Is a 2001 VW Turbodiesel a Bad Idea?
March 4, 2014 12:54 PM   Subscribe

I might have a chance to buy one from a friend. It only has 120k on it, one owner, who has put a lot of work into and has a good maintenance history (and a reliable local mechanic who has done a lot of the work that she recommends). I need a car mostly for commuting, don't want to spend a lot of money, and in a few years, could afford to sell it and get something new. (Also: I have always loved Beetles, but I'm trying not to let that sway me).

Is there some huge reason why this is a bad idea, or could it possibly be a decent deal? And what kind of cash should I offer?

I've never bought used, and never anything this old. Ironically, it has fewer miles on it than my 2006 Toyota.

I have looked at VW questions in Ask, but didn't see any comments about this one that were recent. Also, none of the car guides I Googled had much to say re cars this age, but maybe I didn't look in the right places.

I trust the owner; she is generous to a fault and extremely honest, and if something went awry, she'd let me know if it was something that had happened before and what she did about it.
posted by emjaybee to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total)
How much are you going to pay for it, and how much are you comfortable with paying for in repairs each year?

How long is your commute? If one day your car didn't start, could you easily get to work via alternate means?

I don't think this is a bad idea, exactly, but you have to consider your own tolerance for repair bills and unreliability.
posted by deanc at 1:01 PM on March 4, 2014

Find out if it's had an transmission issues. We had a 2001 VW Golf that we loved but donated once the transmission started conking out on us at ~125K miles. Ask her if the transmission has started slipping during the summer months. If it has you're going to have a costly repair on your hands, if not you might get another 10-15K miles out of it before you either need serious transmission work or a rebuilt transmission.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 1:18 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: How much are you going to pay for it,
I don't even know if she wants to sell it yet, so I'm not sure what to offer. That's part of my question; what is a fair price for a car this old? She's a friend. This is her "extra" car that she seldom drives since she has a 2007 VW. What would be a non-insulting starting amount?

and how much are you comfortable with paying for in repairs each year?
Less than I'd be paying for a new car payment, so if we put that at say 375/month x 12, less than 4500 a year. (also my insurance would be less for a used car, so that was part of my calculation)

How long is your commute? If one day your car didn't start, could you easily get to work via alternate means?

Not very (30 miles round trip), and yes. This would be the second car.

(not trying to threadsit, hoping my answers can improve the discussion).
posted by emjaybee at 1:32 PM on March 4, 2014

Obviously, the key question is how much the price tag is. There's no way of knowing if this is a good or bad deal without a dollar figure. You'll also want the complete history of the car - repairs, oil changes, everything. Probably worth buying a report from Carfax.

My wild but somewhat informed guess is that this car on a VW used car lot would have a sticker price around $5,000. I would try to pay less than that.

120k on a German car is, to me, not a big concern. I'm kind of a hardcore only buy used cars person - but if you buy it, you'll want to keep a couple grand in your back pocket, so to speak, because there will be a repair in the first year, and you'll probably also want AAA. My personal philosophy is that a couple grand in the bank earmarked for repairs plus AAA+ is cheaper than the insane depreciation on a new car. Views differ, YMMV (literally).

There is a lot of anecdata about transmissions needing to be replaced in VW's and BMW's (and even Mercedes) between 80 and 120k, so I would inquire about that - but keep in mind this is based on anecdotes, and it can be pretty hard to predict that kind of thing (but it is A Thing). Worth having a mechanic take a look at the transmission though and take it for a highway drive through all the gears to make sure it isn't slipping. Also, the Diesel probably comes in both manual and automatic, so make sure you know which you're getting.

And it is a diesel car. Not good or bad really, but something to consider. You might actually get better gas mileage than a gasoline car, but probably not significantly different from your 2006 Toyota.

Other than that, the Beetle isn't a bad car. VW makes good cars. Though for reliability, need for repairs, gas mileage and general versatility, I would take the higher mileage 2006 Toyota any day of the week, but that's just me.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:34 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

What would be a non-insulting starting amount?

Honestly, I would get the Blue Book price and offer her 75% of it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:39 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Couple of issues to be aware of if you do buy the car:

120k is the point where a 2001 VW Turbodiesel requires a new cambelt. It probably should have already been replaced several times (there's an age limit too) but if this is a second car it might not have been done. The car has an interference engine so it will eat itself if the cambelt goes.

The major common problem on VW TurboDiesels of this era is that the turbo vanes tend to gunge up & if the turbo isn't overhauled it'll fail completely at some point. You're likely to notice the turbo sticking before this happens though.
posted by pharm at 1:59 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

While you trust the seller and the seller's mechanic, it would still make sense to have another independent garage do a pre-purchase inspection. They take about an hour and range from $75 to $125 dollars. This won't necessarily ID current issues, but may ID longer term issues with the car that could make a good deal on a running car into a bad deal on a non-running car.

The only time I ever didn't do a PPI on a vehicle I was looking to purchase was when I bought a car from my dad. Of course, six months later the bushing went and I was out another $500. A PPI would have certainly ID'd this failure point. Point being, even the best intentioned sellers don't know what is going to go wrong.
posted by lstanley at 2:07 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

In your opening line you say she has "put a lot of work into" the car. Good cars with 120k miles really do not require a lot of work, just maintenance (usually including a timing belt). If she has had to do a lot of non maintenance work on it, that is NOT a good sign.

I would stick with the 2006 Toyota. Assuming you are taking decent care of it, it could easily get 275,000 miles with no major repairs. Based ONLY on extensive anecdata I would not think that to be likely with the VW.
posted by jcworth at 2:33 PM on March 4, 2014

Manual or automatic?
This is a critical question for this car. It's a 2001. During that period, the standard (not tiptronic) automatic transmission in VWs was the 01M, and it's a steaming pile of fail.

The TDI engine is great. And the New Beetle of that era was better built than the A3-based VWs of the same era (Golf and Jetta). That said, VWs of that era, in general, weren't as dependable as their Japanese competitors. 120k miles make the decision a bit more iffy, though. But, as a second car with a pretty short commute...maybe. For me, it totally depends on the transmission. If it's a manual, and the price is right, I'd vote yes. If it's an 01M, not.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:08 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but my 2006 manual transmission TDI Beetle is still going strong with more than 170,000 miles.
posted by Gelatin at 4:28 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: 1. It's automatic (I don't know how to drive manual anyway)
2. I am not trading in the Toyota, that's our other car.
3. Most of the work she mentioned was cosmetic (new headliner, repair of sunroof) and I think she has already replaced the cambelt. She apparently had trouble finding a good mechanic before this one.
4. Don't know re the transmission.
5. Right now, the heat is busted (seat heaters still work) but warm weather is almost here so I have time to fix that; and the driver's seat track thingy is busted so it only stays in the way back position, which would obviously need fixing immediately. I think the passenger seat may also have a reclining issue.
6. It does have a surprising amount of get up and go, from my test drive; she's loaned us the car for a few days so I'm seeing what I think.

I think I will just take it by a mechanic and see if I can get a PPI, as recommended, and then see where we are.
posted by emjaybee at 6:17 PM on March 4, 2014

You may also want to visit It's a free to join club of enthusiasts of that engine. There's members all over the place, they're super helpful, and have pricing and buyers guides. They also can connect you with local mechanics who have a reputation in the community and do work for a fraction of the cost of the dealership. There's a lively aftermarket parts market there too if that's your thing.

I drove a 2002 (manual) Golf TDI 315k and sold it to a friend. It's up to 350k now and still going strong. It took me across Canada and back, and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and back. Loved that car.
posted by jpziller at 6:51 PM on March 4, 2014

FWIW, I have a 2001 VW TDI Bug - the only difference is that I drive a stick - and I love her. She is a fantastic car - I can carry four people, I have all the cargo space in the world, but she's still a small car.

However, it's worth knowing that the mpg advantage for diesels is mostly for highway miles. When I'm doing mostly highway driving, I'll get 50 mpg. Mostly in town, I'm getting "only" 40 mpg. Which I know is not bad at all, but comparatively with the extra cost for diesel fuel, seems low. So, do the math and look at gas versus diesel where you live.

120k miles on a diesel engine that's been well maintained is nothing. The car will fall apart around the engine (which, unfortunately, my car is slowly doing. The door locks currently need attention, this summer the coolant mysteriously all leaked away causing some panic driving home from a camp I was volunteering at, etc.) Do I love my car? Yes. Do I maintain a car maintenance fund, figuring it's still cheaper than payments? Yes. Do I have a AAA membership, since I drive across multiple states on a regular basis? Yes. Can I unequivocally tell someone else to buy a ten year old TDI bug? Only if you really love the car and accept that you will periodically be visiting your local VW mechanic.
posted by joycehealy at 7:06 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't buy the car because of what it is, but that's not the important thing, here.

It doesn't matter how cool or trustworthy your friend is, any friend is to valuable to lose over a car. A shitty car (if it turns out that way) entails a lot of expense and bitterness. I have a few rules with regards to car buying and this is the most important one.
posted by klanawa at 7:59 PM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was going to get in to how fraught these cars are with issues right out of the gate, despite their ardent fans... and i was going to start with how freaking awful the automatic transmissions are. The seat issues are exactly the kind of nickel and dime crap that made me run away from these cars. I used to work with a guy who was obsessed with them and had owned like 4, did most of his own work, etc. They're almost like sports cars in that they're really for nerds who love them regardless of the constant small issues, or just love to fuck around with/work on them.

But i stopped, because buying a car from a friend is a shitty idea. Just don't. I wouldn't buy a car from a coworker either, honestly. From very basic issues of you're buying something and you want to get a deal but you'll feel bad lowballing a friend, and your friend wants to get the most they can but feels bad trying to milk a friend to more complex ones of what happens if it shits out in some $$$$ and annoying way in a month or two?

The engines themselves are bulletproof, the car the engine is mounted in will fall apart inside and out and takes silly things like incredibly expensive proprietary power steering fluid, etc. No one i have ever known or met who had a VW had one that didn't have some dumb issue like "oh, you can only unlock that door from the outside" or the heat not working, or a couple windows being stuck up, or...

It's also worth noting that the "fair market value" of these cars is way inflated for whats closer to a 15 than 10 year old car. I've seen prices on them, with the exception of the beetle, approach what you can get a freaking used prius for. Especially the wagons. That is insane. A 2001 corolla will get similar >40 gas mileage, as will many other cheaper to purchase and maintain cars that the little bits and bobs will be less likely to inexplicably fall apart for no reason on.
posted by emptythought at 9:46 PM on March 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

As everyone above has said:

- Don't buy cars from your friends. DO NOT buy VW's from your friends.

-If you aren't used to the quirks of a used car in general, you are likely to find the quirks of a VW very annoying. This is why a person with a car with only 120K has a mechanic. She should have a place she gets her oil changed, not a mechanic. See what I mean?

-TDI's are even more of a freakshow than regular VW's.

That said, I've driven all kinds of cars in my 24 years of driving old, funky clunkers. Over the years, VW's have been my absolute favorite. I would only ever buy a german car now. I'm so used to how weird the cars are, I prefer them. (I only would ever drive stick shift, so I can't comment on an auto) Yeah, my windows do whatever they want, not what I want, or when, my speedometer doesn't work but once a month, I can't lock the car, but my alarm still sometimes goes off in the rain... Sounds horrible, or charming?

This is what you are signing up for. If you really want an old, weird VW, buy one from a stranger. TRULY.

Mine (for truthiness):
1968 ghia
1968 convertible bug x 4 kinds of variations over the years
1971 VW thing (hell yes. It went 40, top speed!!!)
1985 Vanagon
1984 Fox (best car in the history of the world. Sold it at 450K for $1000!!!)
1998 Passat wagon (secret sexy librarian car)
2001 Golf TDI (Had it in 2001, only drove for two years, no weird business)

currently driving a 98 Cabrio. It's REALLY weird. I love it.
posted by metasav at 8:59 PM on March 5, 2014

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