Hammer Time: How a Smelly Dog Helped Me Buy a Volkswagen

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

Babies are tough. Bosses can be tougher. But the indisputable boot camp of bare knuckled stress inducers has to be a young dog that hasn’t been given the care, love, and discipline it needs and deserves.

Not even the Volkswagen Passat W8 I bought last year can compare to the ball busting doled out by an 8-month-old female boxer named Luna, a hyper-cute animal that ruthlessly channeled all of my inner Cesar Millan this past weekend, and defecated it right on the carpet.

On Monday morning, I decided to get the hell away from Luna and take my wife out for a drive.

In the car business, a drive means something different than the usual wandering down winding roads leading you to new places, faces and foods. Instead, it means you just bought a Volkswagen or some other maintenance intensive car — like a Saab or an older BMW — that requires the eye of a specialist.

This particular drive came in the form of transporting a 2008 Volkswagen Passat VR6 that cost me $3,000 plus a $160 seller’s fee at the auction.

It was a rare bird. The Passat had 108,000 miles, which is reasonable, and no check engine light — a feature that usually comes standard at these auction sales. It even had a good maintenance history.

I did my daily “hold” strategy where I make a fist to the auctioneer which means “Keep me at the price you’re asking for!” He started at $5,000, went down to $4,000, then $3,000, and everyone was anticipating a bottoming out of the bid right around $2,000 or $2,500.

I hooked the bid at $3,000. While everyone sat on their heels waiting for a lower bid, the hammer came down hard and that was that. I won for once, which was great because I managed to not buy at least a dozen other cars that afternoon.

This particular Volkswagen actually went for less money than the cheap car that came before it. A 2007 Toyota Corolla CE with 20,000 more hard riding miles, roll ’em up windows, and enough scratches and scrapes to make me think twice about wholesaling it to another dealership.

Eight years ago, the Passat VR6 was worth about $38,000. At the same time, the Corolla was worth only about $13,000. Now, Volkswagen has apparently become the Saab of the modern day world of old cars, as they hold no value once they reach eight years old.

And that serves be just great as my wife has done a direct about face from her compact car roots and fell completely in love with this larger, sporty Passat.

If you’re okay with a 2.5-liter five cylinder or, in this case, a VR6 engine, you can get an older Volkswagen for a ridiculous fraction of what was the case only six months ago. This is not a bad time to be a keeper of an unpopular car, and this high-end Passat most definitely fits that bill.

That’s exactly where the diesel hurt is going folks — older Volkswagens. An ’06 Beetle with leather and low miles would have retailed for close to $6,000 a few months ago. A couple of weeks ago, I sold it for only $4,200. Thankfully, I only had $2,200 invested in it. So long as this Volkswagen wave keeps going, I’ll be trying to buy ’em cheap and stick with the better powertrains.

That Passat needed about a half dozen minor items that added up to a visit to a local Volkswagen hobbyist. His name is Dan, but I always call him Uh-huh, because that’s pretty much all I can say to him every time he tells me something remarkably complex about these vehicles.

“Steve, this VW has a control module hidden inside the trunk that’s connected to a nebulizer which helps make the EGR breathe. Now, if anyone ever puts in bad gas or plays Celine Dion on the radio, that EGR will start plugging up and your engine will sound like a 20-year-old Civic with a shitcan muffler. Long story short, I cleaned the EGR and removed light rock from the radio. No charge!”


When I started out in the auctioneering side of the business, I learned one golden rule about cars that has always stayed close to my heart: Always rely on experts.

If you ever get burnt, at least it came from someone who knew what he was actually doing. In Dan’s case, he is the smartest and most ethical guy I have dealt with in this business, and I’ll keep on saying that so long as the blinker fluid on these Volkswagens is topped up and regularly changed.

Later that day, I had an insurance adjuster come and visit me; another expert who had lived this business for a long time. A lady had smacked into the back of my wife’s 2002 Prius, which has now experienced three accidents in three years.

At this point, the Prius looks like it got into a fight — and lost. She loves the car, but there have been way too many close calls for me to keep it in the family fleet. And with 231,000 miles on it, I’m frankly more interested in getting a check cut instead of keeping it.

The third time’s always the charm. As soon as the Prius got hit, it blared forth a piercing beeping sound on the inside, along with what Prius owners now know as the orange exclamation point of death. It turned out that this big “!” was attributable to the braking system instead of the big battery. That was the good news.

The bad news, for all of us actually, was that cars like this one from the Y2K era are on borrowed time due to all the texters, talkers, and gawkers that now occupy our roads. My wife’s love for the Prius had been shaken to the core already. On the way back from dropping off the Passat, it was completely dissolved: A 10-year-old Camry going about 40 mph blasted right through a red light and came within a couple of feet from hitting us cross side. After it evaded us, it spun a 180, trailed to the right, and smacked right into a crosswalk pole.

As I watched the Camry’s wheel cover roll along to the middle of the road, I realized the moment had come. That Prius on our driveway needed to go, STAT! I called 911. Waited for the police and paramedics, and drove back home where I got to meet an insurance adjuster who offered me two surprises.

The first was that he read my articles and already knew who I was, and the second…

A car that I never knew existed: a 2004 Ford Focus Saleen N20.

What struck me was not the hen’s tooth rarity of this car. It was the passion of the owner. This guy told me about every single major component of this Focus: engine, clutch, brakes, suspension, the nitrous system, everything. This Saleen lasted all of two years in the marketplace, but the owner’s love for this beautiful ride will definitely endure well beyond that brief time.

I used to be this passionate about everything, whether it was a 1990 Ford Mustang Police Interceptor that had been heavily modified by the local sheriff, a shitbox 1987 Volvo wagon I bought with a bale full of hay inside, or a 1988 Toyota Celica All-Trac that had once been a play mule for Toyota engineers. I used to have an enduring love for all things automotive that made me learn everything I possibly could about each machine.

I enjoyed each and every single one of them, and now I need a unique ride that will again spark that interest. My wife has found a sporty and luxurious ride for the next year or so. I’m ready to find mine. Any suggestions?

Oh, and where should Luna go?

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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4 of 48 comments
  • 05lgt 05lgt on Nov 12, 2015

    Luna should go to the same place you took the Passat; to see a specialist. You, your wife, and the dog your kids named need to be visiting a (real, not TV) trainer. About the car... Lexus SUV? They top your reliability survey, last forever, are crash worthy, will be around long enough to learn everything about... I just don't think you'll ever love one. What car itch have you never scratched?

  • Hogey74 Hogey74 on Nov 12, 2015

    Nice article. I've been coughing up more recently but I've got a long history with bargain shit boxes. That passat could be the deal of the century but it sounds like you're aware of the potential for eye watering costs. I'd be setting aside a fair maintenance reserve every month. Or stashing some cash in the car for a cab for when (if) it grinds to an expensive halt. Such solid, well built cars. But such a bizarre pity about the diesel thing.

    • Steven Lang Steven Lang on Nov 12, 2015

      I feel it's a greater pity that VW never quite got their marketing straight when it came to the higher end of the market. The Passat VR6 is more expensive than the A4 of the same model year. The VW got the stronger powertrain. The Audi got the better look. It's almost as if these two brands are re-enacting the Buick /Cadillac model lines of the early 90s.

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X As much problems as I had with my '96 Chevy Impala SS.....I would love to try one again. I've seen a Dark Cherry Metallic one today and it looked great.
  • Susan O’Neil There is a good reason to keep the Chevrolet Malibu and other 4 door family sedans! You can transport your parents and other somewhat handicapped people comfortably and safety! If someone can stand and pivot you can put them in your car. An armrest in the back seat is appreciated and a handle above the door! Oh…and leather seats so your passenger can slide across the seat! 😊Plus, you can place a full sized wheelchair or walker in the trunk! The car sits a little lower…so it’s doable! I currently have a Ford Fusion and we have a Honda Accord. Our previous cars were Mercury Sables-excellent for transporting handicapped people and equipment! As the population ages-sedans are a very practical choice! POV from a retired handicapped advocate and daughter! 😊
  • Freddie Remember those ads that say "Call your doctor if you still have...after four hours"?You don't need to call your doctor, just get behind the wheel of a CUV. In fact, just look at one.I'm a car guy with finite resources; I can't afford a practical car during the week plus a fun car on the weekend. My solution is my Honda Civic Si 4 door sedan. Maybe yours is a Dodge Charger (a lot of new Chargers are still on dealer lots).
  • Daniel J Interesting in that we have several weeks where the temperature stays below 45 but all weather tires can't be found in a shop anywhere. I guess all seasons are "good enough".
  • Steve Biro For all the talk about sedans vs CUVs and SUVs, I simply can’t bring myself to buy any modern vehicle. And I know it’s only going to get worse.