Piston Slap: Modifying the 80-year Old With the Clap?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap modifying the 80 year old with the clap
Stephen writes:

I have a 1.8T GTI, owned since new and more or less problem-free. Its clutch went early, and it occasionally eats a sensor, but otherwise it’s been a contrast to the image of VWs as unreliable money-pits. Now, this is a MKIV, which if you listen to Jeremy Clarkson or any of the VWvortex boffins, is about as desirable as an 80-year old Russian lady with the clap.

But it’s fine – enough get up and go to entertain me, and it handles fine. I’ve tried a new GTI – the DSG model gets to 160kph astonishingly fast with very little drama, but between the sound insulation and the (better) suspension the overall experience is a bit numb. In the MKIV you know you’re up to something.

My instinct is to do some performance upgrades and have some fun with it, as long as gas is cheap, then pick up a performance diesel in a few years if manufacturers can ever get around to importing them, 535d notwithstanding (errr, $50k).

Sajeev answers:

ZOMG SON, don’t you know that everyone on the Internet (and Jeremy Clarkson in particular) are never wrong? Never, never, ever.

I do consider the MKIV Golf to be a colossal turd, but with a caveat: everything is awesome when the original owner loves and cares for their machine. Turbo SAABs, 3.8L Sables, 2.7L Chryslers, Diamond Star Triplets, etc…you see my point. But is it wise to start modifying such a troubleprone platform?

My beef with your plan is that modified GTIs are the usually the examples with serious problems, even if you aren’t the stereotypical GTI owner at this stage of the depreciation curve. I would go super conservative: no turbo upgrades, no crazy electrics bound to wreak havoc on an already fragile German system. My thoughts, in more detail but still generalized cuz I don’t know shit about Vee-Dubs:

  • Exhaust upgrades are great for Turbos: consider eliminating the stock muffler (straight pipe a la Dodge SRT-4, the turbo is already a muffler) and upgrading the catalytic convertor to a higher-flow unit.
  • Intake tube/air cleaner modifications or replacement with aftermarket part. Just make sure you don’t replace your respectable cold-air setup for a ricey hot-air intake. It must be isolated from engine heat.
  • Stock springs with your choice of premium shock: Koni, Bilstein, etc.
  • Swaybar upgrades? Not sure, but a matched set is always important in my world of Ford restomods.
  • ECU reflash: something mild, nothing insane.
  • Intercooler upgrade: if for no other reason other than to keep the system cooler and therefore healthier.
  • Sticky Summer tires to hold everything down to the road.

Good luck with your impending nightmare!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

Join the conversation
2 of 13 comments
  • Tedward Tedward on Nov 15, 2012

    I'd like to add that these cars aren't nightmares BC people modify them, they are reliably modified all the time. They earned that rep BC of dash electronics for the most part. The mkIV nightmare stories come from innocent bystanders expecting a Camry experience. The 1.8t is an ideal engine for aftermarket power actually...I've been in many that output 250 as daily drivers.

  • Toomanycrayons Toomanycrayons on Nov 15, 2012

    Just another case of Look at me, Look at me, Status Anxiety. Some bald guy wrote a book about: "This is a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. This is a book about status anxiety." http://www.alaindebotton.com/status.asp

  • Alan I blame COVID, the chip shortage, container shortage and the war in Ukraine. This aggression is evident in normal daily driving of late.
  • Alan $10 000 is a bit rich for a vehicle that most likely been flogged all its life, plus it's a VW. Lots of electrical gremlins live in them.
  • Alan Mitsubishi, Hino and Izuzu trucks are quite common in Australia. Another factor that needs to be taken into account are the cheap Chinese trucks and vans that are entering the market in Australia and becoming more popular as reliability improves, with huge warranties. Businesses want the cheapest logistics. Plumbers, concreters, builders buy many of these in their lightest versions, around 2.5 tonne payload. Hino/Toyota could use the cheaper competitor in Mitsubishi as a competitor against the Chinese. You don't see too many of the Japanese/Asian trucks in the rural areas.
  • 2ACL I think it's a good choice. The E89 didn't get respect due to its all-around focus when new, but it's aged well, and the N52/6HP combo is probably more fun and capable than it's given credit for.
  • Wjtinfwb I can hear the ticking from here...