What Owning A Reformed Cheater Volkswagen Diesel Is Really Like

Photo: Erin Marquis

“When are you going to get press cars again?” my mom asked. I looked down at my right foot, still in a support boot a month after snapping two bones in my ankle. She wasn’t concerned, or just casually inquiring about my driving schedule. I had let her borrow my 2015 Volkswagen TDI SportWagen for a few months before my injury while I was cycling through press car loans, and she wanted it back.

“Probably not for a while, considering I can’t really drive,” I told her.

“I just want it to save miles on my Jeep!” she quickly explained.

Sure, mom. She has a serious case of brand loyalty. She worked for a Chrysler supplier for years, and we have several direct Chrysler employees in the family. She has owned a Chrysler 300, a Chrysler 200 and now is leasing a blue Jeep Compass—all on friends and family discounts, as you do in Michigan—even though she has consistently been let down by the brand.


But my little diesel VW was starting to turn her. It’s quick, growling engine and awesome mileage showed her what actually enjoying driving could be like. There was even talk of a test driving a Subaru. Finally, she was seeing the light.

She’s not the only one. Now that the these dishonest diesels models are becoming a highly sought commodity and my own VW, nicknamed Jolene, hit 30,000 miles this week, I thought I’d update you all on how my journey with my TDI was going.

It’s been mostly sunshine and rainbows. Mostly. With a diesel and a European car, there are some things to keep in mind if you’re looking at one of these.


The Parts

It didn’t take long for what looked like okay tires to end up blowing up on me. My spare did a lot of work after I hit a small (for Michigan, at least) pothole about six months into my ownership journey.


See, my car sat on a dealer lot with a big bright NOT FOR SALE sticker on its windshield for two years waiting for its fix to meet emissions requirements. I bought mine two day after the stop-sale ended, but that is still a lot of sitting.


While the all-season tires that came with the car didn’t appear to have any rot, they certainly weakened during all that inaction. This is a problem you may encounter, although dealerships seem to be putting new tires and brakes on the bought-back fixed certified pre-owned cars trickling in. Sure, it’s new to you, but make sure the dealership sets you up with new tires, or else expect to replace them pretty quickly.

Shifter cables and brake lines also may need replacing after sitting for so long. I picked up both new winter tires and summer tires, which ended with a cool $1,100 price tag.


The Maintenance

This Volkswagen is not only my first diesel, but my first non-American car. I intellectually understood that maintenance would be more expensive on a European car, but with a diesel it gets even pricier.


For one thing, those cheap oil change places don’t usually carry oil filers that fit my diesel in stock, at least in my area. If I wanted to hit an Uncle Ed’s, I had to call around first to see if one near me had the part, which is a pain in the ass and negates the entire point of a quick lunch-break oil change. (You could, of course, always do it yourself, but time is money.)

For the more involved 30,000 mile maintenance, I took it back to the dealership to make sure everything was done correctly. These cars are known for their longevity, but any car’s life cycle will always be dependent on getting that regular maintenance done. Getting all the fluids flushed and topped off, my tires rotated, fuel injectors cleaned out (a requirement for keeping that legendary diesel mileage at peak efficiency) and the inside semi-decently detailed set me back a cool $850. A little more than I expected for getting basic stuff done.


The Fuel

Yes, your diesel VW will end up passing gas station after gas station thanks to the glorious millage provided by the direct injected diesel engine. My car manages 41 to 43 miles per gallon. But once you do need to refuel, it can occasionally become a panicked hunt for a station with diesel.


I’ve found in my home state of Michigan that about 60 percent of stations carry diesel, more so off the freeway than in the city. But diesel pumps also seem to be the ones most likely to be malfunctioning, probably because there is no real rush on the fuel, so the pump can stay busted for a bit.

Also, negotiations in gas station parking lots can become fraught as you wait for the one diesel pump while everyone else hits up every spare gas pump and wonders why you’re just sitting there. Gas station attendants will look at you strange and double check your order, or even rush out from behind the counter to stop you from filling your VW with potentially ruinous fuel. This happens to me a good amount.


Another refueling problem I’ve come across is the nozzle of the diesel pump not actually fitting inside my fuel tank neck. Older pumps especially (and diesel fuel is more likely to come from an older pump—again, not enough demand to spend the cash for nice new ones) sometimes have a ring around the nozzle, making them still large enough to fit in trucks but too large to fit in a passenger car. This is also done to keep some unwitting gasoline car owner from bricking their vehicle.


I know all too well the heartbreak of finally finding a diesel pump, paying for fuel, and finding out that the nozzle won’t even fit in the tank. Nowadays, when away from my home fuel stations, I refuel as soon as I hit a quarter of a tank to avoid total panic and desperate searches.

And diesel itself isn’t cheap. Right now, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline as of this writing is $2.68 per gallon while diesel is $3.03, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. So you are fueling up less, but when you do it’s a bit of a reality check.


The Good Stuff

Once you get beyond all the cheddar you lay down for this car, it’s a brilliant machine I’m still managing to save money on. Diesel isn’t cheap, but the millage is so good that you barely notice the difference.


Volkswagen sells these cars with zero percent APR financing and an awesome four-year/48,000 mile warranty which covers some of the most expensive parts to repair or replace.


It never stops being an absolute joy to drive, and it is pretty rare for a car to be so useful and still so fun.

When I did eventually need to get my VW back from my mom after six months away all I could think was “ah yes, this was the right decision” and give my past self a little pat on the back. Over two years and 30,000 miles later, I’m still thrilled with this car. It’s been through tons of camping and backpacking trips and regularly hauls two full grown pit mixes with ease.


Before Dieselgate, some months 80 percent of VW SportWagens were sold with diesel engines. After the scandal, when TDIs were sitting unloved in lots waiting for their fix, many owners missed their vehicles. It’s clear why: they’re comfortable, safe, reliable, efficient and a blast on the road.

If you can manage to snag one—Volkswagen dealers told the New York Times that this latest batch or preowned vehicles is going fast—and you’re willing to deal with some minor inconveniences, do it. Just have both eyes open about what it takes to stay behind the wheel.

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About the author

Erin Marquis

Managing Editor of Jalopnik.