VW - Y/N?
May 24, 2013 6:21 AM   Subscribe

Is buying a used VW (or Audi) really that bad of an idea?

In particular, are the 2002-2005 Passats the money pits that I've been told they are? I've heard of the 1.8L Turbocharged VW engine having some issues, and a family member who deals with used cars for a living says they're notorious for having problems with the automatic transmission. I've even read threads right here on AskMefi filled with people lamenting their purchase of a used Passat. Are the Jettas just as bad? How about an Audi A4 (practically a Passat)? The same family member later said "Friends don't let friends buy Audis".

I understand that parts and maintenance on a VW or Audi will be more expensive than for the 2004 Sonata that my girlfriend and I are looking to replace, but can I expect that the VW will be spending a lot of time in the shop?

I should also note that if we could, we'd replace the Sonata with something a little newer, but it was totaled in an accident recently and we only have the (generous) amount of money from the insurance company to work with. The Passats and Jettas she's seen and liked are right in the budget, most of them with fairly low mileage.
posted by Venadium to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The thing with repairing a VW (I drove a '96 Passat into the ground, fwiw), is that everything is modular, and expensive. Broke a little plastic thingy? Can't just replace that; you have to pull out a whole chunk and replace that.

I am a ladyperson, and on the strength of having driven a VW Golf and the Passat, I now know now to change tires, change oil, adjust a timing belt, replace distributor caps, check all fluids, etc. VWs need a lot of attention.
posted by LN at 6:24 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mother has a Jetta 1.8L Turbo wagon. It's had it's share of electrical issues and changing the headlight buld is a royal pain but the engine has been fine.
posted by cmfletcher at 6:26 AM on May 24, 2013

I had a 4th generation Jetta (2001), which became increasingly expensive and annoying to deal with even before reaching 100K miles. We sold it in 2010, with about 90K on the clock, after a string of expensive repairs -- largely electrical, but also premature exhaust and suspension bushing failures. The engine burned a quart of oil every thousand miles or so from the day we got it, and VW had the gall to tell us that they considered that normal. It was a really pleasant car to drive when everything was working well, but it was, as a friend said about his 3rd generation Jetta, a racehorse. Also, one of my wife's coworkers had an almost identical 4th gen Jetta, and the transmission failed around 150K. None of these cars had been abused. I won't be buying any VW in the foreseeable future.
posted by jon1270 at 6:38 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

We bought a 2002 Jetta 1.8T new and just traded it in last year for a new Tiguan, and we had a great experience for the 10 years we owned the car. I can't recall any engine issues, and we drove it for about 98K miles. We did have to replace the battery a few times after letting the car sit in the cold Mass. winter without driving it for a few weeks. I think we maybe did have a suspension issue a few years back that was the only really major repair we had to do. We were pretty anal about regular maintenance, so I don't know if that made a difference or not, but overall I really loved that car.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 6:38 AM on May 24, 2013

My fiance has a 2005 1.8L Turbo Audi A4 that he got used about three years ago and dear god that thing is such a money pit. It in honestly unbelievable. It has been in the shop 3 times so far this year alone, costing I think a running total of $2k (this year, so far). We've probably put at least $10k into the car in the last four years - I can't even remember all the things we've had to replace. Clutch, something with a fuel injector, something about an oxygen monitor, and who knows what else.

We're currently in the process of looking for a new car (it still technically runs fine, but we can't take it breaking down at least once every 4 months anymore). We're leaning towards a nice Honda or a low end Acura.
posted by CharlieSue at 6:39 AM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Venadium -

I'm a car buff, and a big Audi/VW fan. I've bought VWs for the past 15 years and like them a lot. There are a few questions you have to ask yourself about owning a used VW or Audi, especially of this vintage:

1. Are you buying it because you really like these cars or just because you think it might be cool?

2. Do you understand that reliability will be nowhere near the levels of a comparable Honda, Toyota or likely even Hyundai?

3. Do you have a good, trusted mechanic who is knowledgeable about these cars?

I've owned a 2000 Jetta VR6, 2004 R32 and currently an '06 A3 2.0T. The Jetta was a nightmare that resulted in a lawsuit, the R32 was flawless but I had to replace it due to lifestyle needs, and the A3 has been slightly above average in quality, but by far my favorite car due to its practicality and fun.

I think that horror stories about Audi/VW are overblown in general, but I agree wholeheartedly that anything built prior to 2006 by either house was definitely subpar in the longterm ownership department. The MKV-VI Jetta/Golf marked a substantial improvement over previous years and the B8-class Audis that debuted in 2008 on Audi's MLB architecture are light years ahead of previous models when it comes to overall reliability.

To your specific point: I would be leery unless I has a full history of work performed on the car, especially oil changes. The big problem with the 1.8T, and with most turbocharged engines in general, is that people do not change the oil frequently enough. Manufacturers love to tout 7500-10,000 mile intervals, but the reality is that if you want to keep the car for a long time you should really look at 5,000 - 7,500 mile intervals.

Depending on the mileage of the cars you are looking at I would definitely have a Volkswagen mechanic give it a good overview to check on things like the overall engine health, rotors, wheel bearings, bushings, control arms. These are all common failure items.

As for the A4 - it depends on which model you're looking at. The B5 A4 (still one of my favorite designs) is a pretty buggy ride. The 2.8 V6 is a much more reliable powerplant than the 1.8T. This is the only A4 that rode on the same platform as the Passat. The B6, B7 and B8 A4s were on distinct platforms unique to Audi. Personally, I wouldn't be much interested in anything other than a late model B7 (2007-2008).

To give you another example of the improvements made, the A3 has essentially three variants over its time in the US. The 2.0TSI that came in 2005, the updated 2.0TFSI which debuted as a 2008.5 model and the facelift which came for MY2010. Audi made major leaps in improvement over the course of the model run where the 2008.5 and newer cars have substantially better overall reliability than previous years.

Sorry for the long-winded response, but what it boils down to is your expectations and thresholds for financial pain and inconvenience. You very well may get a rock solid ride, but the statistics say that's less than likely. If you really enjoy the car and are willing to accept that it's not Honda-like gas-and-go reliability then go for it.
posted by tgrundke at 6:41 AM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

2002 Jetta - at 86K the turbo blew out (a well as a host of other issues). I fixed it up as well i could and traded it in for a Honda (which runs like a dream).

Get a Honda, Toyota or a Subaru.
posted by pyro979 at 6:42 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm still going strong on a 2003 Beetle but my mom's and my boyfriend's 2003 Jettas both had huge mechanical / engine issues.

I'll second what LN says though NOTHING is easy or cheap to repair. Even things like replacing the headlight bulb or the battery are a GIANT pain in the ass and that is for someone who knows what they are doing. Most laypeople can't do anything on them.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:43 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll jump in to add two things: the B8 A4 (2009-present) is substantially better when it comes to electronics than anything prior, especially the 2011-newer models.

Second, definitely have the timing belt checked. Most Audis/VWs recommend the belt replacement at between 90,000-110,000 miles, with my VERY STRONG recommendation being closer to 90 than 110. A good indy shop should be able to perform a timing belt and water pump swap for between $750-$1100.

I will add that earlier models will definitely give you headaches with regard to sensors failing and vacuum line issues.
posted by tgrundke at 6:46 AM on May 24, 2013

magnetsphere -

I'm not a mechanic, but I am handy, and I've done everything on my car from changing the oil and brakes to replacing spark plugs, coil packs, PCVs, sensors, etc. My rule of thumb is that if it's easily accessible and one of the kind folks in any one of the VW/Audi forums has written up a good how-to guide, I'll take a crack at it before taking it to the dealership. About the only thing I won't do is anything that requires long periods of time underneath the car while up on jackstands. Scares the bejesus out of me.
posted by tgrundke at 6:49 AM on May 24, 2013

I have a 2001.5 1.8T manual Passat, which I bought new -- the B5 engine platform is notorious for having a "sludge" problem, which results from people using conventional (dino) oil rather than synthetic. The conventional oil breaks down differently and, on the 6-month synthetic change schedule, results in garbage build-up and a rather abrupt engine failure (apparently, the display suddenly demands "STOP ENGINE NOW"). I've always gotten full synthetic and have never had a sludge issue at all, but because the synthetic oil changes are significantly more expensive than conventional, I'd be wary of a used B5 that didn't have a full maintenance history showing use of synthetic.

Other than that, there was a recall for the ignition coil packs -- I had one fail on me on a road trip before the recall, which was not crippling but it was annoying enough to warrant an immediate fix, and it was a sudden but easy replacement. A car that's been serviced since the recall (which was, like, 2006 or something) should have the fixed ones.

And yeah... I treat it as a given that if I'm going in to the shop for something, it's going to have a cringe-inducing pricetag. E.g., one winter I didn't drive more than about three times because of dibs, the salt ate and gouged out all my brakes and pads, and I had to replace the entire thing - something ridiculous like $1400. That said, the car has been almost entirely trouble-free for me, and I haven't had to make any significant repairs at all, which isn't too bad for a 12 year old B5. (And now I have jinxed myself.)

This thread talks a little about the problems with the 1.8T. The B5 did have issues, but if you get one with a clean maintenance history, it should be OK. And I love my car, it's the perfect mix of fun to drive + responsible + good mileage.
posted by sldownard at 6:51 AM on May 24, 2013

I have a 2002 audi allroad. There are a lot of things to like about the car, but the maintenance bills are definitely not one of them. It cost about $3,000 to repair the leaky front air suspension, for instance. Though, unless you specifically buy an allroad, you probably won't have that specific problem, since I think it's the only car they made with that suspension. It has weird electrical issues, but they're pretty minor (like the cargo area done light doesn't work even with good bulbs in it), and the dealer charges a base $165 diagnostic fee for electrical work, so I don't bother fixing them.

The car drives so nice though, I'd still buy another A6.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 7:00 AM on May 24, 2013

I'm an A3 owner and owned a 2000 Passat before that. I'm in Tgrundke's camp down the line. The big issue with that model Passat especially is that the Turbo breaks down oil faster than it was engineered for, so change intervals are vital.

And you really really need to find a good indy shop to work on it. The cost savings versus the dealer is amazing.
posted by JPD at 7:03 AM on May 24, 2013

Oh, I totally forgot - there was an engine coil problem in our 2002 Jetta - but it was a recall so we got it fixed for free, which must be why I forgot it. But I would certainly want to know if buying a used VW from that era if the car got fixed under the recall.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2013

Oh, also, I want to agree with LN on the modularity of things. I have a cracked rear taillamp lens, and to replace that, I have to replace the entire taillamp assembly, which is like $250 or something. And I have a wonky glovebox latch; to replace that, I need a whole new glovebox door. You do pay a price for pretty, clever, compact German things.
posted by sldownard at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2013

+1 to JPD. To give you an idea of the cost savings at a good independent shop, when I had my timing belt and water pump replaced last summer the dealership wanted $2,200 for the job. My independent shop did it for $750.
posted by tgrundke at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

tyler - I'll tell you that the '02 Allroad was a heluva car, even with its cranky 2.7T and air suspension. Everyone I know that has one, loves it, even with the faults.

The C6 A6 was pretty decent for reliability and the new C7 has been rock solid from talking with people I know in the dealership service network. They're pretty shocked at how few have come back in with even minor quibbles. Biggest problems they are having now is teaching people how to use the MMI system. ;-)
posted by tgrundke at 7:16 AM on May 24, 2013

We've got a 2000 V6 Passat (manual) and it's a sporty champ at 130k; our 2002 Allroad is expensive to repair...but we got it cheap, and at 170k it's still going strong. Also: I LOVE IT SO MUCH.
posted by mimi at 7:21 AM on May 24, 2013

This handy flow chart should answer all your questions.
posted by kaefer at 7:24 AM on May 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

I have never hated a car as much as I hate my 2001 Passat. That flow chart says it all.
posted by suki at 7:34 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've heard of the 1.8L Turbocharged VW engine having some issues...
Yes. They are notorious for cracking, degrading hoses that result in chasing vacuum leaks until your last day on Earth. Also, the ignition coils are famous for failing. Plus, there's the problem that it's a zero-tolerance (or interference) engine with a crappy timing belt prone to sudden and early failure.

...and a family member who deals with used cars for a living says they're notorious for having problems with the automatic transmission.
If it's the 01M tranny, absolutely true. The 01M in my 2001 GTI failed at 51k. Subsequent model transmissions are a bit better, from my understanding, but they're far from ideal.

Add to that, the various fragile electronics and sensors throughout VWs of that era, and I can't stress that you stay away from this thing strongly enough. There are far more bullet-proof Japanese cars of the same vintage to be had. Find a clean Nissan Maxima of that era (5th gen) and you'll be happy as a pig in mud.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:41 AM on May 24, 2013

I haven't owned either for a long time. I have owned several of both. I quit owning them because the VWs, while maintainable, had lots of nuisance quality issues. Nothing major, but constant.

The Audis I owned (4 total) were all expensive, maintenance nightmares with major pieces at high prices failing frequently. I sold one to a guy who did his own maintenance and was honest as hell with him about why I was selling it so low (reliability). He said, "No big deal. I fix my own." Saw him a few years later and he said he'd given up on it.

At this point, if I won either in a sweepstakes, I'd sell it and buy a Honda or Toyota. For sedan vehicles, they cannot be beat. My most expensive Honda repair ever was a mistake (did not need a head gasket) and other than that, I've never so much as run out of gas with one. The Toyotas that I've had were the quietest cars I've ever owned, including the Audis.

Don't do it. Leave the VWs and Audis to the Germans.
posted by FauxScot at 7:48 AM on May 24, 2013

Faux -

At the risk of sounding like a corporate shill, the 2009-newer Audis really are substantially improved over their earlier counterparts. I agree with you about the vintage the OP is talking about here, though. I would not buy one if it were my money, especially higher mileage variants with little to new service history.

As a recommendation, I'd look at truedelta (www.truedelta.com) for some good statistics for all brands.
posted by tgrundke at 8:03 AM on May 24, 2013

That flow chart tickled me. It was also wholly accurate.

I've been in relationships with two separate Passat wagons, and one Jetta sedan. I didn't own them but was responsible for any trauma that they caused. Also their maintenance.

The first one (an '02) caught fire while we were on our way up a small mountain. I intended to propose at the top. The car was a total loss. I didn't take it as the sign. I should have. She said maybe, which she would have said anyway. This isn't to mention the outrageous amount we'd just spent on control arms. The car had 60k on it.

The second one (an '04) dropped its transmission coming off the highway at 38k miles. Volkswagen was happy to provide a new transmission at their cost. It would have been a $3000 repair. They still tried to bill for the tow. It was later traded in and promptly blew a turbo in the dealer's lot. That is why schadenfreude is a german word.

The Jetta was a 2011 lease and was returned @ 36k. It gave no trouble. It was also less fun to drive.

I adore Audis. I will never own one. Too close to VW.
posted by Arquimedez Pozo at 8:50 AM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Outside of your model year range but another data point.

I grew up with VWs. We loved them. My wife and I needed a new car when our daughter was born. We ended up with an 07 Passat Wagon. The thing must have been wired by drunken monkeys for the number of electrical problems it had. We finally traded it in last January after the entire car turned off (not a stall, electrical) in the middle of I-495 in rush hour traffic at 70 MPH. (Everyone was okay, thankfully).

We will never ever ever have a VW again. On one hand, this saddens me because of my history with them. On the other hand, we sleep better knowing our Toyota Sienna isn't plotting to kill us.
posted by neilbert at 10:37 AM on May 24, 2013

I have had VWs all my life. A '62 van, a '73 beetle, a '75 thing, an '86 camper, and my latest, a 2004 VW Golf TDI. My sisters have had 1980's audis and 1990's VWs, and my father has a 1998 VW new beetle.

We just bought a new vehicle last month.

It's a Honda.

I still own the Golf, but if I started listing all the things that have gone wrong on it since I bought it I would have to have a drink, and I'm at work so that is not on. Unless the engine is in the back and air cooled as God intended, I will never ever ever ever buy another VW again.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:53 PM on May 24, 2013

@tgrundke ... you don't sound like a shill. I'm probably a little harsh on the Audis, but it was a way back, in fact. My wife covets one now. Still, hard to beat Honda or Toyota. Going solely with my experiences, they start off at 10 and the next entries are at 5. Anecdotal, of course, but I can't recall anyone EVER saying they hated their Honda. A virtual love fest, they appear to be the Apple of the car world.
posted by FauxScot at 2:21 PM on May 24, 2013

All of the mechanics I know have developed a hatred of VW/Audi products over the past few decades. One even turns away VW owners from his shop now because he would do nothing but fix 90s Jettas all day if he didn't.

They are fun to drive, and the interiors are well designed, but they are simply not reliable. Period. All the defenses made by owners and enthusiasts (e.g., change the oil more often, "this is a not a Honda-like appliance and it needs your care and luuuuuv, take care of it and it will take care of you") are excuses for problems that simply should not arise with such regularity on cars built in the last 20 years. And it isn't like the problems are confined to only one model.
posted by twblalock at 2:37 PM on May 24, 2013

My 2001 Golf 2.0 just crossed the 100k mile threshold and it has been nothing but a great car. Yeah, it's had it's share of little things, but so has every single other car on earth. It is true that I have to keep tail light bulbs in the glove box, add a quart of oil every 1000 miles or so, and the "door open" sensor on the driver's door has never really worked well, but beyond that, I have never had any serious mechanical or electrical problems and I just cruised through my latest smog check with nary a black mark to be seen.

Every car I have ever owned has had problems. I have seen head gaskets blow on Toyota Corollas, transmissions go on Buick Regals, and Nissan Altimas die horrible, horrible deaths. There is no such thing as a 100% reliable 10-year-old car, but I think that the most important issue you need to consider (regardless of make and model) is how well the current owner took care of the car. I would never buy a used car as a daily driver unless it was single-owner and that owner had a notebook full of every receipt and service record since the day the car was born. Lots of "problems" are caused by poor maintenance or failure to bring a car in for a manufacturers recall.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 10:58 PM on May 24, 2013

Lots of compelling anecdotes, but there's hard data all over the web that correlates - VW/Audi simply can't be fairly characterized as reliable cars - and I say that as an owner of a 2001 Jetta VR6 automatic with 200k on the clock. It's been a hard 200k. Window regulators (which dealers will try and charge you for, even though VW extended the warranty - quietly), transmission sensors, brake sensor (stranding us over a long weekend), intermittent but livable failures in the turn signal and lock sensors, coolant leaks (VR6 coolant system is made of plastic - on first failure you need to decide if you're going to commit to slowly replacing all the parts over the remaining lifetime of the car), failed trunk lock, cracked plastic housing on the coil pack (stranding us in Tahoe during a storm), etc. Engine has been solid, but the constant failures, small and large add up to an experience I don't really want to live again. And I've had a "good" VW experience, unlike owners of the 1.8T. Or the recent TDIs with the self destructing fuel pump. Oh, and premium gas is required.

Now, if I had to do again, and because I'm on such good terms with the local VW/Audi mechanics due to all the visits - I'd lease (not buy) one of the newer 2.0T Golfs/A3s with a manual transmission and timing chain (instead of the previous belts). By all accounts the new platform has been built to address many of the previous problems, but ultimately, it's still too early to tell. I ABSOLUTELY would not buy a used 1.8T of any vintage, any model. VW has also recently switched from traditional automatic transmissions to nifty double clutch DSGs - which require $400 services every 40k miles.

FWIW, we now have a prius, which we got used with 70k already on it. I don't think there's a bigger delta between car reliability than an early 2000s VW and a prius - literally the only thing we've had to do is oil changes and the transmission fluid over the 40k with put on it ourselves - and that includes the "major" 100k service. And there are taxis running around with 300k, 400k and no real major issues. On regular gas.

If you want fun to drive AND reliable, look at the Civic Si, Mazda 3/6, Acura TSX - even those would be better with manual transmissions if you want longevity.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 7:27 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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