Expensive Volkswagens don’t exactly have great reputations for reliability, serviceability, or cost of maintenance, so when the company decided to build the ridiculously feature-laden luxury cars known as the VW Passat W8 and VW Touareg V10 TDI, they, in some ways, unleashed two maintenance time bombs upon the earth. And one British man owns both of them.
“Have You Ever Owned A W8 Passat, The Most Infamously Unreliable VW?,” my coworker Raphael asked back in early 2018. This elicited responses from people with experience working on or owning the 4.0 liter, 270-horsepower W8 powered machine.
Yes, that’s eight cylinders in a W configuration, not a V. Two banks of four ultra-narrow Vs. The engine blocks look like swiss cheese. While some of those comments described the car in a positive light, others delved into just how nightmarish the vehicle is to maintain.
A reader who claims to be a former VW service advisor noted that they never replaced an engine under warranty and claimed that VW kept none in stock, charging $24,000 for a long block. And that was worst case. As the advisor and Jalopnik commenter TotallyThatStupid explained, even day-to-day problems were nightmarish:
They were the beta-test-bed for many systems that subsequently showed up in the 2004 Touareg, a vehicle that could most charitably be described as being released into the wild half-baked (at best).
HIDs? Check, except you have to remove the front bumper to replace the bulbs. A headlight bulb on a Passat W8 was a $400 affair, parts and labor.
Fuel pump with its own failure-prone electronic control module? Check.
Little screens from the cam tensioners falling into the oil pan, clogging the oil pickup, and then starving the engine for oil? Check and check. Assuming the cam tensioner didn’t fail all by itself, taking the engine with it.
Not to mention chronic thermostat (pull the intake) and torque converter (drop engine/trans as a unit on a table) failures. Neither of these would cause the car to not run – though both were electronically controlled – but they would each throw a check engine light that could not just be turned off.
But things changed when Jalopnik commenter JoeFromPA took offense to giving the W8 Passat the “most unreliable VW” title. It had nothing, as Joe claimed, on the all-conquering V10 Touareg diesel, a SUV with more torque than sense:
Are you totally forgetting the Touareg v10 TDI? As a former owner, allow me to remind you of the basics:
- 5.0 liter v10 twin turbo diesel
- Electronically controlled air suspension with SIX INCHES of adjustable height with “x-tra offroad mode”
- Electronically controlled center AND rear diff lockers
- 4 zone climate control
- 2 full-time batteries - one responsible for accessories, one responsible for starting, but BOTH sharing responsibilities if the other failed (more on that)
Let me share some of the joys of owning one for exactly one year:
1. One turbo failed. This required dropping the entire drivetrain out of the bottom of the vehicle. ~30 hours and special equipment and a ~$1400 turbo later, it didn’t work right. And that was the dealer master mechanic “fixing” it. I won’t get into things like the dealer breaking and then re-installing the broken driveshaft, as I blame that on the dealer.
2. One battery failed. The one under the driver seat. The driver seat that requires a 17mm triple square socket to remove. Because one battery failed, a complex and untraceable decision-making process was performed by the vehicle and it decided it wouldn’t start with either battery but it WOULD continue to allow battery drain from various accessories. I had to replace both batteries ($250/per battery at Walmart rates believe it or not). One battery was under that seat, the other required 18 10mm bolts to be removed. EIGHTEEN.
The first-generation Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI makes the Passat W8 look like an old Toyota Camry in comparison. The enormous luxo-SUV got so many readers pointing out problems that Orlove compiled their comments into his story The Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI Was More Of A Nightmare Than You Can Possibly Imagine.
These two cars are part of a graduating class along with vehicles like the Built In A Glass Factory VW Phaeton W12 (whose lofty cost of maintenance we’ve described before) and also the Bugatti Veyron. They debuted during the Ferdinand Piëch era of Volkswagen, an era in which the company was fat with cash and trying hard to show off its engineering supremacy. That meant offering ridiculously over-engineered luxury and performance cars. Seriously, if you’re not convinced, just check out the smorgasbord of wacky luxury features in the Touareg.
Naturally, because of the vehicles’ reputations for less-than-stellar serviceability, high maintenance costs, and so-so reliability, one might think that anyone who owns the Passat W8 or Touareg must really have a high threshold for pain. But for someone to own both? Surely a person who can withstand such extreme levels of pain does not exist, you’d think. But then you’d be wrong.
His name is Gareth Watkins, and he’s British Amazon employee working logistics in Spain. He’s a German-car enthusiast with a strong appetite for big motors, and the first sentence in his email initially sent to my coworker Raphael makes it clear that indeed, Watkins either does not feel pain, or perhaps even enjoys it. “I’ve never been a fan of the boring family car and the associated easy life they bring,” he wrote, “I also find it almost impossible to refuse an excessively oversized engine, particularly when it is a frivolous inclusion in a vehicle that will operate perfectly fine with a smaller more sensibly proportioned motor.”
To further prove that Watkins is apparently okay with living a life of punishment, just look at how he describes the process of buying his 2003 VW Passat W8—a vehicle that he purchased a little over a year ago after getting a chance to move from the U.K. to Spain. Prior to the relocation, he parted ways with his John Cooper Works Mini Turbo, Mercedes AMG E-Class, and Audi A3 3.2 V6 Quattro, and went on a hunt for a left-hand drive car. (He kept his 2002 BMW 330Ci Clubsport, saying he’d “rather relinquish a limb.”) Since he’d need to use the car daily, Watkins said he was “looking for a sensible family vehicle.”
Then he made a questionable decision: He bought one of the least sensible family vehicles of the modern era, and he paid too much money it:
...It wasn’t long before I found what I was not looking for... advertised as being in pristine condition and on the face of it vastly overpriced. A VW Passat W8 with left hand drive. Picking up the phone I sealed the deal in mins paying the dealer every penny of the asking price but managing to get it delivered from one end of the country to my door.
The good news is that the car was immaculate. “Black with cream leather and carpets... 16 years old and just 40,000 miles on the clock it looked like it had just rolled out of a showroom,” the family man from the U.K. wrote. “Love at first sight. It sat on my driveway for two weeks parked next to my 2016 E Class AMG and dazzled everyone that came to the house,” he continued, clearly in love with this big-motor-having Passat .
Two weeks after the purchase, Watkins took the vehicle—for which says he dropped about $10,000—to Madrid in what sounds like an absolutely incredible journey in an astoundingly fine cruiser. From his email:
The journey was epic... über comfortable. I sat on the EuroStar train that goes under the English Channel to France watching Band of Brothers on the DVD player and enjoying the epic surround sound of the Bose system. It really was an amazing drive over, 2 days listening to the mighty four-litre gas powered lump purring and occasionally roaring.
Unfortunately, the Passat had been built in Germany for the Japanese market (Watkins claimed that it’s left-hand drive because that’s apparently a prestige thing in Japan), and this meant Watkins is having issues getting the vehicle legally registered in Spain. Instead of selling a car that he’d clearly fallen in love with thanks to its incredible engine sound, comfort, and excellent condition, he drove the vehicle back to the U.K. to store it in his garage. This put him and his family in a pickle. A pickle that could only be solved with another huge-engine VW, I guess?:
Having completed the return journey of my continental tour and flown back to Spain, I now had to find a sensible daily driver (the much loved Clubsport is not for that). So I again set about looking for something, telling myself that this time it would have to be something sensible. Big and safe for the family but sensible... and no way a diesel. I hate diesels!!! I am now the proud owner of a VW Touareg 5.0 V10 Diesel.
Watkins was drawn in by the roughly $12,000 SUV’s endless sea of options, which really, if you think about it, are both a gift and a curse. On a used car, maybe more of a curse. He wrote in his email:
I saw this on the lot during the search for a sensible car and was sucked in by the sheer amount of gear it has... this car has a lot going on! A lot of it pointless I have to say but I like the fact I have the option. It’s not as nice a place to sit as my W8, it has waaaaay too many buttons for a start.... I like a nice clean button free zone, but this is the opposite of that.
Clearly Watkins has a problem. He goes out looking for sensible cars, and somehow comes back in overly complicated Volkswagens with huge engines. In the case of the Passat W8, things have gone well. “For all the apparent troubles that other people have with it,” he told me over the phone, “I have no problems with it at all. It’s been great.” But then there came the Touareg, which he admits has been “anything but sensible.”
“I think the Touareg has been the exact opposite [of the Passat],” he told me over the phone. “In the two months that we’ve owned it, it’s probably been back to the dealer at least half that time.” In the email, he said he drives the vehicle “in constant fear,” and described the beautiful-looking 2008 Touareg’s ailments further over the phone, saying:
It just has some reliability issues that hopefully will be solved by the dealer before he gives it back to us whilst it’s still under warranty. But if not, I’ll no doubt feel the world of pain that everyone is talking about there in the U.S.
“It kinda like drops into limp mode just randomly when you’re driving along,” he continued, saying it usually happens when trying to ascend a steep Spanish mountain or when trying to merge onto a highway. He suspects it’s an electrical problem since he’s “been getting all sorts of warning lights that flash up periodically,” and since the gearbox seems to shift well most of the time. He wrote about the problems in the email, and they sound like serious electrical gremlins:
...There is definitely an electrical issue of some sort as I get random warning lights about drive train issues and also a number plate light warning... every now and again it will go in to limp mode too... the gearbox does some weird things every now and again if you put your foot down too briskly.
The issue is, the workshop where it’s been sitting for half the time Watkins has owned it is having issues diagnosing the problem, with Watkins saying:
When we give it back to him, his workshop are giving it back to us saying “we’ve looked at this...but actually we couldn’t find anything wrong with it.” So, there’s a lot of confusion around what actually the problem is as well.
It’s not great.
He went on, noting, “we’re hopefully that it’s not gonna be anything terminal...well certainly not terminal to my wallet, anyway.” Luckily, the car came with a three-month dealer warranty, but that warranty is limited to only 1,000 euro, and Watkins admits that he’s worried about what the shop might find, saying:
I don’t know what their plans are with it. If I’m honest, I’ve been a little bit afraid, a little bit scared to ask that question, ‘is it a gearbox problem?’” If it is an engine problem, what are you going to do with it, because I kinda don’t want to know...I just want it back without this problem...I just want you to get it fixed.”
As for what it’s like servicing these two cars, it can be tricky. Both require a German car specialist at least, but Watkins says there are plenty of those in the U.K. and Spain. The Touareg, though, makes thing more difficult.
“The Touareg is different altogether. Most places you take it can’t do anything. They can’t put it up on ramps. They don’t have the lifts to get the engines or gearbox out or anything like that,” he told me.
He also described the vehicles’ reputations in the U.K, saying that these machines in particular aren’t really known to be unreliable, though he admits that there aren’t too many of them in the U.K. relative to the U.S.:
[VWs] have a reputation for really good build quality...With these two cars in particular, that’s kind of the reputation they’ve got in the U.K.. When something goes wrong, it’s very difficult to find someone that is able to deal with them. and also, because there’s a lot packed into both vehicles, it’s expensive.
He went on to describe that fixing Touareg in particular, can be a “convoluted process, mentioning that replacing one of the batteries requires the removal of seat bolts.
Watkins isn’t a VW nut; he bought these two cars because they’re a bit unconventional, and because they’re in such excellent condition. Plus, he says, “they don’t look particularly...shouty,” and he’s into that.
He especially loves the Passat. “The thing is, it’s immaculate, super comfortable, beautiful, everything works on it,” he said. “It sounds epic and I love it. And of course having a W8 under the bonnet basically means you can tell everyone who shows any interest in it that you have half a Bugatti Veyron.” He’s going to keep it, no matter what it takes, and he plans to figure out how to get it registered in Spain.
As for the Touareg, his relationship with it hasn’t been going too well so far. He’s hesitant about how he’s going to move forward with the luxury SUV, because it’s in seriously beautiful shape. “I’m quite happy to spend a bit of money on it to make sure it remains in A1 condition,” he told me, going on to say that he first wants to know that “it’s not gonna hit me with a really nasty surprise before I go and do something like that.”
He says there are “still question marks over how much [he’d] be prepared to keep that on the road,” but don’t think Watkins doesn’t love it. The end of his email to my coworker Raphael makes it clear that this British Amazon employee is smitten not just by the Passat, but by the big unreliable Touareg, too:
I’m resigned to the fact that I will get what I deserve and at some point I will be digging in to my pockets for a few thousand €s to keep the thing on the road or if I had enough confidence in the vendor... to buy a warranty that would secure me. In the meantime I’ll keep going with the pensive driving face I currently adorn. The thing is though, even though I don’t “love it love it” in the same way as I do with the W8, this thing is monumental and I just don’t want to get rid of it. It’s so good that even when the drivetrain gives up and I have to replace it, I will have fresh hope that it will be as good as new. Besides every time I see someone in a Prius I know I’m a wiser man than they.
Good luck, Gareth. You may be in love with two cars that want to ruin you.