my merc’s monojet screen, it has a fine screen, i toss out the screen and heat was passing thru again.

    I have heard of people even put raw eggs into the rad too.
    it does take some time and patience, I have done several by now I should be considered an expert by now.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Hindsight is 20/20 but instead of free (which cost you a car!) I would’ve gone to an independent Isuzu truck mechanic. They know diesels! The TDI would’ve been a walk in the park for them. C’est la vie.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    In theory, affordable cars have affordable repairs. I’ve seen too many folks on fixed incomes and single mothers forced to sign over their VW’s pink slip to the indy mechanic or tranny shop and walk away with nothing. They weren’t expecting Porsche-like repair bills from such a cute little used car with German engineering/ride.

    • 0 avatar
      Larry P2

      You would think that a website that unctuously declares that it is the “Truth about Cars” would be compelled to duly investigate and critically denounce such a scandalous shyster car company, in this day and age, that routinely leaves single mothers and those on fixed income afoot without a car due to truly-larcenous repair costs.

      But here, the awful Corvette interior is the scandal.

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker

      Unctous – I love that word!!

    • 0 avatar
      corntrollio

      “I’ve seen too many folks on fixed incomes and single mothers forced to sign over their VW’s pink slip to the indy mechanic or tranny shop and walk away with nothing.”

      Really? You have actually witnessed a single person, much less multiple people, signing over pink slips to a mechanic? Yeah right.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Another fine article from this guy. Each one is a little better than the last. Checked on TrueDelta. Jetta reliability is all over the map, gyrating madly from one year to the next. 2012 apparently isn’t a good year. Not niggling stuff, either. So its not like its gradually getting better. So it pretty much corresponds to what I see here. A crapshoot.

    Then there are the VW dealers…..

  • avatar
    PCP

    Oh wow – taking a LHD Golf TDI to Jamaica first, then Japan, then back to the States with a blown engine – how sensitive is that?

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    Great article, thanks. However, I cannot imagine hauling a VW to places where no one knows how to take care of them – I cannot imagine owning my MK3 Golf in such a place.

    That being said, my little 1995 red car – the red menace (haha) recently went through the yearly PA inspection process and $800 later is running like a top. After 250,000 miles! And everything works. Everything.

    A specialist VW mechanic is ESSENTIAL. I would not have had this car longer then 100,000 miles without one.

    Will I buy another? Dunno. This one is running fine, thank you very much. I do like Mini Coopers, tho. You should hear those owners complain!

  • avatar
    silverkris

    The VW’s Japanese license tags are diplomatic plates, I’m guessing, because of the character which means “consulate”. Were you posted to a consulate?

    Funny, I thought diplomatic plates in Japan were usually white on blue.

  • avatar
    GeneralMalaise

    After reading these nightmare – though quite humorous – stories, I’m even happier I chose an Abarth over the GTI.

    • 0 avatar
      dantes_inferno

      > I’m even happier I chose an Abarth over the GTI.

      You mean Fix It Again Tony…

      I wouldn’t buy either car – especially with the increasing amount of electronics manufactured into automobiles these days…

  • avatar
    corntrollio

    Thomas, just out of curiosity, how did native Japanese say your name in Japan? “Ka-roy-to-zay-ru”?


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India