Thursday, October 14, 2004

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The Volkswagen Passat versus rational choice theory

A political science colleague who shall remain nameless e-mailed me the following amusing rant:

Why VW Debunks everything I ever learned in Political Science

I've been thinking a lot about my VW Passat today. Actually, I've been fantasizing about life without it. To call the car a lemon does not begin to convey the vitriol I feel toward this souped-up-galopy and the devil company that spawned it.

Three years old with just 24,000 miles on it, the car has suffered from a major and chronic oil leak (at one point, an indicator light went on that read -- and I'm not kidding -- "stop immediately!"), a dead battery, faulty wiring to all of the front lights (a $900 problem that went undiagnosed despite 3, count them, 3 trips to the dealer to replace burned out running lights and pleas to check the wiring), a broken cigarette lighter/cell phone charger, a broken rear washer sprayer, and my favorite: trim around the doors that magically came unglued on both sides of the car, so that you had to navigate an upholstered noose hanging down from the top of the door to climb inside.

As I sat in my dead car today, waiting for a replacement battery to be installed, I got to thinking about what my experience with VW says about political science.

Here's what I learned:

1. People are not rational actors. Today, I spent an extra hour getting my corner gas station to send a guy to VW, pick up a battery, bring it back, and then install it just so I wouldn't give VW any more "labor" fees for a car that shouldn't be broken in the first place. Yeah, yeah you could say my behavior was rational given my utility function (hatred toward VW runs deep), but the point is I was willing to tolerate incredible inefficiency for a wildly ridiculous and fleeting feeling of petty satisfaction.

2. Statistics don't mean s*** if you're the outlier. I did my research. Consumer Reports rated the 2001 Passat high in reliability. In fact, reliability was one of the big factors that pushed me to buy it over a Volvo. What I didn't know was that someone was smoking something they shouldn't have been when my particular Passat came down the assembly line.

3. Conspiracy theories are true. Incompetence alone cannot explain the knuckle-headed service I have gotten from this company. Once, a "service advisor" lost -- LOST -- my car for 3 days. The corporate 1-800 VW "consumer advocate" I called yesterday was able only to advocate that I try a different dealer. When I asked him which one, the reply came with a straight face: "M'am, we cannot recommend one dealer over another. I guess you'll have to do trial and error."

My VW service manager, a very nice man named Willie, admitted that my car has had a major oil leak for three years, but still said he couldn't actually diagnose the problem --let alone fix it -- until I brought the car back after driving exactly 1,000 miles once VW had changed my oil. Apparently, my own tracking of the vanishing oil, and the one emergency visit I made, when the car needed 3 quarts of oil and the VW service guy told me," Man, your car was so dry you could have fried the whole engine, Lady!" weren't enough.

Yesterday, I even emailed the head of corporate communications for VW of America in a desperate last plea for help. (Most other VW executives don't even list their contact information on the internet). His name is Steve Keyes. I didn't hear back. Then I realized why:

Somewhere in Germany, in an underground bunker with escape pods, laser-beam defensive systems, and one of those retractable ceilings, a secret group of men and women is meeting. Stroking their furry, one-eyed albino cats, these Titans of Automotive Misery are busy devising evil new paperwork requirements and fake toll free consumer advocate lines to keep VW employees everywhere from fixing station wagons in the United States.

My rational, detached conclusion is that Lesson #2 is the causal factor behind Lessons #1 and #3. Furthermore, in this case, I doubt Consumer Reports developed their rating using statistical analysis, and I'd speculate that they may have screwed up their ranking of the Passat -- this is not the first rant I've heard against that car.

Of course, ask me about my experiences with Continental Airlines and all my rationality will just fade away....

I highly recommend reading this in tandem with Maria Farrell's jeremiad against statistics requirements over at Crooked Timber. However, be sure to then check out Kieran Healy's witty addendum.

UPDATE: A note of clarification after reading some of the comments -- I'm not the one who owns a Passat. The Drezner family modes of transportation were made by Toyota and Saturn.

posted by Dan on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM


One wonders if the factors listed don't account for a lot of people giving serious thought about voting for John Kerry.... wityh, alas, similarly disasterous results.

posted by: Bithead on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

For what's it worth, our (also Chicago-bought) Passat has held up very well since 2000, as had the Golf we bought in Canada in 1994. The Golf is still 'in the family'.

That said, inference from samples of such small sizes is known to not be all that powerful ...

posted by: Dirk on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

It's time to stop throwing good money after bad and get rid of the demon car. What are you doing buying a German car anyway. You should let the dealer know that you are not patronizing German products until Germany comes to its senses. We were about ready to sign on the dotted line for a Chrysler PT Cruiser when Schroeder did his tap dance on our dead. When we told the Crysler dealer we weren't buying the car and why, he was stunned. It never occurred to him that world politics could affect his bottom line.

posted by: erp on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

I once owned a Jetta and the memories flooded back while reading your Passat theory. I was nearly bankrupted by this vehicle and finally got out of the game. Take my advice and lose the car by whatever means possible. VW has built an irrational universe centered around these miserable crates. Every time I visited the service department it was always extraordinarily busy. The money raked in on service calls for VWs could go a long way toward reversing the deficit. I switched to Acura and have spent next to nothing on service since that time.

posted by: Antoine on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

2000 Jetta V-6: 20,000 miles.. 15 trips to the dealer to replace the O2 sensor, the last replacement lasted approximately 10 days. I share your rage.

posted by: Elephant on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Why people still associate European cars with reliability is beyond me. (Incidentally, why people boycott German products over Schroeder's disagreement with Bush over Iraq is also beyond me, but I digress). There's a very basic hierarchy in cars these days; Japanese if possible, American if you must, European if you prefer to walk.

Now, Japanese-managed plants in Europe or America are another matter. My mother drives a Honda CRV (made in Swindon, England), and it's absolutely great.

I exempt the BMW 3-series from this analysis; it's European, it's unique in its class, and its reputation for reliability does not stem from just one rogue survey.

posted by: Daniel on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

My mother drives a Honda CRV (made in Swindon, England), and it's absolutely great.
Except that Honda CR-Vs like to burst into flames after oil changes. See this article.

posted by: tom on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

New reality show coming to NBC:

"We create a Consumer Reports ad that says a particular car model is flawless. But it's really a lemon. Watch each week as the frustrated consumer deals with oil leaks, dead batteries, blown gaskets and other vehicle mishaps! We have cameras mounted inside and outside of the vehicle to capture the mayhem, and they seem to be the only things that work in the car!"

posted by: muckdog on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Lots of other Americans are also risk averse when it comes to their vehicles. Ever wonder why the parking lots are full of Accords and Camreys?

posted by: Jerry on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

er "Camry's"

posted by: jerry on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Consumer Reports gathers its data from annual surveys of its subscribers. On their web site, no VW vehicles are listed as "Good Bets", but three are listed as "Repeat Offenders" (but not the Passat). Considering VW only sells five models in the US, it looks like a bad bet, reliability-wise.

posted by: Chief on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

There are outliers, and then there are outliers. I have a Passat of about the vintage (2001.5) as our friend, and am still delighted with the thing. Perception is reality.

posted by: mezzrow on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

I thought it was just me. My '04 Passat's rear windows stopped working within its first 6 months and a few weeks after I got that fixed VW recalled it to fix some bolt problem. And it drinks like a sailor on shore leave, averaging 17 miles per gallon (of premium) with the a/c on, which is pretty much always because the so-called vent is as warm and moist as human breath. But it does steer, brake, and generally handle better than my old Accord. Also it's quiet and the speakers are decent.

posted by: JonR on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

In the real world, people are not rational actors. Expecting them to be, or assuming you are one, without specific particular evidence is not shall we say rational. So welcome to the real world.

posted by: oldman on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Is Dan after Kaus's car gig for Slate with this post? Yes, this is a hot issue. My VW-owning friends seem to take it for granted that their cars will just fall apart at some point. I'm familiar with that Volvo that Consumer Reports dissed in favour of the Passat -- basically the Volvo needs brake pads replaced a tad frequently, and there was a recall on the wiring in the headlights -- but it doesn't result in the sheer existential fury of the Passat. CR was fooled as well by the VW reputation.

posted by: P O'Neill on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

I shopped the Passat. But a compareablely equiped Accord was about $4,000 less. I also found the passat kind of stiff and heavy to drive like most German Cars. It was not a hard decision.

The real question in my mind is why would anybody who lives in Chicago drive a nice car. The traffic is ferocious, parking is very tight and the roads are terrible.

I am selling a 99 Mercury Mystique that just spent a couple of years up there. It has a couple of minor dings but it runs very well and has only 42K miles. $5500 Perfect for a student or somebody who parks on the street.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

We are indeed emotional beings, and I have found that people often buy cars for reasons totally devoid of common sense.
There is only one thing to know when buying a car, i.e. buy one made by a Japanese auto company. Buy a Honda, a Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Suburu, or even an Isuzu. Right out of the box, you are much more likely to discover that your car will spend more time in your garage instead of the dealer's. My last two Japanese vehicles, both from Nissan, had over 200,000 miles on them and never needed major reconstruction.
You don't need to know anything else when you buy a car.
The Tim

posted by: Tim Cross on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

GM is doing pretty well these days also. I haven't had any trouble with a couple of Saturns and I bet Dan hasn't had nuch trouble with his.

posted by: Steve LaBonne on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

My VW Jetta woes: Tumbler in driver side lock fell out. Door handle on passer door doesn't work if below 60 degrees. Door moldings fell off. Trunk release button doesn't work. Horn doesn't work, unless it's below 40 degrees.

Strangest of all, above 90 degrees the radio, AC, and vents don't work. And a mysterious grinding rattle occurs when depressing the clutch. Restarting the car cures all this. Sometimes.

posted by: Anon on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Personally, I'm working on my second Astro van. Actualy, this one is a GMC Safari, which is (was) made at the same plant, in Baltimore.

First one had over 150000 miles, no rust... and the new one is aorking on 85000 at the moment. On this new one, I did have some initial problems with the AWD transfer case... but I have reason to suspect that the problem was dealer induced.

Enough room for myself and my wife (both 6 footers) my kids (One taller than me the other working on it) my dog, luggage and a camping trailer.

Not exactly my first choice for city driving, but it's not too bad, and more than makes up for it on the open road.... (where we spend a good about of time... about 35k/yr of OTR driving)

My wife wanted a VW some time ago. Thankfully, she didn't get one, opting instead for a Chevy Mailbu. She's been looking at the repair bills from her freinds who got the VW, (similar tales to what's been posted here) and thanking her stars she didn't make the same error.

posted by: Bithead on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Anon: "Mysterious grinding noise...."
I assume you have a manual transmission. I had the same symtoms (and "fix" on my '97 Jetta.) I finally found the cause-- your ignition switch is sticking in the start position and when you depress the clutch pedal, the car thinks that you are starting the car and engages the starter on an already running engine. Remember when cold starting the car you have to depress the clutch to activate an interlock to tell the computer to engage the starter . There is a recall for the ignition switch.

I had a '86 Jetta and still would be driving it , but my son totaled it in '97. It had 170,000 miles and was very reliable. bought a '97 Jetta 98,000 miles to date, also very reliable. Also I have a '81 VW Scirocco S with a transplanted 16V engine---the S doesn't stand for slow anymore.

posted by: Bill on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

So I'm not the only one! My VW is a 2002 Jetta and has been a lemon as well. Had an entirely new transmission put in in under a year! Dead battery, faulty electrical, new cam shift tensioners (not even sure I'm saying that right), and new power window mechanics. Same problems with the service too. I had never heard anything bad about them before buying, but now I tell everyone not to buy a VW. Obviously the same pothead that worked the assembly line on yours did mine as well! Great article. I especially loved the image of the German corporate execs in their pod!

posted by: Theresa on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

I've (and now we, married three children) have had mostly Volvos and Volkswagons. First Volvo was a 1972 142E. We've had a Dasher, Jetta, Passat. We've sonce had a BMW (and a Ford Explorer) and now a Benz (and a Ford Explorer).

IMHO once you've driven a European car the nicest thing I can say about the Japanese cars is that they are cars.

posted by: Peter V on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

I stopped reading once I learned your esteemed colleague refers to it as a "galopy".

WTF? He's a political scientist which already sets him up as an ignoramus, but "galopy"?

Jebus, you phds sure be stoopid. And pretentious.

posted by: It's Jalopy Idjit on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

I thought it was just my bad luck, too. At 60K the automatic transmission on my Passat GLX died. They wanted $4k to replace it!! It would only work when I warmed up the car for 15 minutes. So I warmed it up and sold it to a VW dealer. I'm sure he fixed the transmission for a couple hundred dollars and sold it to the next unwitting victim.

Here's the conspiracy theory: I lived for years in Germany and everyone drives VW's. And no one there seems to complain about them. That's why I bought mine. So (in Doctor Strangelove Voice), "Vy do zay vork zere und not here?" Could it be that it's a totally different product than in Europe? My German friends say "Quatsch" (nonsense), "they are all made in Mexico." Here we come to the outsourcing issue. Could it be that the North American versions are all being made by armies of (now in bad Lawrence Olivier Dr. Mengele "Boys from Brazil" accent) "inferior robot genetic cast offs to be zold on ze Amerikan market?"

See. It's all crystal clear once you do some serious thinking about it.

posted by: JK on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Lord, how I hate our Passat wagon. Every once in a while, the warning light goes OUT -- but in general, whenever we start it, there goes the light again, warning us that something, somewhere in the car is wrong. Never again!! From here on out it's Toyotas or Hondas.

posted by: hw on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Thank you for your story. I, too, bought the 99 Car of the Year, Passat wagon... It was great when it did drive! I did get past 24,000 miles, but just dumped the car for $2,500! After having $12,000 of service done on the car. Yes, VW picked up 8,ooo of the 12,ooo, but it took much complaining and writing. The last incident was going to cost another $3,ooo and I said you can have it!!!! $15,000 in repairs on a 99 Passat? No way!

Memphis has only one VW dealership, so I was at the their mercy. One of many incidents involved having the oil changed last January, I took the car just down the road from my home, only to need a whole new engine two weeks later! VW said the people who changed the oil didn't put any fresh oil back into the car!!!!! Who should I believe? The car was at the dealership that time for 5 weeks. Why have a car if it is in the shop all the time....

The last incident, of needing $3,000 in repairs, the VW dealership wanted to start charging $30 to $50 a day for keeping the car on their lot!

Your writing supports my claim that their is a design flaw with this car!!!! Thank you

posted by: ewsmith on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Back in 1999, I did all the research and bought a Jetta over a Jeep Wrangler. I figured I'd be responsible. Three years later I had a Jeep and a Volkswagen Sucks web page:

posted by: Zach on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

Ratings in Consumer Reports are only truly helpful for models that have been around a number of years. Take a look at those red and black circles for cars that have been around for a while and which you know are truly lousy, and you'll see that the for the first year or two they don't look all that much different than a Honda or Toyota.

Now, look at the later years. Trouble everywhere, and getting worse and worse as time passes. Flip back to that Honda or Toyota, and notice how well it's hanging in there.

My first car, for example, was just fine for three years. Then, all hell broke lose and I was forced to dump it as a total disaster after just six years and some 55,000 miles.

That said, I've read that VW products have a way of showing up loaded with trouble from the getgo, seem unfixable, and dealer encounters leave the car owners in a rage.

posted by: Lastango on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

As another Passat wagon owner, I understand your ire. I enjoyed loaner cars for two weeks of my ownership experience, but at least my dealer cared enough to give me a car - and not lose mine.

But I'm not quite sure were you came up with the idea that Consumer Reports thought the Passat was particularly reliable beyond the first year or so of production. Looking at the 2001 car buying issue, the Passat's reliability was all of average - surely not "high in reliability" and not a whole lot better than Volvo. More recent data shows that some Passat models are much less reliable than the average car.

posted by: Tom on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

I bot a used Passat 97 Tdi with 35k mi on it--Essentially no problems except fo the door handles(Hard to open or don't work)--Get 35-40 mpg A great car!!!Now have 111k on it.

posted by: J Brown on 10.14.04 at 12:41 PM [permalink]

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