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Are Volkswagen reliability concerns well-founded?

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Monday, July 19, 2010
Posted: 3 pm ET

News today that Volkswagen is looking to boost its share of the U.S. car market from the paltry 2 percent it's sitting at now. Worldwide, Volkswagen is the third largest automaker in terms of production, so it does seem a little odd the German automotive giant doesn't have a bigger footprint in this country.

The Detroit News article I read seems to chalk up this discrepancy to the European quirkiness of Volkswagen's designs. There might be something to that, but I think the problem is more fundamental. Like it or not, Volkswagens have a reputation in the U.S. for being unreliable and expensive to fix. I can't count how many times mechanics and car guys have related horror stories about the sky-high price of Volkswagen parts that would last a few years or even months and then fail again. That's part of why I've always avoided Volkswagens even though, as a Euro myself, I've always liked their cool design and emphasis on driving enjoyment.

RepairPal's data on the cost of repairs for various 2005 car models.

RepairPal's data on the cost of repairs for various 2005 car models.

But in light of the automaker's aggressive plans for the U.S. market, I think it's high time I examined whether that bad reputation is really deserved.

Let's tackle the "unreliable" charge first. J.D. Power gives the Volkswagen brand a dismal 2 out of 5 for overall dependability and correspondingly low ratings in "body and interior dependability" and "feature and accessory dependability." That jibes with anecdotes I've heard from friends and family about air conditioners and stereos that died young.

But Consumer Reports is a little easier on the automaker; it ranked Volkswagen 21 out of 33 total automakers surveyed. That isn't great, but it isn't terrible either; VW ended up ahead of Chevrolet, Mercedes-Benz and BMW overall. It's also an improvement over the last survey, which had VW ranked four spaces lower at 25.

Between these two surveys (I tend to give Consumer Reports a little more weight), it looks like Volkswagen's actual reliability doesn't seem to be quite as bad as I thought it would be, and could be on an upward trajectory.

Now let's tackle the expensive repair charge. To get an answer on whether Volkswagen repair costs were significantly more than those for other brands of autos, I consulted a nifty site called RepairPal.com, which spits out ballpark estimates for a wide variety of car repairs.

I used RepairPal to price out a basket of repairs for a 2005 Volkswagen Jetta, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Chevy Cobalt. The site gives the estimates as a range, but I used the lower bound, because I assumed that Bankrate's audience is part of the frugal community and shops pretty hard for good deals on car repair. The results were somewhat surprising.

The Volkswagen was the highest of the field in only two of the five categories: the oxygen sensor, where it led by only a few dollars and the power steering pump, where it led by a lot. While these results probably won't make Volkswagen owners jump for joy, they're not so high, in my opinion, that Volkswagen deserves to be singled out.

All in all, it appears that Volkswagen is better in these areas than I expected. What do you think? Any Volkswagen owners out there care to weigh in?

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11 Comments
Bob
August 02, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I have a Volkswagon Passat wagon. I have had to put in a new engine because of turbo turdlets. This is when the filter screen was made too small and clogged causing a compression problem. Well known Volkswagon problem they did not pay for repair because I could not find all of my oil change receipts. (I did not know I had to save them.) After the problem they told me I should have been using sythnetic oil even though their manual did not recommend it. Next problem I had was water leaked into the rear wheel well because of a clogged hose in the sunroof drain. $3800 worth of electrical parts had to be replaced. Volkswagon did not cover it because it was an act of God. I guess they expect rain inside their cars. I pay 20% more for premium gas but get gas milage amoung the worst in class. I have 93,000 miles on the car and have had the car in three times in the last year for a check engine light which parts and labor cost at least $1000 each time. I have a new Nissan with 17,000 miles I get 10 miles to the gallon better fuel efficiency and have not had any repairs and it cost me almost 50% less. By 17000 miles on my Passat I had already replaced an engine, waterpump (told by the dealer not related to the work they did replacing the engine) and had the car in for repairs for electrical problems twice in my Passat. I would never buy a Volkswagon again although I do like the way it drives when it is not in the shop.

Franck
July 20, 2010 at 10:22 pm

VWs as the article points out are not that expensive to fix and they are solid. I owned 12 here in the US: GTIs, PASSATs, RABBIT TDI, gas RABBITs, CABRIOLETs. Loved to drive every one of them and never found repairs to be more costly than any other cars we've owned (Honda, Chrysler). There are often other sources for parts than dealers as VW has a huge quality aftermarket following. There is a reason Europeans love them: design, speed, low cost of ownership. Cobalts and Corollas are not even in the same ballpark as a Jetta when it comes to quality. I would compare Jetta repairs against other German marques (Porsche, BMW, Mercedes) and then you will know the real value of a VW.

douglas montes
July 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Im sick and tired of cheap articles by idiots like the one that printed the article "how dealers get you to pay more" first of all the car salesman that pulls stunts like that are going to be out of a job or starve to death be cause car shoppers these days are too educated!! second competition is too steep to try to con any car shopper,car salesman are just like any other human being trying to earn a living,third the auto industry is one of the hardest hit by this economic crisis,they dont need bad publicity,these people need to feed their families too! find real articles to help your readers without pointing fingers, get a clue earn your salary,find real news and educated dont bore us to death!!!

Louie R.
July 20, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I've never driven a VW but I currently drive an Audi, which is owned by the parent company VW. I've read horror stories of early Audi's and VW's having ignition coil problems where they misfired terribly and many times left people stranded. Audi and VW appear to have fixed that problem, but the lasting effects of that unreliability and so-so customer service left many looking elsewhere for a more reliable car.
I've driven many American and Japanese cars and all have been very reliable, but NONE have driven like the Audi. I can understand why europeans drive VW's and Audi's in large numbers, as they are great performers when reliable.

VW and Audi should learn from Lexus (Toyota) that when a problem arises, give outstanding customer service. That might be the difference between a repeat customer or someone that will look elsewhere. Afterall, Lexus makes a realible but boring driving car/SUV but folks rave about their customer service.

Claes Bell
July 20, 2010 at 9:20 am

Just a note -- the figures included are for 2005 models, when presumably Jettas still used power steering pumps. Thanks for the heads up on the current models and thanks for reading.

Rob
July 20, 2010 at 9:03 am

You quote a repair for the power steering pump. As far as I know, VW now uses electromechanical steering in many of their popular vehicles (I had a 2006 passat, 2007 GTI, and 2010 GTI; all of which had electromechanical steering standard). Thus, a power steering "pump" is not used, it is an electric motor, which is more efficient and far more reliable.

Holden Lewis
July 20, 2010 at 8:52 am

I live in South Florida and have driven without air conditioning for two years now. Why? I have a Jetta.

The air conditioning broke twice before, with repair bills totaling nearly $2,000. When it broke for the third time, two years ago, I decided to forego further repairs. In fact, the exact nature of the problem wasn't diagnosed until a few weeks ago, when a mechanic was replacing the alternator ($700) and took a look at the A/C. It will cost about $250 to fix.

No, thanks. Fixing the A/C will merely cause another part of the system to fail.

I love driving the thing. It's a very fun car. And it's a diesel, so it gets about 45 miles per gallon. But my Kawasaki Ninja is even more fun, more reliable, and cheaper to insure and fuel. (Although the mileage isn't that much better. Diesel cars rock.)

Clueless In The Auto Business
July 20, 2010 at 8:26 am

I am currently on my 3rd VW, a 2007 Volkswagon Jetta 2.5 Wolfsburg Edition. It always amazes me when someone writes an article on anything without first hand knowledge of the actual subject of that article they just wrote. Thus it becomes a pure GUESS no more no less. Knowledge of a subject is no more than reading about something in a book, but wisdom comes from one with first hand experince. I spent 32 years in the Automotive Industry, starting with an Oldsmobile and Mercedes Benz Dealer in 1978. What I have found to be my experince is that most people ignore or just do not have the money to follow the exact Manufactorer's suggested program of maintance found in the owners manuel of each new car. Then these same people complain when it the Automobile, SUV, or Truck malfunctions.
In the early 80's the American Car Makers decided to make a Auto that would only last the term of the warranty (I have documents to prove this) to drive up lagging sales in the service department, which at the time people could take their cars anywhere to get the work done (no computer was in the vehicle). Thus these Auto's rarely lasted as long as their overseas cousins no matter if you followed the maintance program or not. The sole purpose was to drive the American Consumer that purchased a Chysler, Ford, or GM product back into the Service Department of the Individually Privately Owned Dealerships. This was a terrible mistake. Honda, Toyota, and Nissan on the other hand continued to build a car using the best quality parts found as were the American Carmakers until this point in time. Thus the Import Revolution started and has continued since. But in the late 90's (it only took the American Carmakers almost 20 years to see their mistake) they again started building a product using the same type quality parts instead of building a car to only last the tenure of the Warranty they backed it with at the time.
In today's market all cars are built so similiar in quality just pick the one you want, but you must follow the instructions found in the Owners Manuel on maintance which is much more than changing the oil or rotating tires.
Cost of repair parts pricing is normally based on the quality of the part and where the part is actually being shipped from at the time. American Parts will be cheaper, Import Parts will be higher. But a change has recently happened again with the American Car Maker, in an attempt to catch up with the Imports with new up-to-date gadgets made for autos (Navigation, MP3 Players, Blue Tooth, and many more) these new gadgets or play toys as I like to call them are not built to with stand the daily driving and use conditions of us here in America.
My Volkswagon has had no problems at all except for a A/C problem covered under warranty, and because I knew of the pricing of parts on a German Built Auto. I bought the Extended Warranty that covers me up to 100,000 miles with a 0 deductable and I bought it at the time of my new car purchase (extended warranties are much cheaper when bought at purchase, and buy one from the Car Maker in this case VW rather than an aftermarket warranty company).
Listening to someone who just looked up something and read it or from someone that just read a book on the subject normally is not wise. Find someone with real life experinces about the subject matter and this is pure WISDOM. I might be wise about this subject but I am a terrible speller so if I misspelled some words forgive me but my wisdom on this subject is solid.

D
July 19, 2010 at 7:09 pm

New VWs don't even have a power steering pump. They are all electro-mechanical now.

Lisa
July 19, 2010 at 4:18 pm

I had a VW Jetta 1.8T and it was a fun car to drive when it wasn't in the shop. As soon as the temperature would get to 32 degrees the car wouldn't turn on. It was a lease and all the issues which the car had was covered under warranty. The reason the car wouldn't start (with about 30 others) was something with the coils and spark plugs is what the dealership told me. I had a loaner car for 3 weeks since the part was out of stock and due to so many cars having the same problem, they ran out of the parts.

I did enjoy zipping around in my VW but unfortunately it did leave me with wanting to find a more reliable car company.