There are lots of stereotypes about Volkswagens, and German engineering in general - some more true than others. The last 2 years of W8 ownership have given me a bit of a new perspective on all of them.

For those who don’t know, for a a few years in the early 2000’s, VW built the jalop dream car. 8 Cylinders, fully mechanical rear biased AWD, and an available manual transmission wrapped in an inconspicuous station wagon body and sitting on an Audi chassis. The car was powerful (for its time), and flew completely under the radar. The engine layout - essentially 2 VR4s sharing a split-pin crankshaft - just added to the jalop credentials.

I bought a used 2003 VW Passat W8 wagon with 123000 miles on it in January 2013, fully expecting the engine block to be a wine rack within 6 months. After 2 years of (relatively) trouble free driving, road trips, and snow drifts, I’ve come to the following conclusions about German car stereotypes:

Stereotype #1: The Reliability of German Engineering

Yeah, about that.....

The first harsh winter I had the car, I learned an important lesson in B5.5 platform PCV valves. On short trips, small amounts of condensation will form in crankcase. Normally, this is not a problem, and the condensation will evaporate on the next moderately long drive. In winter, this condensation can accumulate - slowly freezing layer by layer, trip by trip, until the crankcase ventilation system freezes shut. When this happens, the crankcase finds a new way to ventilate itself. This can manifest itself as leaky valve cover gaskets, or as a geyser of hot oil out the dipstick tube, over the fender, and onto the snowy Taco Bell parking lot. Calling a friend to deliver 3 quarts of oil in the middle of the night will ensure that you take the crankcase ventilation system more seriously in the future.

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Surprisingly, in 2 years of W8 Passat ownership, I have not had any W8 specific failures. Most of the issues have been boring things, like leaky rear wiper modules ($45 for a junkyard), frozen PCV valves, an alternator (generator for the pedants), and disobedient rain sensing wipers. The engine itself has been a trooper, requiring only basic maintenance. Compared to the mostly Japanese cars I have owned in the past, the individual components on the Passat are relatively well built and reliable. Things as simple as fasteners are engineered to an almost frustrating degree, with the size, pitch, head type, and specific coating optimized for each application to a far higher level than anything else I have ever worked on. Each individual basic component is a lesson in mechanical engineering, but there are thousands of them, which leads me to my next point...

Stereotype #2: The Complexity of German Engineering

Take a look at that picture above. There are 4 different types of valve. Long and short versions for both intake and exhaust. The engine has 2 balance shafts, 2 belts, and 3 timing chains. The dimensions are the same as a Ford 289, but sideways - the W8 is as wide as the 289 is long, and shorter than the 289 is wide. To account for the extra vibration induced by moving away from a 90 degree V, VW used a split pin crank, balance shafts, and variable stiffness vacuum actuated hydraulic motor mounts. And they didn’t stop there - because of various package restrictions, combustion inefficiencies from the engine layout, and the brilliance of German engineering, you will find the following under the hood:

  • Secondary air pump
  • Remote oil-water heat exchanger
  • Water cooled alternator
  • 10 Quart, 2 piece oil pan
  • Centrifugal air-oil separator
  • Auxiliary vacuum pump
  • The 3rd heaviest battery ever installed in a passenger car, mounted under the middle of the windshield.

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As I stated above, all of these individual components are very well designed. Even for the more unusual ones, their individual existences will not be a surprise to anybody familiar with German luxury cars. The problem is the sheer number of them. The individual parts may be just as reliable as their Japanese equivalents - but with twice as many, the car is twice as likely to fail.

Stereotype #3: The Cost of German Engineering

Parts for the W8 tend to be incredibly specific. For example, only the OEM VW wiper blade will work correctly with the Passat’s windshield. No Bosch Icon, Rain-X, or anything else will conform or wipe satisfactorily. VW is just a special snowflake that way.

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That flow chart at the top of the article is not inaccurate, assuming you pay a shop to do your work for you (although I surprisingly never had to use the engine hoist). The RockAuto price for that water cooled alternator mentioned earlier is $654.79. Being water cooled, replacing the alternator requires draining the coolant - VW G12, available at your local VW/Audi dealer for $25/gallon. That remote oil-water heat exchanger has to come out for access, necessitating an oil change. 10 Quarts of Mobil1 Synthetic and a filter is only $80 if you can find them on sale. By the time you’re done, that new alternator costs nearly $800 in parts alone. Luckily tires are relatively cheap (225/45R17), but anything powertrain related is certainly not.

Stereotype #4: German Electronics are Terrible

Lucas died and was reincarnated as Bosch. I don’t care if the timelines don’t make sense. Turning it off and turning it on again usually fixes the problem, at least temporarily. The only exception to this is the rain sensing wipers, which do as they please, weather be damned.

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Stereotype #5: German Cars are Difficult to Work On

Not so much difficult, but may require a few extra steps. For example, you probably will not strip any bolts, but you may need to remove most of the front of the vehicle for basic maintenance. VW calls this “Service Position.” With practice, a complete ratchet set (including torx, hex, and allen bits - remember the over-engineering), and a small electric impact driver, one can generally assume the position in ~30 minutes. Every part is serviceable, you just may have to disassemble the car to the state it was in when that particular part was installed at the factory.

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Stereotype #6: The Joy of German Engineering

Fun Fact: There is no beauty cover on a W8. When you open the hood, there is nothing but intake manifold there to greet you.

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Where else can you get 270hp, 300ft-lbs, 8 cylinders, 5 doors, 4 driven wheels, 1 torsen differential, heated mirrors, and Bose audio in one inconspicuous package? I have only encountered 3 people on the road who recognized this car - one was driving another W8, the other two were driving B5.5 Passats. You get all the speed, power, and comfort of a German luxury car, without drawing any attention at all. You get all of the snow-drifting, all weather capability of Audi quattro, without the badge snobbery. You get a luxury cruiser that can handle, haul ass, and then haul itself back down, all with great composure. You get a workhorse that can cross the country without skipping a beat, with space for a twin mattress in the back. Let me list all the things this car has been for me:

  • Daily Driver
  • Cross Country Cruiser
  • Track Support Car
  • Track Driving Car (tried it, can be done, don’t recommend)
  • Winter Beater
  • Snow Drift Machine
  • Canyon Carver
  • Luxury Car
  • Butt Warmer
  • Lumber Hauler
  • Date Night Beauty
  • Sleeping Space
  • Bedroom Space
  • Cars and Coffee Conversation Starter
  • Best Car I’ve Ever Owned

By no means is this a car for the mechanically timid, but if you’re willing to keep up on the maintenance, I can’t think of a better all around car. Now go out and find one of your own.

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(all pictures mine unless labeled)