Home » I Sold My Diesel VW To A Nice Guy And It Immediately Broke Down On Him And I Feel Terrible

I Sold My Diesel VW To A Nice Guy And It Immediately Broke Down On Him And I Feel Terrible

Vw Passat Sale Fiasco Ts
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I’m saddened to tell you dear readers that one of the worst nightmares of private car buying happened over the weekend, and I had a part in it. I sold my ‘Holy Grail’ Volkswagen Passat TDI wagon to a nice guy from downstate. He didn’t even make it halfway home before it broke down on him. I feel so terrible that I refunded the guy some of the money back and now I have a grudge against a car.

Last week, I wrote about the revelation that I don’t even like a car I thought of as a Holy Grail. I spent four years buying four Volkswagen Passat TDI wagons searching for the best one. All of my previous Passats suffered from transmission failures but this one was different. I no longer had to worry about a seemingly glass automatic transmission because this one had a manual swap.

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Unfortunately, by the time I found the “right” one I just wasn’t in love anymore. I just sold it to a kind guy who drove hours across Illinois for it. The car began experiencing a possibly expensive problem on him and I feel awful, like I killed the poor guy’s dog or something.

The Car

One of our beloved regular series at The Autopian is Holy Grails. Starting from a running joke after David kept finding supposedly rare Jeeps over and over, Holy Grails celebrates the weird, rare, or special versions of otherwise common cars. We love writing about these cars and you won’t be surprised to read that it’s not just David who chases elusive vehicles.

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For more than four years, one of my grails was the fifth-generation facelift Volkswagen Passat TDI with a wagon body and a five-speed manual transmission swap. On paper, these cars were something special. The Passat TDI was the only mid-size car for sale in America with a diesel engine. And since VW had to be weird back then, the Passat’s diesel engine was used in no other car in the VW lineup. These were seriously roomy cars that got over 35 mpg on the highway, had satisfying torque, and sort of sounded like a scaled-down American diesel truck engine. I know 35 mpg isn’t impressive today, but this was back in the early- to mid-2000s here, when the Ford Taurus was a round blob that got 25 mpg on the highway. Also, it rode on a platform shared with more expensive Audis!

I mean, what’s not to love?

Well, as is customary with Volkswagens of the era, Passat TDIs came from the factory with some quirks baked in. The most catastrophic is the balance shaft module, which drives a tiny hex-shaped key that turns the oil pump. This key wears out, nuking oil pressure. If you ignore the oil pressure warning message as a bad sensor, which can happen, boom, you’ve killed your engine.

Another big issue is the fact that all of these diesel cars came equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission and only that transmission. As these cars age these transmissions begin dropping like flies. I’ve now owned four of these Passat diesels. Three of them experienced some kind of transmission failure and one of them experienced the balance shaft module failure.

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The fourth Passat TDI wagon was supposed to be one to rule them all; the true Holy Grail. A previous owner of my fourth Passat threw the automatic transmission in the trash and bolted up a five-speed manual from a gasoline Passat. The surgery added some quirks of its own, but a major failure point was eliminated. The previous owner also rummaged around the engine bay and removed other failure points, adding some necessary “bulletproofing” to the powertrain. This was capped off with a tune supposedly from a known name in the TDI world.

Once again, on paper, this was the perfect car. As you now know from my previous piece, I bought this car wearing rosy shades. First, the shades were in the metaphorical sense, then literal. I was willing to turn an eye to the rust, the limo tint windshield, the polyurethane engine mount, and the other red flags because this was the holy grail. I could fix those later, maybe!

To paraphrase the adult animated sitcom BoJack Horseman: “When you look at a car through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”

Yet, it wasn’t the red flags that did this car in for me. I thought that finally, once I had the holy grail it would be love at first sight. What I didn’t expect was that four years had made me a different person. VWs and Smarts used to be my main vices, now I adore BMWs, Hondas, Suzukis, and have a strong hankering for a Chevrolet Corvair. The B5.5 Passat used to be a Holy Grail to me, but now it’s just an old car with a neat engine and a cool transmission.

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Unfortunately, that shocking realization made my rose-tinted glasses come off. Not only could I have a better car, but the one I had wasn’t even that great of an example.

There were few panels that weren’t rusty, the interior fabrics were losing the fight with gravity, and since the previous owner did just the bare minimum for the transmission swap, the traction control, ABS, and cruise control didn’t work, either. Oh, and the previous owner didn’t have much attention to detail. The swap was supposedly done 30,000 miles ago, but the shift knob was physically worn and had worn bushings. Even the boot was totally crap. All of this meant I’d never take the car on a road trip because I like cruise control. The holy grail wagon was instead a local car.

Eventually, I just stopped liking the car at all, which drove me to list it for sale.

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The Sale

At first, I thought selling this thing would be easy. People love Volkswagen Passat TDIs and one with a manual transmission is bound to collect interest. Or at least that’s what I thought. I listed the car for $3,500 or trade for a motorcycle and got exactly no interest. $3,500 was about what I paid for the car.

After a few days of nothing but crickets and bots, I dropped the price by $1,000 and that’s when people started messaging me. The messages came in super slow, but the parties were interested. I generally sell to the first person who shows up, and that person would end up being a nice guy who drove about 3.5 hours for my car. That meant a 7-hour drive, or probably his whole day.

I thought I was pretty upfront in my listing. I noted the non-working safety systems, the non-working cruise control, the hilariously bad window tint, the rust, the rough interior, and more. I then offered close-up shots of the rust spots and a video of me driving the car hard through each gear to show that it grabbed strong and pulled strong. And in the best effort to make sure it was ready for sale, I ran hard-driven laps down a desolate country road to see if the car would start complaining. To my eye, it was ready to rock. It didn’t even have an illuminated check engine light.

Sadly, the one thing I didn’t do would come to bite me.

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The buyer showed up in the afternoon on Saturday and I went through everything I knew was wrong with the car. The buyer got to see how the hood didn’t like opening and how the clutch grabbed only at the top of the pedal’s travel. He was informed of the gas car gearing and the fact that I put newer TDI wheels on because I got the car with garbage wheels with bad tires.

The buyer took the car for a test drive, came back, and we negotiated $1,950 as the final price. That was less than I wanted to sell it for, but I began to realize this car was not exactly as great as I thought it was. I struck the deal with the buyer and saw him drive away happy.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

This Passat Burned Two People

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There are three Passats in this picture.

Earlier, you may have noted that I said I never took the car on a road trip. As it turns out, this would burn both the buyer and myself. Roughly two hours or so after the sale, I get a message from the buyer asking me if I’ve ever gotten a flashing glow plug light followed by a hard struggle to maintain speed. Uh oh.

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Sadly, since I’ve owned so many diesel VWs I know what some of the warning lights and sounds hint at. A flashing glow plug light means the car’s computer is pissed off for some reason. It could be as simple as a bad brake light switch or a bad sensor to as serious as a failing injector. Either way, the consequence is limp mode. Weirdly, because VW is VW, a flashing glow plug light in a B5.5 diesel may not be a boost issue, even though that angers the computer, too. In my experience, boost issues in B5.5 Passats often trigger a workshop warning message and a check engine light but not the glow plug light.

Sadly, the buyer didn’t bring a scanner with him and he was too far away for me to help if he even wanted my help. So, he didn’t know what was wrong and I didn’t, either. According to his message, the car would trigger limp mode after over 30 minutes of steady highway driving. The “fix” was restarting the engine, and it would run for another over 30 minutes or so before flipping limp mode again. So whatever pissed off the car wasn’t constant. I did take the car on one trip with over an hour of steady driving and nothing happened. Otherwise, any highway trip wasn’t constant because of Chicago traffic. I was and still am so mad at myself for not testing the car’s endurance.

The car never triggered that light under my ownership and while I explained that to him, I wouldn’t fault him one bit for him thinking I scammed him. He was 5 and a half hours into a drive for a car he paid decent money for and it couldn’t even make it home without breaking down. I was horrified as I became the kind of seller I try not to be. If I think my car is a pile of junk I’ll tell you. I just didn’t see this one coming and I felt so bad over it that I felt sad for the rest of the weekend. He didn’t deserve the headaches I accidentally gave him. I also wonder if the bad fuel economy I experienced was related, but I guess I’ll never know.

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At least this one didn’t leave on the back of a tow truck…

I’ve been on this guy’s end before. Remember when I bought my first Volkswagen Phaeton? The seller didn’t tell me that the engine overheated or that the air suspension had a catastrophic leak. It broke down on me about an hour-ish into the drive home. My 3-hour drive home turned into a 7-hour drive home. In the past, I was even sold a motorcycle that came with a title that didn’t even match the bike. I get it, and that’s why I try to be better.

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So, I did the only thing I could do given the buyer’s predicament: Give him a partial refund. I asked if I could send him $500 and he agreed to it. I didn’t have to do this. Used car sales in Illinois are as-is sales and your only real cause of action against a seller is if you have proof they were lying. Still, I felt it would have been a dick move to not try to make this guy’s day a little better. I told him I thought the car would make it back home and while he did make it back home, having to restart the engine to clear a limp mode wasn’t a part of the deal.

I Hope Everything Is Okay

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The buyer never messaged me again and I don’t see the car for sale, so hopefully he’s figuring out what triggered the flashing glow plug light. If he’s lucky, it’ll be a stupid sensor. If so, he got a holy grail Passat for just $1,450, less than half of what I paid for the car.

Either way, this situation now marks four times in a row that I’ve been burned by a diesel Volkswagen Passat. To date, I’ve lost countless thousands of dollars to these cars (well, I could count them but that would be too depressing) in addition to time I will never get back. There’s also the mental equity I’ve put into loving, hating, and being disappointed by these cars. I’ve now firmly landed into the camp that these cars just aren’t good, for me anyway. Reader Shop-Teacher advised me against chasing these cars for a very long time and I wish I listened to him sooner. I may even dislike these Passats so much that I’m not even interested in the legendary Passat W8 for the foreseeable future.

Still, I can’t get over the feeling that I unintentionally scammed someone. My wife tells me “shit happens, you can’t know what you don’t know” but still, I could have maybe figured out the issue was there. Or, maybe I would have dropped the price even lower. There are so many “could have” scenarios running through my head even as I write this. Maybe it’s silly to take the sale of a stupid rusty car so personally, but I guess I sort of wear my heart on my sleeve like that. To the buyer, if you’re reading this I am so sorry. I hope you’re able to make the car work out for you.

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(Photos: Author)

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Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 month ago

I bought a VW bus with some body damage I thought I could repair. The repairs went fairly well, so I started tackling other stuff. Over the next few months I kept finding more and more hidden crap. Everything I looked at was bad and needed to be fixed. I got to the point where I decided to stop looking and sell. A buyer came and wanted to drive to the bank to get the money with me. That was the only time I ever actually drove the bus. Deal done. I got a call a few days later complaining that the engine leaked oil badly. I hadn’t driven it, so I didn’t know. I offered to provide the $ to buy a rebuilt engine (this was long enough ago for them to be readily available at a decent price). I never got a call back. I did what I thought was right.

Huja Shaw
Huja Shaw
1 month ago

I get ya, Mercedes. Many years ago I sold a woman a bike trainer. We met on a street in a local shopping district between our two locations. I put her bike on the trainer and tighten the handle that locked the rear tire onto the trainer with simple, brute pressure. All was fine until I tried loosen the handle to release her wheel. It was stuck. It felt like it was welded! Never happened before. She had somewhere to go so she paid me and then threw whole set up in her car and drove off. I reached out to her to ask if she got it all sorted out – she replied she had to go the the bike shop to get the damn trainer to release. I felt bad and sent for a check for $25 of the $100 she paid me.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

When I finally sold my ‘forever car’, a lowered 300TD on color-matched AMG Ronal wheels, I told the buyer it always started & ran, then went down the litany of woes. Cleaned it out thoroughly, included all my Mercedes parts, etc. Complete transparency & said $500. As I couldn’t actually quite get it to start, I handed him back a Benjamin in apology. A new battery later, it’s happily living again on a ‘farm’ Down South (selling it down south was actually a Good Thing in this case 😉 )
I sometimes miss it—then I’ll pop the clutch, let the 295s eat, and I get over it: I needed to row my own after a decade of automatics

Last edited 1 month ago by TOSSABL
Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

Wouldn’t red flags seen through rose colored glasses be super red?
He talked you down after the test drive I’d have said sorry dude. You are a better person than me. As an owner of approximately 1.5% of the cars owned in the UNITED STATES do you own an ombd scanner? If so do a scan for the buyer so they know you aren’t scamming them.
EVERYTHING THING WORKS UNTIL IT DOESN’T.

Geo Metro Mike
Geo Metro Mike
1 month ago

You’re the best seller Mercedes! The guy just wanted advice from someone that knew the car and probably didn’t expect a super cool $500 bonus.
I sold a civic for the basement price of 1,100. When I started listing off everything that was wrong with it I thought the deal was getting killed, especially mentioning the timing belt has 75,000 on it. He still thought it was a deal (it was) for his kid, paid and left.
A month later I get a call saying the car quit running and he can’t figure it out. I made a trip to his home and luckily it wasn’t the belt but the coil. He had no idea the coil was inside the distributor. Told him I had a spare and got it going the next day free of charge. It was a bummer to see the hood and grill mangled, but I guess that’s how 16 year olds drive. Before leaving I mentioned again about the timing belt and offered to replace it for a small price but never heard back. I’ll help him out but not letting my spare engine go for free!

Marantzer
Marantzer
1 month ago

If one is stupid enough know what this turd really was AND buy it anyway, they need to be hit on the head with a tack hammer. Really, how well and truly stupid was he? Anything German is bad enough when totally stock, but when it has this unknown type of mods (who REALLY knows what was done to it at this point?) just run it off a cliff.

Phuzz
Phuzz
1 month ago
Reply to  Marantzer

I’m starting to think they must use special extra-fragile parts for some markets, because I’ve owned a string of VW’s and they’ve always been very reliable, and they have a reputation for reliability.
They must do something different with the US-spec ones.

Marantzer
Marantzer
1 month ago
Reply to  Phuzz

ANY car with those kinds of mods and that kind of condition should just be melted down for razor blades. I simply cannot believe that that kind of auto-stupid really exists.

86-GL
86-GL
1 month ago

I think you made the right choice giving him some money back. Respect for being a fair seller. <3. I think your guilt mainly stems from the fact that you just sold a doomed, garbage automobile to its last owner. I don’t mean to yuck your yum, but even new, finicky 2000s euro cars were best experienced as a lease, and that Passat example is roached. The manual swap makes it objectively worse. It’s worth scrap value. Seeing someone spend money on it (despite rescuing you from under it) is bittersweet.

Still, that harsh reality acknowledged, I don’t think you need to lose sleep over it. People who drive 3 hours and blow a few thousand on hopelessly worthless vehicles aren't rational actors looking for reliable transportation- they’re attempting to fill an emotional void in their life.

On some level, they feel that dedicated servitude towards an object of fixation- (In this case your automotive “holy grail”) will result in something to be proud of, that aligns with, or helps attain whatever emotional aspiration they seek. Spoiler: This will not pan out for the car, but it’s not about the object anyways.

Ultimately this process is an emotional journey, one that cannot simply be “snapped out of” without therapy, or time for other things in life to ‘go right’. Eventually the fixation begins to crumble, as it has for you. The guy who bought the Passat isn’t there yet. You empathize with him because you’ve already lived it, but fundamentally he’s a stranger and there isn’t much any of us can do. If it wasn’t for your Passat, he’d have found something else to blow his $2000 on. Hopefully things in his life will also start to go right, and he will move on as well.

End of the day, a few thousand isn’t the end of the world- People have wasted that on Beanie Babies- it’s nothing compared to the tens of thousands a serious addiction (drugs, gambling, alcohol) can suck. The important part is to learn from it, and start making better choices. Cars are always an expense- outside of museums, they all return to dust eventually. ‘Saved’ is only temporary.

I could go on for ages about this- I have some opinions on this whole ‘holy grail’ concept, (A shitty old car with a uncommon spec is still 99% the same shitty old car) but I just wanted to say I have been there too. I spent $2000 on a rusty, barely running Volvo 240 back in high school, with the intent to fix it up in auto shop class. You can guess how well that went. My parents were splitting up, my life was confused, I was being torn in a bunch of social directions- It just wasn’t meant to be. Eventually I sold it for $500. I’ve had some much better Volvo 240s since then, but I’ve reached that point in life where I’m moving on.

This has been long and rambling, but I think it’s really big of you to write honestly about this experience. It takes confidence to discuss things that didn’t go right, especially when they involve finances. I really enjoy your articles, and I hope to keep reading them for years to come.

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
1 month ago

I’ve bought VWs for well over 10x this price, where the seller was OBVIOUSLY hiding issues with the car, and it would limp mode on the drive home (from across the country, mind you, not across the state). I would know full well I had been taking advantage of, but I would never dream to even reach back out, even if I thought I could get some money back…

You did more than enough (and probably more than you should have).

Also, who the hell buys a used VW and doesn’t have a scanner on them? I always, always have one. And I keep one in the glovebox of all my VWs. Whenever it’s within driving distance (ie, my boyfriend will be following me in his car), I bring a jack, four jackstands, a full mechanics set of tools (including my collection of oddball VW tools), a jump box, VCDS, oil, coolant, ps fluid, brake clean etc. I call it my “buying a used VW repair kit” and it has always come in handy.

Last edited 1 month ago by Glutton for Piëch
Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
1 month ago

Ah, my nightmare scenario for when I think selling my own car is a good idea.

Signing a bill of sale with a giant “AS-IS”, “NO WARRANTY” on it doesn’t do much good with some people who think the world owes them something.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 month ago

I’ve been on the raw end of a Craigslist scamming. The guy I purchased it from managed to artfully hide a ton of different problems with the car. I will forever curse his name. When I sold the car a few years later (after fixing most of the crap that was wrong with it) I was as honest and upfront with every single issue I knew of. I still worried about selling it though, the person buying it clearly needed it to work out as a daily. But it’s out of my hands now.

What you did was NOT a scam. You were selling a Passat, which is like selling an ACME branded spherical bomb with a lit fuse that’s running through a Looney Toons Rube Goldberg machine. Unlike Bugs Bunny, instead of handing it off and running away, you stood their with lit fuse bomb, and explained how it is indeed a bomb. I’d imagine the person who bought it from knew what they were in for, tapped into their dominatrix budget, assuming that the pain inflicted by the Passat would be similar, and therefore, a good value.

86-GL
86-GL
1 month ago

Haha well put.

Ron888
Ron888
1 month ago

Noooooooooo.These situations are terrible! Yes you absolutely made the right choice.

If there’s one thing i’ve learned in life it’s that regrets pile up in the memory banks but you can always make money tomorrow

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago
Reply to  Ron888

you can always make money tomorrow

Sure! Just ask anyone whose homeless!

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