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Mechanic’s Tale: VW, Heal Thyself


2005 Frankfurt Show Preview, Part II by Henny Hemmes (8/10/2005)
Volvo C70, Lambo Gallardo Spyder and Peugeot coupe.

 

Daily Edition: Aug. 10, 2005 by TCC Team (8/9/2005)
New Golf R32, Kia searching for U.S. plant site.

 

More Mechanic's Tales from Doug Flint

 

 

What’s in a name? Sometimes nothing. I couldn’t tell you what Buick means. Perhaps the founder was named Stanley Buick. Saturn was probably chosen as a name because the 750 million miles or so between the planets Saturn and Earth represented the distance necessary to escape the lethal radiation of General Motors Corporate Headquarters. (They didn’t make it.)

 

But there is no doubt what Volkswagen means and set out to be: “the people’s car,” a simple utilitarian car for the masses, affordable and easy to maintain. Now I don’t believe Volkswagen can ever return to the simple air-cooled Beetle, which predates World War II. But they had better do something because the reputation of their cars is becoming toxic.

 

Europeans have always had a fundamental problem with the understanding of electricity and electrical things. Perhaps because old Ben Franklin discovered it and Thomas Edison figured out what to do with it, they outright rejected it as a nouveau riche affectation from the new world. When the world jumped from electrical to electronic, the German manufacturer’s problems became even worse. The first thing I noticed is the AM radio function in most Volkswagens never works. This is a dangerous warning sign as the AM radio is almost as old as the telegraph, and every American male growing up in the past century learned how to build one using a coat hanger and a copper penny as a tuner, yet this is somehow beyond the reach of Germany’s finest minds. And if you can’t master the AM radio thing, what will happen with modern computer controls?

 

Open source programming?

 

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If you know anything about auto maintenance, you know we mechanics often have to connect diagnostic scan tools to the cars to retrieve information necessary for repairs. Since 1996, all cars have the same standardized connectors and all manufacturers provide data in the same format. Very simple, very good, nothing to go wrong or mess up — except Volkswagen! Any time you connect to or begin testing a Volkswagen you can easily and quite accidentally change the delicate, carefully calculated operating parameters of the car. The computer is wide open. There is no other manufacturer’s car where you could do this if you wanted to. This is not a good thing.

 

A fellow called me some weeks ago crying how he had taken his car back to the dealer for routine service, and his transmission shifting — which had been beautifully timed and crisp — was now whacked out and no one could get it right. I know what happened. Someone scanning the computer changed something.

 

Look, I love the people in this business, but this is above our pay grade. We’re not software engineers. We are guys who turn nuts and bolts and learned some electronics because we had to. Yesterday I was working on a Jetta with an intermittent no start. I had some pretty good ideas about what might be wrong but I was bugged out because I could get no data when I connected my scanner. I called my tech hotline, an excellent service called Identifix, and spoke to a VW tech. When I mentioned the problem with no scan data he asked, “Does the car have an aftermarket radio?” (non-factory equipment). Sure enough it did. He told me the computer system interfaces with the radio and often you can’t get data if the radio has been changed.

 

Once again, that’s just crazy and completely unnecessary. I assure you that Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Toyota , Honda, Mazda, Nissan, even Hyundai and Kia vehicles come in the shop with hacked-in radios, and the computer diagnostics still work. And since we know from paragraph two that VW radios don’t work all that well, it’s an invitation to disaster.

 

When doing electrical repairs on these cars you can never get good, accurate, simple diagrams. I used to think this was because they didn’t want non-VW people having them, but after finally getting a good look at some factory information I have concluded that they don’t provide diagrams because no one actually knows where the electricity goes once it leaves the battery.

 

The metallic clang

 

I had occasion to work on a 2001 VW Passat with the turbo four-cylinder engine. With less than 65,000 miles on it, the engine had developed a nasty metallic noise that comes from the timing chain on the back of the engine. As we began to disassemble and inspect it, it became apparent that there was a tremendous amount of wasted motion and unnecessary complexity in this engine. In spite of the fact that this car was well maintained (synthetic oil changes every 3000 miles), it had developed sludging in the oil pickup, which starved the timing chain tensioner. Two thousand dollars and some change later it seems to be okay. I won’t sleep well for another year.

 

Once again, as I worked through this I called my tech service and discovered that this was common. The tech even laughed and told me how amusing it was when the engine, starved for oil, was accelerated — say, to pass another car — it often locked the camshafts, resulting in pieces flying everywhere. Yeah, real funny for the middle-class person who shelled out $28,000 for a fine driving machine. As I understand it, the old “secret warranty” is in effect, and if you say the magic words, cry, or know a good attorney, you might get warranty help.

 

A true Volkswagen story

 

My buddy Joe gets a lot of VWs in the upper-class neighborhood his shop is in. In the year 2000, a customer came in to show him the great deal she got on a leftover (brand-new) ’99 VW Passat. I guess he couldn’t hide the look of disappointment on his face because she said, “What’s wrong, you don’t like it?” To date, Joe can verify $12,000 in repairs and maintenance to that same vehicle, and there are sure to be some dealer bills he hasn’t seen. At 20,000 miles it required complete four-wheel brake replacement. At 40,000 miles the water pump impeller broke, causing an overheat. (Before hearing the story I would have said that water pump impellers never break.) The power windows failed one by one all the way around. The heater core leaked.

 

These are just the highlights. Sooner or later the customer will meet a Toyota owner and discover this is not normal. You can only count on those old Sixties kids buying VWs for so much longer.     

 

Repent, ye

 

I have more people say to me that they will never buy a Volkswagen again and never go to the dealer for service than any other model. The problem is that bad cars breed a callously indifferent service department that loses all sympathy for the customer because they themselves are under such pressure. VW is not a basket case. They have many redeeming features. They have great road feel, great turning and brakes, and when running well are pretty fun to drive. And my wife said to be sure to add that they look good, too. The upper middle class likes them because it’s entry-level European for the kids who wouldn’t want to be caught dead driving a Ford Focus to high school.

 

Volkswagen, hire some Japanese teenagers to do all your electrical systems. Review and simplify all your components and procedures. I figure you can eliminate at least 150 moving parts in your engine alone. If it takes more than one paragraph in the manual to check the auto trans fluid (currently 14 pages and climbing), you’re doing something wrong. Make your radios easy to remove and throw away. That’s what people are going to do with them anyway. Stop squeezing your supplier so hard they have to make your water pumps from metal that could have been recycled beer cans and your ignition coils from copper wire that could have been stolen from the Mexican telephone system.

 

And when you have a problem, look at how Toyota handled the head gasket failures on its V-6 truck engines in the early Nineties. They issued a recall, made complete repairs and offered compensation to people who had already paid for repairs for up to ten years or 100,000 miles. No secret warranties, magic words, or threats. It’s a long climb back, but this might be a good time to stop digging the hole.

 

Doug Flint owns and operates Tune-Up Technology, a garage in Alexandria, Va.

 

 

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