Home » I Bought My ‘Holy Grail’ Car After Searching For Four Years. Now I Don’t Want It Anymore

I Bought My ‘Holy Grail’ Car After Searching For Four Years. Now I Don’t Want It Anymore

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Car enthusiasts love dreaming about the cars they could own if they had the money or were able to find one for sale. Everyone has their own “Holy Grail” — their automotive hero. I spent four years looking for my own white whale: A Volkswagen Passat TDI wagon with a manual transmission. Volkswagen never sold these cars in America with manuals, but some people went through the hard task of doing a swap. I finally found and bought my Holy Grail last year. I thought it was love at first sight, but after the honeymoon ended I don’t even want the car anymore. My Holy Grail is now buyer’s remorse.

If you haven’t noticed, we use the term “Holy Grail” around here a lot. In years past, David Tracy used to be obsessed with finding just one Jeep Grand Cherokee with a manual transmission. Then, he started finding bunches of them. It’s turned into a whole series here, Holy Grails, which is dedicated to highlighting the rare, weird, or special versions of often-common cars.

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Your favorite Autopian writers still have their own personal Holy Grails. David Tracy still loves those old Jeeps, but now he’s obsessed with the best versions of the BMW i3. I still have a fleet of Smarts, but Volkswagen, BMW, and Saturn have populated spots in my heart.

I spent four years looking for what I thought would be my ultimate diesel cruiser.

Why I Fell In Love

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The Volkswagen Passat TDI wagon sounds like the perfect car. In 1998, Volkswagen unleashed the B5 Passat on America. Volkswagen was going through its Ferdinand Piëch phase, which sent the brand upmarket. Volkswagen explains:

Based off the PL45 platform that was shared with the Audi A4, the Passat sedan and wagon were among of a plethora of great-looking Volkswagen Group products that were signed off by design chief Hartmut Warkuss—think Audi A4, A6 and TT, along with VW’s New Beetle, Mark 4 Golf and Jetta. This was another example of platform sharing, with the Passat being closely related to the Audi A4 and A6. The car was facelifted during the 2001 model year and was available with no fewer than four engines over its lifecycle: 134-hp turbodiesel four, 150-170-hp 1.8-liter turbo four, 190-200-hp 2.8-liter V6, and the ferociously complicated and slow-selling 4.0-liter, 270-hp W8. All-wheel drive was also offered late in the car’s life.

On paper, the Passat sounded incredible. It shares its bones with Audis! Plus, look at all of those engines! The Passat TDI was the only diesel-powered mid-size car for sale in America at the time.

I bought my first Volkswagen Passat TDI in 2019. It wasn’t just my first diesel car, but my first Volkswagen. I spent most of the years before collecting Smarts with brief breaks for a Ford Ranger, a Kia Rio, and a doorless Ford Festiva.

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The Volkswagen was something else. It could carry more gear and more people than two of my Smarts combined. It got 38 mpg on the highway, and its engine sounded like a baby Cummins. My Smarts didn’t have leather or heated seats but this Volkswagen did. And that fuel economy? It was just a few points off of my Smarts, but in a much bigger, more powerful car. Diesel was also cheaper than premium at the time.

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The engine in the B5.5 Passat TDI is the 2.0-liter BHW. It makes 134 HP and 247 lb-ft of torque. The BHW’s injection system shoots diesel directly into its cylinders at 30,000 psi, theoretically leading to more complete combustion. Since the Piëch era of Volkswagen had to be so weird, this engine wasn’t found in any other car. It was different and people were wowed to find out my generic-looking VW wagon took diesel.

Passat Engine

 

My Passat TDI wagon may have had a horrifyingly bad boost leak and a failing automatic transmission, but the seeds were planted. The Passat TDI was, in theory, the ultimate version of the kinds of cars I loved. It got great fuel economy, was comfortable to drive, and produced just the right amount of power.

Unfortunately, cars from the Piëch era have some quirks and features. The BHW engine has an infamous failure point with its balance shaft module. The little hex-shaped key that turns the balance shaft can fail, leading to a loss of all oil pressure.

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If that doesn’t get you, maybe a part of the car’s complex vacuum system will fall apart, causing a frighteningly hard brake pedal and low boost conditions. Finally, if you dodge all of that, you’ll have to deal with the automatic transmission. These TDIs weren’t sold in America with anything other than a five-speed automatic known for failing. Go ahead and search your local classifieds, you’ll almost certainly find one of these with a roached transmission.

Thus, the “grail” among some VW Piëch era diesel fans is a BHW Passat TDI, but with the balance shaft module deleted and that transmission tossed out for a manual box. There are a couple of ways to achieve that swap, including grabbing a manual from a gas-powered Passat or importing a transmission from a European diesel Passat. The latter is the “proper” way of doing a transmission swap on a U.S.-spec Passat TDI, but also the most expensive.

I spent four years looking for just that car. Manual-swapped Passat TDI wagons are out there, but they are rare. I saw one in 2019, but its $3,000 asking price was too much for me at that time. I then saw another in 2021, but it was a sedan, and I didn’t want one of those.

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While I searched for the Grail, I settled for other Passat TDI wagons. I sold my first Passat TDI wagon in early 2020 and bought a second one in 2020. As I detailed in my story about all of my Passat TDIs, that car grenaded its balance shaft module and its transmission, so it went to the scrapper. I then bought a third wagon in 2021, and that one worked fine for a while, but even it gobbled up its transmission, which was already the car’s second transmission since new. I knew the automatic transmission was a failure point for these cars and sure enough, all three of the automatics I owned had issues and a history of previous transmission replacements.

Finally it would come to an end because in 2023, four years after I started my search, I found The Grail. Sure, it had some rust and I couldn’t see out of the limo-tinted windshield at night, but it had that important manual transmission swap, a tune, and some bulletproofing done in the engine bay. This was the white whale.

The Honeymoon Turns Sour

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I tossed $3,500 at the seller, put on literal rose-colored sunglasses, and hit the road. I banged through every gear using up that whole tachometer, and doing what I couldn’t do in the previous three Passats. I hit speeds none of those other Passats hit and the car felt rock-solid. All of those worries about balance shafts and slushy transmissions were gone. One of the previous owners installed a five-speed manual transmission from an earlier gas-powered Passat. So, it wasn’t perfect, but this was what I was looking for.

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At first, I was in love. Working from home means I don’t have a daily driver, but I favored the Passat TDI whenever I took a drive. I excitedly rowed through the gears and heard that engine sing. One of the previous owners installed a polyurethane engine mount, which caused the whole car to shake, and I giggled it off. I even loved how the terrible engine mount allowed the car to flex when I revved at a red light. It was like driving the dumbest hot rod, and I loved it.

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But then…I just didn’t.

Less than a year into my ownership, or about after I wrote the piece about finding the grail, the novelty of driving sort of forbidden fruit wore off. I stopped driving the car, preferring to take a broken Ski-Klasse, the long-term Zero DSR/X tester, or something else.

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Aside from having a cool engine and a five-speed manual, I found myself bored. But wait, wasn’t this the car I’ve purchased four times over four years? It was, and yet I couldn’t find myself motivated to drive it. There wasn’t anything wrong with the car that wasn’t wrong before. I even swapped out the wheels for some Dieselgate-era Jetta alloys. Still, I ended up parking the car and letting it sit for long enough that someone egged the car and I didn’t even notice.

As a side note, who still eggs cars? There was so much egg on there someone had to have wasted a few bucks for no good reason.

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At home, I tried to figure out what happened. Why did I fall out of love with a car I wanted so much for so long? Soon enough, I found myself searching Facebook for other cars, dreaming about replacing my Holy Grail with a BMW Z3, a Mazda Miata, or a Volkswagen Eos VR6. That’s still happening right now and I’m considering trading the car for a 1980s Honda motorcycle that isn’t even special.

What happened to me?

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I’m Not The Same Person Anymore

 

I think I’ve figured out what happened. A lot has happened in those four years. I’ve driven a lot of different cars, I’ve collected a bunch of different cars. I’ve gotten to experience the thrill of a BMW E39 5 Series and the comfort of a BMW E61 5 Series. I got to hoon a Saturn Sky Red Line, drive a diesel-powered Smart, and bought my dream car: the Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI.

Likewise, through Jalopnik and now the Autopian, I’ve gotten to drive new cars and ride new motorcycles. My automotive world in 2019 was much smaller than it was in 2023. David got me behind the wheel of a Jeep XJ and a Plymouth Valiant. He also put me behind the wheel of his awful Nissan Leaf and the passenger seat of his excellent BMW i3.

I think what spoiled my love for the Passat TDI the most were the BMWs. My wife’s 2001 BMW 525iT wagon may be injured, but it’s so far ahead of my Passat that it almost boggles the mind.

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E39er

It’s comfortable, it’s quick, and it’s thrilling to drive, even with its automatic transmission. Her BMW may be a base model, but it’s still better than my top-spec and newer Passat. Everything I liked about my Passat was far better in her BMW. It was more comfortable, it handled better, the interior was a far nicer place to be, and heck, it even did better fuel economy.

Oh yeah, my Passat does about 25 mpg at about 80 mph and 40 mpg around town. That’s a bit odd as my other Passats did way better than that, but I didn’t really care. Maybe it’s the tune or the gasoline-based Passat gearing, but my TDI is thirsty for a diesel.

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Driving the E61 530xi I bought from the Bishop was perhaps the knife through the heart. Sure, the E61 was softer and not as sharp than Sheryl’s E39, but even this was out of this world compared to the Passat. Remove the diesel engine and the transmission and in my eyes, my Passat was just an old car that no longer hit the mark. The BMWs looked better, drove better, felt better to the touch, and somehow, cost less to run and fuel. The same goes for my $2,000 Phaeton. I’m usually the person who can save money by driving diesel, but this car wasn’t doing it.

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During these opening months of 2024 I’ve fought myself about selling the Grail Passat. On one hand, maybe this is just a phase and I’ll fall in love again. If so, it’ll be hard to find another manual-swapped wagon. On the other hand, I could enjoy a far better car if I sold it and freed up the space.

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What pushed me over the edge, aside from the thought of a quick convertible, was the car’s worsening condition. Now that I was no longer wearing rosy shades, I decided to take a deeper look into the rust. It’s everywhere and it goes deep.

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That said, the underbody was better than I expected, aside from the pinch seam above:

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I haven’t found any major holes, but the rust is bad enough in multiple places that we’re far beyond just grinding metal and painting. As Sheryl and I learned the hard way, there isn’t cheap rust repair anymore.

Do I want to put potentially multiples of this car’s value into fixing rust? Nah. I realize I could just ignore the rust for as long as possible, but such eats away at me.

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It’s Okay To Fall Out Of Love

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So, I’ve listed the car for sale. Given the time other Passat TDI wagons have been for sale in my area, selling this thing will take a while. I’ll also lose some money, but that’s ok. At least I got to say that I owned what I thought was my grail. I got it out of my system and now it’s time to move on.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned here is that it’s not just possible, but perfectly fine for your car tastes to change. The cars you loved 10 years, 5 years, or even just a year ago might not be the cars you love now. That’s ok. I’ve expanded my car world since 2019 and what I used to adore now isn’t exactly the same as it was then. I still adore Smarts to the point of wanting to replicate a Smart dealership.

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I also still love diesel, despite everything that’s happened in the past decade. But a Passat TDI wagon is no longer on my list. Maybe I’ll give W8 ownership another chance, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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Hopefully, my car will find someone who will appreciate it how much I thought I would. If you’re sitting on your own holy grail and don’t love it anymore, maybe it’s time to let it go. It can be hard to come to that conclusion, but you might be happier if you do. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to love the cars that you do.

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Clubwagon Chateau
Clubwagon Chateau
27 days ago

❤️

Syscrush
Syscrush
1 month ago

We have this idea that as an enthusiast there’s a virtue in suffering for a shitbox that nobody else likes – that dumb decisions are some kind of a sign of holding special secret knowledge unavailable to the masses of normies.

When the only thing you’ve ever driven and the only thing you can afford is a shitbox, you become an expert in the fine distinctions between one piece of crap car and another. You see, MY ’81 Reliant was special because it was a 2-door in black with a red pinstripe, a sunroof, and a 5-speed.

You’ve lived, your experience has expanded and elevated your tastes.

If I drove that TDI today it would probably make me sick

Lucas K
Lucas K
1 month ago

I found my grail in an B6 Passat 3.6 4motion wagon. Picked it up in 2020 for $8500 CAD with 90,000km, it was a hell of a deal. It’s been a great ride, hauling my rooftop tent, wife, dog, and now child all around Vancouver Island. But I’m just getting started with it. Once the wife was off mat leave and we had come money again I was able to put new tires and rims on it, coilovers and bushings are next. Then maybe a little tune, a fresh exhaust, and on and on. With every little bit my grail feels fresh to drive again.

I also think the thing with Grails is that half of what makes them special is the hunt. Once you’ve found one half the fun is gone, you don’t need to peruse listings anymore looking for that unique loadout. Probably you still do though, and then the hunt continues. If your grail isn’t that fun to drive or you aren’t actively improving it, it’s easy to move on to fresher prey.

Robot Turds
Robot Turds
1 month ago

I could sew why someone might fall out of love with an old VW. My MIL had a Jetta wagon TDI with a manual. It was the biggest piece of shit ever. Always having problems. Ridiculous problems. It was in the shop constantly. And if I was around I too wound up working on it. Sorta’ turned me off of VWs in general.

Sean McGuire
Sean McGuire
1 month ago

I have a Z3 and want a diesel manual wagon.

Tradesies?

Chris Moore
Chris Moore
1 month ago

Never meet your heroes…sometimes far too true. Sorry to hear that it doesn’t tickle that happy in you anymore Mercedes!

One of my coworkers has a Passat wagon, gas/auto. He loves and hates it. When it’s working, great! When something isn’t, “what now?”. The quirky VW design bits, especially with that era, as you mentioned Mercedes, can be as maddening as they can be awesome.

William Doucette
William Doucette
1 month ago

I started in the biz in ’03 wrenching on bimmers for a dealer. I remember being totally blown away that the lateral acceleration spec on the 525iT was .89G. In a wagon….

Phuzz
Phuzz
1 month ago

It was in a borrowed one of these Passats that I hit my personal top speed record.
On a closed course of course…definitely not on the M5 in the middle of the day. Ahem.

Dieseldub
Dieseldub
1 month ago

As someone who’s owned 4 of those Passat wagon TDIs, I kind of feel this one.

The cars are super comfortable. Still to this day I rank them among the top seats and seating positions for a large/long body such as mine.

But, they aren’t that exciting. They’re spacious. They’re very comfortable. But beyond that, the efficiency is lacking, they’re on the heavy side, the steering, while direct, has absolutely no feedback. Although, there’s a reason for that, I suppose. The trick suspension geometry was meant to eliminate FWD (and AWD) torque steer. To be fair to Audi engineers, it’s very effective at that job. I’ll give them that.

It’s a comfortable, easy car to drive. Just not terribly exciting.

Know what’s more fun? 2001-2005 Jetta wagons. About 500 lbs less weight than the Passats, came offered with a 5 speed from the factory, they are WAY more efficient, and there is some torque steer. The steering has a smidge more feedback. Everything about working on a Mk4 Jetta wagon is easier than that Passat as well. No balance shaft issues. The drivetrain is mounted transversely (also why it’s more efficient). Doing clutch jobs is actually pretty easy on them. The 5 speeds weigh 90 lbs with fluid in them. I bench press those suckers in and out like they’re nothing.

Removing the transmission in the longi mount cars is MUCH more of an involved process.

Also, the transverse cars from the MK4 and newer generations get “pendulum” engine mounts. You’ll basically not feel the diesel engine’s vibes at all in comparison to the Passat that has the engine resting on top of its mounts instead of suspended from them from middle points of the drivetrain.

Speaking of, the first B5.5 Passat I had, I literally had to be towing a pop-up camper at 70+ MPH to get to 26 MPG–and that’s with the original automatic transmission. There’s definitely something not right about the one you have.

The two main dailies in the household at the moment are my 2001 Golf and the “free” 2003 Jetta wagon we picked up last fall and I’ve done boatloads of work to get it where it needs to be. Fixing numerous water leaks to retrofitting the most comfortable heated leather seats available for a Mk4, retrofitting a multifunction steering wheel. The 5 speed transmission would not come out of 5th gear if you left it in 5th and came to a stop. I know how to fix that without removing the transmission, but the cost of parts made me just say “fuck it” and I bought a 6 speed instead.

My Golf has a similar 6 speed. Both are 02S transmissions that came out of 2019 Jetta/Golfs with the 1.4 TSI. The significance is the 02S is the same family as the 5 speed found in the Mk4 TDIs we own, and those particular 02S 6 speeds are geared perfect for an old TDI.

Takes it from spinning about 2800 RPM at 80 in 5th gear to more like 2300 at 80 in 6th. So. much. quieter.

What’s better? Both can legitimately knock on the door of 50 MPG. The Golf having exceeded that a couple times on slower rural highways. One of the other tricks there is the bigger injection pump from the auto trans version–older engine and fuel system than what your Passat has–both of these are ALH code engines, rotary injection pump instead of Pumpe Duse. Speaking of, these older engines are even more clattery than your BHW. It’s character.

Going 700 to 800 miles inbetween fill ups and requiring 16 gallons or less to fill up and do it again is pretty epic. Not gonna lie.

The Jetta wagon has some neat storage space under the cargo floor area too. Some plastic trays to organize random small stuff. They’re really neat.

It’s definitely a lot easier to own one of these if you can wrench on it yourself though, that’s for sure. I can’t afford to pay someone to do the level of work I’ve done to my cars, that’s for sure.

The Golf has 320,000 miles on the clock now, the Jetta wagon is over 280,000. With not so old timing belts, fresh injection pump seals, new clutch and 6 speed transmissions, I would absolutely trust either one to go cross country and back, and get ridiculous fuel economy and range while doing so.

Every time I get in the one Passat I still have, I do go “Ahh, this just feels nice.” It’s a comfy cruiser.

But, it doesn’t quite put the smile on my face like the lighter weight Golf or Jetta wagon with the snick snick 02S 6 speed and absurd fuel economy and range, plus just feeling lighter on their feet.

I’d rather turn wrenches on the transverse platform cars, too. It seems like most jobs on the Passat are double the chore of doing the Mk4 platform cars.

The B5.5 still holds a special place for me, but the ol simple Mk4 platform TDIs have a lot going for them… They’re the ones that really made the reputation of TDIs as being insane MPG machines while still being pretty fun (especially with a couple easy upgrades) and being insanely long-lived as well when taken care of.

I’ve owned newer cars, but I often end up having someone offer me money and I find myself using that money to buy a cheap Mk4 to fix up again. They’re just easy for me to fix up and I love the result when I’m done.

But, bear in mind, these are 20+ year old cars now. It’s getting harder and harder to find clean examples.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
1 month ago
Reply to  Dieseldub

Stop making me want a Jetta, my “all used VWs are bad” rule is eroding to dangerous levels of VW acceptance.

Dieseldub
Dieseldub
1 month ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

If you get one that was fixed up by a mildly-obsessive nerd like myself, they’re very worth it.

Most of these old ones are well neglected at this point and need tons of love to get to where they need to be. Plus, I’m not one who wants to daily 90 hp for very long. I *have* to do some power upgrades.

They respond amazingly well to it, too. I can get a used injection pump from an auto trans car (they got bigger pumps but smaller injector nozzles) for $45 at pick n pull, put another $20 into it for a seal kit, put it on the car and then add a tune, it can easily take the car from 90 hp and 155 ft-lbs to more like 125-130 hp and 220+ ft lbs. When you get the torque above 200 ft lbs available as low as 1900 RPM in a ~3000 lb car (or less in the case of Golfs and Beetles), they’re a lot of fun.

They feel fast, but realistically you’re not blowing any modern car’s doors off if they were actually trying… But the immediate response from the throttle, the lack of rev hang when shifting and the shear amount of torque right in the RPM range that you use the car at in every day situations, it’s actually pretty engaging.

So, something that simultaneously puts a smile on my face while still getting more than 45 MPG and can go more than 700 miles inbetween fill ups and is otherwise just a practical body style (except the Beetle, those aren’t so practical).

Like, the worst mileage I’ve gotten in my Golf was 37 MPG. I did 80 MPH for a couple hours into a stiff head wind on NB I-5 in California’s Northern central valley. Then you do more than 4000 ft of elevation climb (still doing 80). Then on the downhill side, I link up with a group of 4 cars who would do a little over 100 MPH as traffic allowed, but otherwise were cruising closer to 90-95… The last two hours of that trip was spent doing those speeds continuously… And it still got 37 MPG and I stopped for fuel just before I got to the 600 mile mark.

C’mon. That’s actually pretty awesome.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
28 days ago
Reply to  Dieseldub

That does sound pretty awesome. I have a soft spot for diesel cars in general, I wish there were more of them around here. I’d still prefer a non-VW, but I guess sometimes you gotta take what you can get.

Swing_Axle
Swing_Axle
1 month ago

If it got egged in the springtime, there is a non-zero chance it wasn’t Damn Kids, but instead Damn Crows. If they find a car with a favorable slope in the windshield or hood or w/e, and it doesn’t move much/parks in the same spot every day, they”ll keep coming back to drop pilfered eggs on it. I’m not sure why– they can crack eggs with their beak just fine –but my friend thought the neighbor kids had been egging their van for years until they caught the crows in the act.

FleetwoodBro
FleetwoodBro
1 month ago

Screw that Passat, it’s not good enough for you. You’ll find the right car. I gently suggest you should look for that right car in a dry state.

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
1 month ago

In this thread: VW person discovers why BMW’s are good

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
1 month ago

Nobody let Mercedes ever drive a Lexus

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
1 month ago

Yea, I get that. Different needs and wants from different vehicles. That said, there’s something to be said for the peace of mind you get from driving a car that won’t fall apart on you (salty rust notwithstanding).

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
1 month ago

I thought VW people were meant to go to Audi and then to Porsche?

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
1 month ago
Reply to  Rod Millington

VW to Audi is a lateral move, IMO. Same nonsense, just as awful to work on. Porsche is too damn expensive in most cases. BMW’s are cheap to buy and (relatively) cheap and easy to fix as far as Euro cars go.

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
1 month ago

I occasionally have this thought about the W8 wagon, but only because I don’t drive it much anymore. It needs work I can’t really do at my current house, and I don’t want to break anything catastrophic.. so it sits.

But every time I do have to drive it, I fall right back in love and realize I’ll never sell it. Other cars come and go, but that thing is forever.

The V10 Touareg fucking tests me, though.

V10omous
V10omous
1 month ago
AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
1 month ago

Crack pipe. I know VW has quite high reputation in the US, let’s just say here across the pond it’s not necessarily the case. Manual TDI in silver no least is the most boring of all boring cars. I get the love, but you won’t break its heart. You tried to find it, but it doesn’t have one. Carry on.

Last edited 1 month ago by AlfaWhiz
Will Valleau
Will Valleau
1 month ago

It’s ok, tastes change. It sounds like for the better. Perhaps your true grail is the f11 with a 535d swapped in. 😉

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