for as long as i can remember, i’ve heard the line ‘superior german engineering.’ it’s usually been in reference to VW cars. being young and gullible, i supposed that since i heard it so much, it must be true.
then i owned a VW.
it was a 1991 passat station wagon. it was my first station wagon and i had wanted a wagon for a long time so i was pretty thrilled about that, plus my dad had always been a big VW believer so i felt some sort of pride to be following in daddy’s footsteps. but my passat turned out to be a real piece of shit. i think i owned it for less than 3 years and encountered myriad problems.
- the steering jerked and pulled at odd times. never figured out the cause of it, even after replacing the power steering pump when it failed.
- btw, the power steering pump failed.
- the power windows and locks only worked intermittently.
- the alternator suddenly died and left me stranded in a remote area of washington state.
- the car developed a strange, violent bucking that would occur at the most interesting and untimely moments, usually in front of a crowd of attractive girls. i spent a lot of time on car forums doing research and at the VW mechanic but it was months before the mechanic finally found a badly corroded and mostly broken wire at the distributor.
then the head gasket began to fail. not knowing any better, i continued driving it and just kept the coolant topped up. usually it was ok but sometimes it would start running hot and then lack power, or just die altogether. one time on a very long drive in hot weather, it started doing this. i turned on the heat in the car to try to blow off some of the excess engine heat, much to jenn’s chagrin. she tried to open her window but guess what, the power window had chosen not to work that moment. so jenn stewed, almost literally AND figuratively.
then we took that same dying car on a road trip across BC’s southern interior. in hindsight, this was incredibly foolish of me. i can’t blame VW for my poor judgement here but it’s a fitting end to the saga of the passat so i’ll recount it anyway: while we sat in a traffic jam caused by a wildfire on a very hot day, the car overheated for its last time and would not start again. it was friday afternoon in buttfuck nowhere before a long weekend, and i had a fucked VW. we got towed to a garage in princeton who told us they don’t usually work on VW’s, and even if they did they wouldn’t be able to get any parts until after the long weekend. we worked out a deal where they bought my car for $100 or so and i bought a pontiac 6000 from them. it looked a lot like this.
it was the ugliest piece of shit i’ve owned but it ran well enough, and it even had working air conditioning which we were very grateful for on the remaining drive home. i still wonder whatever happened to that god damned passat of mine. it probably got fixed up just enough to give some other poor bastard a few years of headaches before they drove it off a cliff out of frustration.
anyway, that was my introduction to VW’s. it wasn’t good. then jenn and i bought a VW westfalia camper van. guess what, it had a million problems and a lot of serious design flaws. the two biggest flaws were the woefully under-powered, air-cooled 2.0 liter gas engine that was prone to overheating (yet there was no temperature gauge in the instrument cluster), and the puny non-vented disc front brakes that are barely suitable for vehicles half that vans size. that was just the start though, because everything else went wrong with that van, constantly. sometimes it just wouldn’t start. we spent countless hours on the sides of roads and in parking lots, waiting to try our luck on the next starting attempt. i couldn’t find anything wrong but i replaced a whole bunch of parts just in case, all to no avail. i took it to VW mechanics who were just as mystified by the problem. the sliding door handle was broken and we couldn’t find a replacement one because every handle on every van of the same design had broken their handles too. it was just a shitty, flimsy design. the climate control fan died and could only be replaced by removing the entire dash — a monstrous 8 hr job, just for a comfort feature! accessing the bolts for the CV axles was literally a shot in the dark because they were so deep inside the trailing arms. and while the van came stock with allen head bolts for the CV’s, someone had replaced those stock bolts with bolts similar to the allen head ones, but 12-pointed — i couldn’t figure out why all the bolts kept on stripping until i finally got one out and found my allen head socket fit nicely into the 12-pointed design but ultimately tore them apart when torqued at all. super frustrating because a) who changes the head of a bolt on replacement parts, b) who changes the head of a bolt on replacement parts but makes it the same size as the previous bolt style so that they can be easily mixed up, and c) who puts these bolts deep within a black cave where you can’t even see the design on the bolt heads, especially when they are filthy with dirt from the road? moving on: the fuel tank was a bastard to get back in place when you also had to hook up the rubber hoses from the main tank to the expansion tanks on the side. the side mirrors were too big and too weakly designed, which means they always flopped out of position when driving at highway speeds, no matter how much i tightened up the internal mechanism. the cross member for the engine looked like it fit regardless of which direction it was facing but it did not — it only fit one way. i found this out only after i had the engine back in, and the bolt holes for the cross member did not match up with the bolt holes in the vehicle chassis. i clearly marked the cross member with ‘back’ and ‘front’ after that. accessing all the stuff i’ve already mentioned, plus everything else i needed to work on in the short time we owned the van — the exhaust nuts and bolts, the fuel filter, the shifter bushings, the starter, the miles of fuel hose, the weird early-design fuel injection engine components i never really understood — was a nightmare. there wasn’t an easy job on that thing. in short, i hated it. i finally sold it to some poor unsuspecting sap who hadn’t yet learned how awful VW’s and westfalias in particular are.
since those terrible firsthand VW experiences, i’ve listened to a lot of friends moan about glow plugs and turbos and poor fuel economy and carbon buildup and faulty ECU’s and head gaskets, and on and on. i don’t think i have a friend who owns a VW that hasn’t had a lot of problems with them.
meanwhile, my 27-yr old corolla wagon with 377,000 kms on it runs like a top. when i got it about 5 years ago, i replaced a leaky radiator and both the CV axles, and since then all i’ve done are brakes and oil changes. it’s a similar story with jenn’s 1992 honda civic. and it was a similar story with my 1987 4wd toyota tercel. all those old japanese cars are or were a lot more reliable than anything boasting ‘superior german engineering.’
so i don’t buy it. i think VW did a good job of telling people their shit is superior but that’s all it is: all marketing, no substance. in reality, their products are utter junk. it’s amazing how seriously people took a silly tagline, and how far that tagline has carried them.