Volkswagen has set an ambitious goal to become the world’s largest auto manufacturer by 2018. In pursuit of that goal, they hope to sell 800,000 VWs annually in the US. We wish them well in that pursuit, but despite some tempting VW models in the showroom and development pipeline, we won’t be coming along for the ride.
Having owned a 1999 B5 series Passat since the summer of 1998 – we’ve been justifiably suspect of VWs quality levels. But problems with our Passat only sat us on the VW fence. VW of America President Jonathan Browning recently pushed us off.
In a Motor Trend magazine interview, Browning acknowledged VW’s lackluster quality ratings. He then suggested that the real issue with VW quality was not that VW makes unreliable cars, but that Americans fail to understand the advanced design features of VW’s cars. It is this lack of understanding that causes Americans to report quality problems that don’t really exist.
Our first reaction to this comment was that Browning is sniffing the parent company exhaust. German manufacturers have long made their disdain for American motorists, our driving habits and key vehicular requirements abundantly clear. But, Browning’s comment did intrigue me enough to explore his hypothesis, using our conscientiously maintained Passat as an example.
And, I conclude that VW and Browning are either; full of crap or unaware of the need to countersteer when heading for the ditch in a reputational skid.
Our first problem with the Passat came the winter after we took delivery. Living in snowbound northern New England, a significant part of our purchase decision was the “traction control” prominently listed on the window sticker as a standard Passat feature. But come winter, we were perplexed to discover that the Passat didn’t have anything that could reasonably be considered “traction control.” In slick conditions the Passat would happily spin its front tires until they popped. At no point in the frenzy of wheelspin did the “traction control” curtail these shenanigans - either through selective application of the brakes or reductions in engine power (as is standard protocol with most traction control systems). We took the car in for service – only to be informed that the Passat’s “traction control” system is actually a differential lock that applies power more equally to the drive wheels (in trailer park parlance, a "posi”). While "posi" may rightly be considered a traction assist, it can in no reasonable way be construed as traction control. Using VW’s logic, a car with roll down windows is thusly equipped with “climate control". In our minds, VWs window sticker falsely claimed a product feature that does not exist - and this lie was a very big strike one.
Truth in Advertising...
Then, there is the VW multi-link front suspension, used on the Passat and certain Audi models. This suspension is comprised of multiple aluminum control arms, each with integral bushings and ball joints. Due to defective bushings, our Passat's front end rattled and clunked seemingly from the day the warranty expired. Unlike simpler suspension designs found on domestic cars (where faulty bushings can be inexpensively replaced separately of the control arms) VW arms must be replaced as an integral (and very costly) unit. The VW dealer quoted us nearly $2,000 to completely repair the problem. Despite this complicated multi-link design, the Passat doesn’t ride or handle appreciably better than cars we’ve owned with far less complex suspension designs. From my perspective, this suspension design is just costly complexity for costly complexity’s sake – and whether I understand this VW engineering feature or not, it evidently doesn’t work.
Volkswagen is mightily proud of their interior designs, and the Passat does have an exceptionally well laid out cabin. However, the excellent design proved to be a paper thin veneer. The preposterously flimsy front cupholder broke in the first year, and soon after the center console began shedding plastic trim parts. Then the direction control knobs for the dash vents broke, and the electric mirror knob snapped off. Within several years the soft-touch rubber coatings began to peel from the console and door handles. Then, the fabric on the doors delaminated from the inner panels, where it now lufts in the breeze like a spinnaker. Then the driver’s side interior door handle broke – twice. Then the radio antenna cable (the cable for gosh sakes!) took a dump. Then the welting fell off the window frames. At that point our two boys began refusing to ride in the Passat, because as they eloquently explained, “It sucks”
Then, there are the water leaks. Many Passats leak like a sieve (Google it), and the origin of the leak is another outstanding piece of Teutonic design. The Passat has a sheetmetal tub just forward of the firewall, and inside of this tub are the battery, brake booster, master cylinder and electrical relay center. Naturally, tubs excel at collecting water, so to deal with this certainty – VW equipped the tub with a few tiny drain holes, buried deep beneath the battery so you can’t inspect them for clogs.
Evidently, German trees don’t have leaves, or their trees are so well mannered that they don’t drop their debris on or around cars. But on the rest of earth, our naughty, undisciplined trees do drop their leaves and pine needles. These leaves find their way into the cowl, and then into the tub, where they plug the hidden drains. In heavy rain, the tub then completely fills with gallons upon gallons of water - submerging the battery and electrical relay box. You only become aware of the problem when water suddenly cascades through the firewall like Victoria Falls, soaking the carpets and short circuiting the electronic modules located under the seats. Again, this is another problem – umm “Volkswagen design feature” - that I evidently don’t understand. Perhaps these water leaks are a part of VW’s cabin humidity control system. Perhaps the resultant carpet mildew is part of VWs commitment to living green.
Lastly, there is the not-trivial issue of engine sludge. We thankfully have not experienced this problem, as we knew from prior experience to use synthetic oils exclusively in turbocharged engines. But a recent class action suit resulted in VW anteing up vast sums for engine repairs/replacements in cases where oil sludge had destroyed 1.8t engines. Browning might refer to this problem as evidence of VW’s exacting engineering tolerances – again, we just call it a screw up.
From our perspective, Browning’s comments are therefore maddening and inexcusable. Despite the economic importance of the US market, German manufacturers have always had a dismissive attitude towards us colonials. But the reality is VW has a quality problem, and it is not rooted in American ignorance.
VW, step one is admitting that you have a problem.
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