VW Jetta: Love it or Hate itPosted 6/25/2004
By Craig Van Batenburg, AAM
The nature of this column is to bring to light the service issues new car designers - and others involved in the process of bringing new cars or trucks to the market - expose us to. It is my belief that cars and trucks don't have to be poorly designed in regard to access for the technician. Our job is tough enough without the parts we need to reach being buried deep into the bowels of the "beast."
Volkswagen's Jetta is different from other cars I have researched. With that said, I interviewed many techs to get their take on this European marvel. My thanks especially to Jason Fair at Pelham Auto Service in Belchertown, Mass., as he was helpful and services a lot of Jettas. What I heard was consistent among independent techs: They simply did not like to work on these cars. Dealership techs had nothing bad to say. Why the deep divide?
If, like the dealer techs, you have access to information and have kept up with the scan tools that VW has released over the years, most service issues with this popular German car are not a problem. But service can be a problem for many aftermarket techs - especially general repair shop techs - who do not own the factory scan tools, feel like their training options are limited and find service information costs prohibitive.
How good are these cars to begin with? Mixed reviews here also. Some knowledgeable techs tell me the quality has gone down from 1996 to now. Others say it is good and always was. My own experience is more in keeping with the aftermarket views. With the last name of Van Batenburg, most people take me for German. Van Batenburg is actually Dutch, but I did work at a VW dealership years back and had the occasional VW in my shop for repairs.
Like many men in their 50s, I once owned a '59 Bus, and it had a few bugs, so VW has a place in my history. The new VWs are clearly not the same as their forebearers. VW has its supporters and critics. As usual, I will try to be unbiased.
We will compare a 1996 VW Jetta sedan to a 2004 model. Both have 2.0 gasoline engines. In earlier Jettas, it was difficult to access ignition wires. Many wires were mishandled at spark plug replacement time and an ignition misfire resulted. Catalytic converter damage was common as a result of its design. Some techs would fight with the wires, while others removed the top half of the intake manifold, while still others got frustrated with a design that makes a simple maintenance item hard to do.
The engine itself is durable enough. After dropping the distributor and adding distributorless ignition system (DIS), a chain was added to drive the oil pump (the distributor gear used to do that job). The timing belts are reliable and are not a big problem to change.
The installation of an aftermarket radio would really turn you off to VW if you had no communication with your scan tool after a radio replacement. What is worse is that unknowingly, you can hook up your scan tool to a customer's car and cause scan tool damage if the radio was not installed properly. As a precaution, always turn the radio off before plugging in your scan tool. Sometimes, even this won't help.
The factory scan tool, VAG1551, has safety built into it. The aftermarket laptop scan tool from Ross-Tech, called a VAGCOM, uses an in-line fuse that will blow and save the laptop. This type of design just isn't acceptable in my mind if VW expects people other than dealerships to service their cars. It is unrealistic to expect otherwise, especially when ASA exists to help independent shop owners stay in business and give consumers a choice of where to get their VW fixed.
The newer VW Jetta requires a special VW-type antifreeze, G12. It is similar to Dexcool so don't add any other type. 1999 was a split year, so be careful when a '99 is in your bay. Interesting note: a 2004 Jetta GL 2.0, rated PZEV, is less German than you might think. It is built in Mexico, and its parts are made in Mexico, Argentina, the United States and Canada. Forty percent of the parts are shipped from Germany.
Can VW do a better job? With sales slipping, I think they have to. Ask an independent technician today what car he would recommend to a friend to purchase, and VW would never make the list.
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