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I Knew My Car Was A Ticking Time Bomb And Yet I Did Nothing. Then It Blew Up

Illustration for article titled I Knew My Car Was A Ticking Time Bomb And Yet I Did Nothing. Then It Blew Up
Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

I know this year seems like it’s got 98 months and we’re on month 134, but according to scientists I’ve spoken with, it’s really a normal, 12-month year. That’s why it’s so surprising that it was only six months ago that I bought a Volkswagen Tiguan with a severe, terrifying Achilles’ Heel for my wife, figuring I’d take care of the problem before it could bite me on the ass. I didn’t. It bit me on the ass. Hard. But, I found some very good help and maybe did a bit of growing up. Stick with me, here.

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Oh, look at that article headline directly above. I thought I would be “Okay With Buying A Car That’s Probably A Time Bomb.” Jeezis, what an idiot.

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Just to recap, the old workhorse Scion xB that was my only “modern” car and my wife’s primary car was getting a bit ragged. She really wanted something more modern, more comfortable, and, yeah, I guess maybe a bit less embarrassing.

So, we looked at a lot of cars, and my wife fell in love with this 2010 VW Tiguan. Now, I get it—the car is useful and fun to drive and has a really airy, pleasant interior with a full-length glass roof—it feels good to be in it, drive, everything. It’s a charming little SUV, no question.

However, I discovered that these VWs that used the 2.0-liter turbo TSI engine all had this miserable fatal flaw where the timing chain tensioner could fail, and since this is an interference engine (like nearly all modern engines) that means bent valves and a whole lot of expensive trouble.

VW even issued a recall for this, but, from what I could tell, the car my wife wanted did not take advantage of that.

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So, here was the problem: she loves the car, but it has a known, very non-trivial flaw. While many likely more rational people would tell me to get the hell away from that thing and get her a RAV4 or something, I can’t do that.

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Photo: Jason Torchinsky
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I can’t do that because I would be a massive, dripping hypocrite if I were to try and counsel anyone in my life to not buy a car for rational reasons. Our driveways are filled with my ridiculous, archaic, irrational cars—there’s no way I can tell anyone, least of all my wife who has put up with my fleet of absurd machines for years, that she can’t have a car because it doesn’t make sense.

I gave up that right decades ago.

So, we got the car. And, I pledged to take care of the problem before it got bad, understanding I was on borrowed time. Within the first month, I arranged a time with our own David Tracy to come out and help me with the job. He agreed. We set a date.

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Unfortunately, that date fell right when the Changli arrived, and David and I used up all our time making goofy Changli videos. 

So we put off fixing the tensioner. Meanwhile, the car continued to drive great, and my wife loved it, often washing the thing several times a week just because she loved that car so damn much. I haven’t seen her this happy with a car in years, and that felt pretty great.

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As a lifelong idiot, it was remarkably easy for me to make this looming, vitally important bit of preventative maintenance less and less of a priority. Remember, I’m an absolute, miserable fool, and I did a fantastic job justifying and procrastinating and rationalizing my continual putting off of this repair.

Again, in case anyone is having trouble following, I’m an absolute moron.

Then, one day just a few weeks ago, after owning the car not even six months, right before a trip she was planning to take, reality came back to slap me in the face and laugh.

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She was driving normally when all of a sudden everything went to hell. The engine lost power, it sounded like a bunch of marbles being tossed around in a pie tin, and it didn’t want to idle.

She limped it home and I took a look at it, a feeling in the pit of my stomach already knowing what happened before my brain admitted it.

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I plugged in my OBD reader and saw that the crankshaft and camshaft sensors were no longer in agreement, so, in an act of boundless optimism that looks hilariously naive to me now, I replaced both.

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Photo: Jason Torchinsky
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Of course, this did fuck-all because the timing chain was no longer chaining that timing, valves were bent and all of the feces had already impacted the impeller.

I had the car towed to a reliable nearby shop since I knew replacing the chain and head would likely be more than I could comfortably do on my own.

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It turns out that it was more than the shop could comfortably do as well, since they came back to tell me the way they felt it should be fixed was by installing a whole new engine, at a cost of between $9,000 and $11,000.

When they told me this on the phone, I soiled myself with absolute unbounded opulence, like decanting an entire garbage bag full of chili into my trousers.

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Of course, there was no way in hell I was going to spend nine to 11 grand on this thing. That’s insane. I was able to source some used engines for a much more reasonable $2,500 to $3,000 or so, but even if I put one of those in I’d just be giving myself a new vague, and unknown death date unless I fixed the underlying problem, which I may as well do on the engine I already owned.

I wouldn’t have bent valves to fix, but I’d still have to fix the timing chain tensioner issue, and all of that adds up, and for a car I paid about $5,700 for, well, it starts to get a little nuts.

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It was a very, very shitty situation to be in, and made me lament cruel, inhuman Volkswagen, building their appealing driving and feeling cars that then turn around and fail on you, devastatingly. Why do they do this to us, and why do I keep falling for it?

Luckily, though, fate, who had abused me so to this point, gave me a consolation prize: I happen to live quite near one of the leading experts on these engines, and modern Volkswagens in general, a wooly-faced, kind-hearted VW savior who calls himself the Humble Mechanic.

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So, instead of giving an insane amount of money to the shop for a new engine, I gave much less to Charles (the Humble Mechanic’s given name, just so you know), and with the help of his friend Paul Barrett and some parts, they replaced the timing chain, cylinder head, and more.

In fact, they made an amazing video of the process, which is surprisingly involved, but this may be one of the best, most detailed videos about how to fix this issue that I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty fascinating, really, and you should watch it if only to see me get called out for being an idiot on a whole new automotive channel:

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The video also shows that the timing chain failure actually wasn’t from the tensioner, but something much weirder, and that we managed to bend all eight intake valves, and they discovered a shocking amount of leaves and crap jammed up under the car.

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Illustration for article titled I Knew My Car Was A Ticking Time Bomb And Yet I Did Nothing. Then It Blew Up
Photo: Jason Torchinsky

Our Humble Mechanic found that a plastic chain guide had actually broken, causing the chain to chew through the guides on the timing chain cover (that’s it above) with some intense vitriol. It was a mess in there, and it’s still baffling that these seeming well-understood components and systems would still cause one of the biggest automakers in the world such trouble as recently as 2010.

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Look, I am so incredibly lucky I was close enough to genuine experts to fix this car properly, and I think in that fact is the real take-away from all this: if you have a problem with your car, a specialist will always have more and better options than a generalist.

That first shop I went to is a good, general automotive shop—but it’s not worth it to them to really dig into an engine like this to make an actual fix; they’d just rather swap in a whole new engine for a crapload of money because that’s what makes sense for them from a time/money angle.

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A specialist who knows all of a particular make’s quirks and failings and strengths and all those details isn’t going to have to just suggest the most expensive, swap-all-the-shit approach; they may have other options.

I feel bad for people who rely on their cars and don’t necessarily know much about them because these uninterested normies stand to get really screwed by generalist shops, even if it’s unintentional.

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So, that’s a takeaway and, I suppose, if you’re remotely rational, avoid these TSI engines before the chain tensioner fix. Really, it’s probably best to avoid cars with terrifyingly catastrophic Achilles’ heels, too.

Unless, of course, you’ve spent your life owning ridiculous cars, in which case just get your life partner whatever they want and just make it work, dammit.

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Oh, and that means, unlike me, don’t be an idiot. Fix the shit you know will fail before it does. Again, not like me.

My thanks again to Charles and Paul for this amazing repair. If any of you have modern VWs, you need to follow those guys, no question.

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Just watching the complexity of it all makes me want to go out and hug my neolithic-simple old air-cooled Beetle engine.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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jbodybuilder
J-BodyBuilder - Never stick to sports

“I bought a Volkswagen Tiguan.. for my wife.” You are without question the worst husband in the history of human mating.