For the past couple of years I’ve been on a mission to buy my dream fleet of cars, buses, and motorcycles. I’m now sitting on a hoard of 19 or 20 vehicles, of which at least 25 percent are Smart Fortwos. Many have asked how in the heck I keep so many cars running? Well, I think it’s time to give you a look into how things work. Over a little longer than the past year I sold a broken Volkswagen Passat W8 then replaced it with two Touaregs and a Phaeton. One of these cars tried to bankrupt me almost immediately. And, incredibly, another is one of the most trustworthy cars in my fleet.
In 2021, I decided to continue a trend that I started the year before by picking up more of my dream cars, motorcycles, and buses. Back in 2020, I–like many Americans–-got furloughed and faced a then uncertain future. I decided to make the best of it by doing the things that I never thought were possible, including filling out a dream fleet. I kicked it off with finds like a $1,500 Audi TT and a $3,000 Buell Lightning XB9SX.
Entering 2021, I launched a quest to buy two kei cars from Japan. There was but one problem: I had nothing to tow them home with. Following the wise David Tracy, I decided to buy the cheapest of something for the job. I found this 2005 Volkswagen Touareg VR6.
I got the crash-damaged SUV for $1,700 and expected to it to break on me instantly. People, even fellow VW-lovers, told me that’s exactly what would happen.
I’ve taken this SUV from coast-to-coast while towing trailers. And most recently, it went far north to the U.S.-Canadian border in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’ve put about 12,000 miles on it doing these activities.
Less than a month after I bought that Touareg, I bought one of my teenage poster cars: the Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI.
This was another one of Piëch’s galaxy brain ideas. And yes, that means that I bought two Touaregs within the span of 30 days, possibly because I hate money and reliability. Really, it’s because many years ago a much younger me watched as Fifth Gear and Volkswagen hitched a Touareg V10 TDI up to a decommissioned Boeing 747. That SUV, weighed down with a giant slab of ballast weighing 15,498 pounds, tugged the plane down the runway in a fashion resembling an airport tug.
It was one of the coolest things that I had ever seen and I became obsessed with how stupid the whole thing is. The 5.0-liter, 310-HP, and 553 lb-ft torque twin-turbo diesel engine takes up almost every inch of engine bay room offered by the Touareg. The Touareg V10 TDI is notorious for its absurd repair costs because just about any mechanical repair requires removing the whole drivetrain. But it is a marvel of engineering, with its gear-driven timing and soundtrack that’s like a Lamborghini V10 actively fighting with a paint shaker.
And yet, I still wasn’t done. Just a month later, I spotted another one of my bucket list cars for sale: a Volkswagen Phaeton.
Yet another result of Piëch’s insane thinking, he basically demanded Bentley luxury with the performance to race down the Autobahn while your leather seats massaged you in your perfectly chilled cabin. The attention to detail in a Phaeton is so obsessive that even the trunk hinges are works of art. Who is even going to stare at the hinges to notice?
And, like all of the cars I’ve talked about thus far, keeping them running is costly.
I won’t torture you with the the whole regimen for the entire fleet. Instead, let’s focus on the three cars with the most potential to bankrupt me. Yes, the bus can bankrupt me, too, but that thing needs its own post about how silly it is to operate.
About That Phaeton
I’ll start with the 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton. I bought this back in July 2021 for the low price of $2,500 with 160,000 miles. The most desirable Phaetons in America have the 6.0-liter W12 making 420 HP. Mine didn’t have that, instead, it had the 4.2-liter V8 making 335-HP. It wasn’t exactly my dream Phaeton, but the price was too good to pass on.
The seller of this Phaeton was a fella in the military. However, he was on base, so his father had to do the transaction. The father didn’t know much about the car, but said that it ran and drove. I took it for a long test drive and everything seemed to check out, so I parted ways with my money.
A few moments after I got up to cruising speed on the highway I learned of my new toy’s terrible secret. Its cooling system couldn’t keep the engine from overheating. In fact, it took about 50 miles for the engine to overheat. What resulted from this was a simple three-hour trip turned into an ordeal that took the whole day. I was able to drive only 50 miles at a time before the coolant temperature light illuminated. My fiancée and I would then park for an hour, let it cool down, then do it all over again. And I couldn’t even go the speed limit on the highway, as anything over 60 mph would push the car into the red almost immediately.
This was only the start of the car’s issues. The day after I got it home I came outside to see the front end sitting on the ground. The car’s front suspension air bags deflated overnight, and I don’t need to tell you how worried that made me. I reached out to my Volkswagen friends and mechanics. The news varied between promising and horrifying. The overheating could have been as simple as a bad thermostat. And the suspension problem could have been an air leak from a line or a valve block.
They gave me a list of things to check to narrow down the causes, but the car wasn’t going to let me off that easily. While I began my troubleshooting, the fancy motorized HVAC doors began failing. One failed in the open position, one closed, and one halfway open. The buttons to control the door motors did nothing. Tweaking the HVAC settings to get them to automatically close or open did nothing, either.
While I was troubleshooting all three of these things, the dome light sort of just fell from the ceiling and smacked me in the face on its way to the floor. Then the hood release broke, requiring me to pop the hood open using a Vise Grip and a whole lot of force.
And somehow, it still doesn’t end there. The trunk stopped being able to open and the driver window started coming off of its tracks. It seemed like the more that I tried to fix, the more that failed. I was able to fix the window, the dome light, and even the trim that decided to randomly fall off, but I felt like I was winning battles just to eventually lose a war.
Eventually, one day the car’s air suspension pump never activated, leaving the front end stuck on the ground. I would find out that my Phaeton was a chimera of sorts. This car was originally found dead in a field. The previous owner took it, three other dead Phaetons and a dead Cayenne and combined them all into one car. This car had dead windows, but one of the other Phaetons didn’t. It had a broken sunroof, but the previous owner found out that the sunroof from the Cayenne fit after some modification. The security system was dead, but one of the other Phaetons had working parts. The list went on and on. Many of the problems this car faced were from the other dead cars.
That’s when I called it quits and listed it for sale. The first person to message me was my very own independent Volkswagen mechanic. I told him all of the issues and he didn’t care. A Phaeton was for him as it was for me, an all-time bucket list car.
I’ve been getting updates from him, and I learned that I made a good decision to give up on it. He solved the cooling problems by replacing the radiator, some cooling system valves, the water pump, and the thermostat. The suspension air bag issue was not the easy fix of a bad valve block. Instead, he noted that the right front suspension air bag physically blew while out on the road. The left bag wasn’t in much better shape. He had to replace both of them and the pump.
Last I heard, he was roughly $6,000 into repairing it in parts alone. And remember, he gets free labor from himself. The car was recently sidelined after he hit a pothole and cracked a wheel. He refuses to get an aftermarket wheel, so it had to wait for another OEM one.
In the end, I only lost $100 on the car and didn’t even drive it more than 500 miles. It was a small price to pay to dodge a big bullet. Somehow, my Touareg V10 TDI has been much better to me.
I did have pictures of my repair attempts, but sadly, they were lost in a data transfer incident.
The Airport Tug
I got this 2006 Touareg super SUV back in June of last year for $5,000 with 190,000 miles. When I took my test drive, it seemed more broken than the seller stated. None of the 12V power ports worked, the radio didn’t work, and the HVAC system didn’t seem to work, either. I decided to take a chance, anyway, and gave the seller my money. Sheryl and I then almost immediately discovered that all of this was because of an array of blown and missing fuses. We went straight to AutoZone and picked up a pack of fuses. I replaced maybe 10 or so fuses, and suddenly the electronics came back to life.
Since then, the biggest problems that it has given me are a non-working air-conditioner and the air-suspension height adjustment knob doesn’t work. The previous owner apparently spent thousands on fixing the suspension and on engine work, then had enough of spending money on it. So, the airbags are in good shape and the computer still automatically sets ride height. I just can’t make it lower or higher with the adjustment knob. To this day I wonder if the seller knew that the fuses were the cause of the electrical glitches.
I park my V10 TDI in my mini warehouse where it enjoys a dry, somewhat climate-controlled environment. Admittedly, it’s a garage queen, so it never leaves the warehouse unless it’s a warm, sunny day. I think I’ve put a total of 3,000 miles on it, but I’ve still changed its oil twice since buying it. The check engine light has remained off through this time.
I don’t consider this reliable. While it hasn’t broken on me, I think that’s largely due to treating it like a queen. If it were a daily I bet I would have had to drop the engine at least once already. Don’t buy one of these.
The “Reliable” One
And now for my workhorse. When I picked up this 2005 Touareg VR6 for $1,700 it had 177,000 miles on the odometer. This SUV isn’t nearly as super as the V10, but like a good friend it has always been there for me. Its 3.2-liter VR6 makes 240 HP and moves the 5,086-lb SUV at a rate best described as “gradual,” but it hasn’t let me down. It runs buttery smooth, gets 20 mpg on the highway while unloaded, and will still do 13 mpg while hauling a 4,000-lb load home from across the country.
But that’s not to say that things have been perfect. It is a $1,700 beater, after all.
The seller told me that he put it up for sale after he put thousands into getting it to pass emissions testing. Then the check engine light came on again. That, plus damage from his wife getting rear ended in it, convinced him to get it out of his life.
To fix the damage, I found one of the same color getting parted out. The guy ghosted me only days before the road trip to pick up the Beat. Thankfully, I found another Touareg being parted out and it appeared to be the same color. I parted ways with $300 for a tailgate, bumper, and taillights.
But since I bought them at night I didn’t notice that the color shade was ever so slightly off. Yep, apparently, Volkswagen made a green-ish gray and a blue-ish gray. From a distance the colors look the same, but up close things look off.
I also didn’t check if the bumper had the inner plastic that actually mounts to the SUV, and sure enough, it didn’t. So I had to get creative. Things don’t fit perfectly, but it’s good enough for me. I haven’t gotten around to installing the undamaged tailgate, either, but I did install the new lights.
Transmission Valve Body
When I bought it, the seller said that sometimes the SUV had a slight hesitation at about 40 mph. He said that it was because the Mass Air Flow sensor was bad. I scanned the Touareg for codes and the only stored code did suggest MAF problems, but during my test drive I didn’t feel any hesitation at 40 mph. I shrugged it off, thinking that maybe he was talking about something else.
As it turns out, he was correct about the hesitation, sort of. What was really happening was that the engine RPM sometimes flaring during the shift between second and third gear and between fourth and fifth gear. It only happened when there was a lot of throttle input during those shifts, so I didn’t notice it until I went full throttle on a highway on ramp.
This is an issue that many have had with these older Touaregs. If the channels for the solenoids in the valve body get worn down, the result is that the valve body cannot hold correct fluid pressure during gear changes. In the Touareg, it can result in RPM flaring between shifts, with the SUV sometimes violently slamming into the desired gear.
As my mechanic and my VW friends tell me, the only true solution is to have a new or remanufactured valve body installed. These can cost $600 or more just for the part alone. Instead, I took the suggestion from another friend and changed my transmission’s fluid, adding in some Lubegard. Amazingly, the transmission rebuild in a bottle mostly worked. The fourth to fifth flare was eliminated and the second to third flare only happened at wide-open throttle.
Of course, changing my transmission fluid caused another problem.
Rusting For A Reason
First-generation Touaregs are known for another silly problem: water retention. David wrote about this years ago when he found Touareg owners emptying loads of water from their SUVs’ doors and rockers. Touaregs can collect water from a number of water drains that can get clogged. Water gets into doors, too. And in the case of my Touareg, there are holes behind the taillights that let water into the rockers.
By the time that I bought my Touareg, it was too late to rectify the issue. The left rocker already had a big rust hole and the right side was already beginning to rust. One of the doors began rusting from the inside-out before I freed the water that was inside of it. I plan to fix this one day, but it’s not ranking high at all on my list of priorities.
However, the transmission forced my hand. I’ve always known of a small rust spot on the transmission fluid pan, but I thought it was just on the surface.
That changed when I changed the transmission fluid. Immediately after changing the fluid, I noticed a small leak. I was told that it could happen if I overfilled the transmission, so I decided to monitor it.
It continued to leak a full 2,000 miles after the fluid change, raising a red flag. My next thought was that maybe I forgot to put the seal back on the transmission drain plug. So I bought new o-rings and took the drain plug out. That’s when I discovered that the rust was way deeper than just the surface, but all of the way through. Somehow, it was rusted through but not leaking until I used an impact to change the fluid. And the very last time that I applied the impact made the hole so much bigger.
Eventually, my Touareg just bled out where it sat, unable to move under its own power.
Thankfully, I found a trusty mobile mechanic nearby who made my life so much easier. He removed the old pan and installed a used, but rust-free one that I got from a junkyard. A few bolts snapped on their way out, but he was able to extract them before installing Heli-Coils to restore the threads.
So now the transmission is back to holding its drink. But unfortunately, I forgot to give my lovely mobile mechanic some more Lubegard, so the shift flares returned, but not as bad as they were before.
The Alarm System
Touaregs have an annoying and entertaining issue with their alarm systems. The Touareg, like other VAG products, has a self-contained alarm system featuring its own little batteries and its own horn. When it’s working, it works great. However, things can get real wonky when the alarm’s battery starts dying. In the case of my Touareg, the alarm would sound almost immediately after locking the doors. I hooked up my handy Autel scanner and found that the car does think that the doors are closed, so why is the alarm going off?
Apparently, when the alarm battery is weak, it can cause false alarms. The siren will even go off while you’re driving the car. It’s equal parts hilarious and annoying to drive down the road with the alarm blaring. However, that means that I can’t lock the Touareg, which is something that I don’t like. The official solution is to buy another alarm siren for a few hundred dollars. Or, you could solder in a new battery for less than $50. My solution? A screwdriver through the alarm system unit. Can’t hear a siren if the siren is dead!
The Other Problems
Every other issue is comparatively tiny. One issue that just started happening involves the left windshield wiper. For whatever reason, it no longer touches the windshield at the top of its swing. I have no idea why, as the wiper arms are undamaged and the wipers themselves are new. I’ve long been told that the springs that hold wipers down don’t really wear out, but I have no other explanation for why it’s happening.
The suspension has always been sort of wonky, too. It seems to me that a previous owner lowered this Touareg. That’s fine with me, as I don’t intend on off-roading the thing anytime soon. But the shocks are definitely at the tail end of their lives, at which point I’ll seek to restore stock ride height.
Another new and somewhat silly problem occurred when I was dragging home my Suzuki Every. The passenger mirror fell out of its housing and wouldn’t stay back in. I initially secured it using zip-ties before adhering it in place with some adhesive.
Amazingly, the V10 has none of these problems. It’s not rusting, it’ll shift gears smoothly even at full throttle, and the alarm still works. Still, I love my VR6 workhorse. Behind the wheel of this thing I’ve towed home two kei cars, towed a race car and its driver home, hauled all kinds of trailers, and even rescued a few people. Most of the nearly 12,000 miles behind the wheel of this thing were towing something. And everything still works in it from the air-conditioner to the heated seats.
And the repairs thus far have been cheap! The new transmission fluid pan was just $35 plus the cost of fluid and a filter, and $150 in labor to the mobile mechanic. And I can still make it look better by actually getting around to installing the tailgate that’s still sitting in my living room.
So, for those who ask how in the heck I keep my fleet together, my answer is simple. Once something gets too out of hand for me, I sell it and move on. Otherwise, I have two inexpensive local mechanics on call for when something breaks that I can’t fix. Without either of them I’d be totally screwed. Thus, I’m back on the search for another Phaeton, this time a W12. If you happen to know of one for sale for under ten large, absolutely send me an email!