Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. This is a quote often incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein. The idea is simple: If you do the same thing over and over again, you probably shouldn’t expect different a result from your actions. These words of wisdom can apply to relationships, spending, and yes, even cars. In my case, I have a knack for loving a certain car and then trying my darndest to make that car work. Sometimes, like with my Smarts, it’s easy sailing. However, when it comes to Piëch-era Volkswagens, I fail over and over again. Earlier this year, I bought a Volkswagen Passat TDI for the fourth time in four years. Each one before eventually broke, but this time, I think my holy grail and its glorious manual transmission are going to work.
This purchase happened back in April, but I completely forgot to write about it, and time just got away from me. Sadly, yesterday its predecessor was sent off to the junkyard in the sky. I wanted to pair the cars together one last time for a family photo. It’ll be a bittersweet end to a frustrating journey with one car, while my relationship with the other remains fresh.
You did not read the lede incorrectly. This latest Passat purchase marks the fourth time I bought one of these in four years. I can explain!
See, this one is a true Holy Grail of diesel Passats. Why? Someone went ahead and deleted the pathetic glass-like automatic transmission, dropped in a manual transmission, and then tuned it to boot. I’ve been searching for a Passat like this since 2019, and like the one ring, it’s mine.
Why I Keep Coming Back To These Putrid Cars: A Bit Of Passat History
According to Volkswagen, the longest-lived nameplate to be emblazoned with the VW logo is not the Golf, but the Passat. It launched in 1973, a year before the Golf. Those first Passats (known as the Dasher here in America) were initially available as two- and four-door fastback sedans or three- and five-door hatchbacks. Later, the vehicle would get an additional body style in the form of a wagon.
Volkswagen notes that the first generation of the Passat benefited from being the first vehicle to be styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and its platform was identical to the Audi 80. More than that, those first Passats and Dashers were front-wheel-drive cars when it was rare to find that layout in European vehicles of its size class. Volkswagen says those first Passats and Dashers also marked important milestones for Volkswagen. They were the firm’s first water-cooled cars and Volkswagen’s first front-drivers. To give you some perspective, the first Dashers came with a 1.5-liter inline four making 74 ponies.
In a note about Volkswagen development, my colleague Jason once wrote:
The Passat/Dasher was also notable because we can see it as the departure point where old air-cooled, rear-engine Volkswagen was replaced by the Auto Union-derived tech that Volkswagen acquired. The Passat was a modern Auto Union/Audi, really, with a longitudinal, liquid-cooled FWD setup that then morphed into the transverse FWD formula that has dominated VW ever since. Modern VW is really Auto Union, and here’s where it started.
The American version of the Dasher had round headlights and federally-compliant bumpers. In 1982 came the Quantum, which was notable for offering Syncro all-wheel-drive based on Audi’s innovative Quattro system. In Volkswagen’s retrospective, the automaker notes that the Quantum was a slow seller because it was priced close to an Audi without an Audi’s cachet.
In 1990, Volkswagen released the Passat which many VW enthusiasts identify with. Volkswagen notes that this vehicle would be the first time the Passat nameplate would be used. It also noted the first time the Passat diverged from using an Audi platform like its predecessor. These initially came with 2.0-liter fours making 134 horsepower, getting bumped up to 172 hp by the first appearance of the 2.8-liter VR6 in 1992.
Hitting the fast-forward button, we now arrive in 1998 at the launch of the Passat B5. The B5 was a leap forward for the Passat for several reasons. I’ll let Volkswagen explain:
The 1998 Passat was a revelation in the U.S. market, offering upscale interior appointments with the kind of design that the previous two generations of Passat couldn’t approach. 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.
Indeed, one of the exciting parts about the B5 and its facelift, the B5.5, is the fact that the Passat had so many different engine choices. I’m also amused that even Volkswagen admits the W8 was a “ferociously complicated” beast. Now, the ultimate grail of the Passat B5.5 is the W8 with its unique, maintenance-intensive, and wonderful 4.0-liter eight-cylinder engine.
If you’re a diesel nut, your grail will be the 2.0-liter turbodiesel, code BHW. This engine made 134 HP and 247 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to this engine, the Passat TDI was America’s only midsize diesel car at the time. The BHW’s injection system shoots diesel directly into its cylinders at 30,000 psi, theoretically leading to a more complete combustion. Of course, since the Piëch era of Volkswagen had to be weird, this engine wasn’t found in any other car.
It’s not a lot of power, and as you’d expect, a 0-60 sprint takes about 10 seconds. What it lacks in horsepower, it makes up in healthy torque and 40 mpg returns at the fuel pump. 40 mpg isn’t that great today, but it was pretty good for a mid-sizer in the early 2000s.
All of it was backed by the Audi B5 platform, which lends good handling thanks to a multi-link suspension connecting the front wheels with pairs of upper and lower control arms. This wagon handles better than I expected it to!
How I Ended Up With Four Of Them
If this car is so great, how have I ended up with four of them? Well, despite some great engineering and a smart platform, these cars do have a handful of fatal flaws. As it happens, I’ve experienced basically all of them with these cars! Sometimes, I’ve had a Passat TDI with two fatal flaws at the same time. Oof.
We’ll start with my first Passat TDI. I bought it in late 2019 after my trusty Smart Fortwo seized its alternator and I couldn’t find a mechanic in my town to fix it. I put the Smart on ice and decided to buy a beater to get me through. At the time, I didn’t have an expansive car collection, just my smarts and a few motorcycles. Since I was shopping for a beater, I decided to buy a diesel car. I had long been interested in trying out diesel, but never really had the opportunity to.
As luck would have it, an older gentleman posted a 2005 Volkswagen Passat TDI wagon to Craigslist. The listing indicated that the vehicle accelerated super slow and had a top speed of just 65 mph. Apparently, he spent over $2,000 trying to find the cause of the issue and was tired of throwing money at it. I gave him $850 and hit the road in what became my first-ever Volkswagen purchase.
I quickly realized that the car’s “slowness” was the vehicle getting into limp mode above 2,000 RPM. If you used the manual shifting option on the automatic transmission and always shifted at 2,000 RPM, you could get it to go as fast as 67 mph before triggering limp mode. Well, “fast” it wasn’t because it took over 40 seconds to reach 60 mph in this condition.
I reached out to VW experts including readers Dieseldub and Rootwyrm. Both sent me down different troubleshooting paths. Rootwyrm ended up concluding that this car was probably suffering from the infamous VW cam lobe wear problem that takes old diesels out of circulation. Dieseldub wasn’t convinced. To him, the fact that I heard wooshing sounds during acceleration and oil sprayed all over the turbo area meant I was likely facing a split boost hose. One of the symptoms of a split boost hose is black smoke, but this car didn’t do that, and neither reader knew why.
Doing my own research, I found that Dieseldub was right on the money. The boost hose looked fine when the car is sitting still, but when I gave the car throttle, a huge gash was revealed. Basically, the turbo was just venting boost and oil into the air. It amazed me that the previous owner took this car to a Volkswagen dealership and ended up spending over $2,000 on a new turbo, vacuum lines, and a fuel pump, and allegedly, none of the technicians identified the leaky boost hose. Maybe, like me, they checked the hose with the car parked, not while it was trying to produce boost.
As luck would have it, an Audi-loving friend had a whole pile of boost hoses in his garage. For me, the fix would have been free and it would have taken maybe 30 minutes. Unfortunately, late 2019 and early 2020 was a tough time for me mentally. I was so depressed that I couldn’t even muster the energy or willpower to fix my car. I was so unhappy that I second-guessed what my own eyes diagnosed with the boost hose. It didn’t matter that the fix was free and net me a reliable car.
Instead, I drove the Passat in its broken state for over 8,000 miles. In early 2020, I sold it for $400 just to get it out of my life and found myself behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 240D. It would take the Merc about a month before its differential started failing. Thankfully, I know this car is still out there. The new owner confirmed my diagnosis to be right on target. The transmission later began failing.
Today, I still kick myself for getting rid of that Passat. Had I waited just a few months longer, my mental state would have risen to the point where I would have fixed it. Though, perhaps it was a fool’s errand because occasionally, the car’s automatic transmission got stuck in fourth gear, illuminating VW’s version of a transmission fault light.
Dieseldub, a VW fan and mechanic, joked that the only reason I had a working transmission was because the engine couldn’t make boost. Apparently, the automatics in these Passats, which were the only available transmissions in America, are known for catastrophic failure.
The Second Passat
Still, that didn’t deter me. Later in 2020, I found a black Passat TDI for sale in Chicago for just $1,200. I drove out to the seller and took the car for a quick spin on Chicago’s streets. It made boost and I didn’t see any warning lights, so I gave the seller my money and left happy. I forget how many miles I drove the car before it broke, but it wasn’t many.
First, the car tossed me an oil pressure warning light. Then the car started losing boost just like my last Passat. Just to twist the knife in further, the car started having problems getting into gears above third and it absolutely slammed itself into first gear during downshifts.
It was here I learned about the BHW engine’s fatal flaw. In order to smooth out the engine, Volkswagen added a balance shaft module. Here’s how it works:
To summarize that video, Volkswagen’s Pumpe Duse engines use chain-driven gear to drive the balance shaft. That balance shaft has a gear that drives a second balance shaft. At the end of the second shaft is a hex-shaped gear that drives the oil pump. A common failure point is the hex shaft rounding out or the balance shaft rounding out. As a result, you’ll lose all oil pressure. The best way to fix this is with a delete kit, which removes the balance shaft entirely and gives you a more reliable oil pump out of the other end.
Unfortunately for me, my engine suffered a balance shaft failure. The engine ended up toast from this, so it didn’t matter if I fixed the boost issue or the transmission because the whole thing was trashed. I sold it to a scrapper for $400.
The Third Passat
In 2021, I decided to buy another Passat TDI wagon, and this time I did what I thought was utilizing the lessons I had learned from the previous one. I’d spend more money for one that’s sorted and I’d make sure I’d floor it during the test drive. If it didn’t fall flat on its face, I would have found a winner.
After months of searching, I found a Passat TDI near me for $4,000. The seller was a mechanic and went down the list of maintenance. He changed the transmission fluid, installed a new timing belt, water pump, and vacuum lines. Even better, the car came with a massive folder of service records dating back from the car was brand new in 2005.
Those service records were honestly pretty scary. The records indicated that the car had most of its electrical system replaced over time. The car also got a new transmission control module, twice, as well as other odds and ends like multiple radios, wiring, and so on. Clearly, this car was unreliable, but the original owner was devoted enough to keep fixing it and managed to drive it from 2005 to 2021, racking up 230,000 miles along the way. The last thing noted in the records was a transmission failure. The original automatic was replaced in 2018 with a rebuilt unit.
To me, this means I got a decent car. I talked the seller down to $3,500 and even started using him as my VW indy. At first, it was love at first sight. For the first time ever, I finally got to drive a Volkswagen Passat TDI wagon as it was designed to drive. There was none of that crap with a dying transmission, boost leaks, or anything like that. The car was just a new fender from perfection.
This wouldn’t last. Six months or so after I bought the car, I decided to try to find the car’s top speed. I hadn’t done a top speed run in the car before, so I was interested. Everything was fine until the car attempted to shift into fifth gear. My forward motion was hampered by incredible vibrations followed by a bang that sounded like a gun firing next to your ear. The car entered limp mode and didn’t stop shaking until I shut it off. The transmission would never shift correctly ever again.
Scared, I put the car into storage for the winter, deciding that it was an issue for future Mercedes.
Well, when future Mercedes became present Mercedes, I opened my storage unit and found a puddle of transmission fluid under the car. I was smart enough to put a catch pan under the car. Transmission fluid was in the pan and even worse, the fluid was shiny with metal shavings. It should be noted that the Passat TDI has a sealed transmission and it’s not particularly easy to access it for service. So, a leak in itself was alarming.
On the road, the car shifted through every gear fine, but if I tried to move with any alacrity, the transmission would fail to shift into fifth gear. Eventually, this advanced to failing to shift into fourth and fifth gear sometimes. Worse, sometimes the torque converter wouldn’t lock up. The transmission threw tons of codes for the torque converter, implausible gear ratios, and more. Doing some basic troubleshooting, I confirmed the transmission case was leaking, but due to tight quarters, I couldn’t figure out from where. What was important was the fact the transmission was full.
I topped off the gearbox, which made no difference at all. Later, I tossed in some of that “transmission rebuild in a bottle” stuff, and that did improve shifting behavior, but the car fell on itself so much I didn’t trust it to do anything more than get me around town. As the transmission got worse, I decided to park the car with the idea of one day manual-swapping it.
Fast-forward another year, I finally got around to starting the manual swap. It was then my indy told me he doesn’t do transmission swaps. None of the custom shops near me wanted to touch the car.
My indy thought the transmission could live a little longer with some new solenoids, but the continued heavy metal shavings suggested that the box was not long for this world.
Things got even worse over time. In addition to the transmission, which seemed to run on D20 dice rolls, the engine stopped producing boost. The boost pipe was fine, as were all of the lines. I started tracing the issue, figuring out that the car’s N75 valve was fine as well. My best guess was that there was a leak near the vacuum pump or the vacuum pump itself failed.
One clue pointing to a faulty vacuum pump was a hard brake pedal. When the pump goes or has a massive leak, the result is hard brakes and no boost. I started going through the motions of fixing the car, then my wife lost the car’s title. We looked for the title for a month without luck. I think she accidentally threw it away.
I ran some calculations and figured out that after replacing the title, fixing the vacuum problem, and patching the dying transmission, I’d spend as much money fixing the car as I’d make back selling it. That’s assuming I could find someone on Facebook willing to buy it. The few guys who did show up were visually terrified at how hard the brakes were.
While fixing it could have been fun, I already bought the car’s replacement. Ultimately, the car left my hands yesterday on the back of a tow truck. Turns out, the car was also missing its cats. I never noticed because the car was quiet like a stick Passat. Nobody wanted a Passat TDI with rust holes, a bad transmission, and no cats. The only people interested in this car were going to to part it out.
Looking back, while I did floor it during my test drive, the car never made it past third gear before I hit the speed limit. I wonder if fifth gear was already on its way out when I bought the car. Either way, what’s done is done. I was deeply saddened to see the car go off to the junkyard in the sky and admittedly, I already regret not wrenching more on it. Maybe I wouldn’t have made back my money, but maybe the car could have gotten back on the road again. At the very least, its good parts will keep other Passats going.
The Fourth Passat
Earlier this year, I spotted another Passat TDI for sale a couple of hours away. This looked promising. Someone went through the work to bulletproof this car. The problematic balance shaft was already deleted and the automatic transmission? Well, it was tossed in the trash for a five-speed manual transmission from a gasoline version of the B5 Passat. I couldn’t buy it fast enough.
True to the seller’s word, this Passat has been epic. The manual transmission completely transforms the Passat TDI from a fine family car to something far more engaging and fun. Even better, the car got a tune so it’s making a little more power. Sure, the gear ratios of the gas engine box aren’t perfect. At 80 mph, the engine turns 2,500 RPM. But you know what? This car will spin a front tire on a green light. None of my previous Passats could do that!
I found myself euphoric as I drove home from the seller. I’ve been looking for this car for four years and now I finally own it! I don’t even care that it has some issues. The car has rust in a bunch of different places, though unlike Passat 3, there are no holes yet.
Also, its cruise control doesn’t work, traction control doesn’t work, and one of the previous owners thought it was a bright idea to do limo tint all around, including the windshield. They also installed polyurethane engine mounts. The vibration would make a Harley blush.
The traction control and cruise control issues are due to the transmission swap and have relatively easy fixes. The tint? I could have that removed! None of the rust has crumbled through yet, so even that could be fixed.
I’m still in love with the fact that mechanically, the car is as awesome as I’ve been looking for. I even have the parts to get rid of the ugly custom grille, the broken taillights, the torn driver seat, and the iffy aftermarket headlights. I may not be able to fix a bad automatic transmission, but I can replace some lights! Only the rust will be hard to fix.
As a way to kick off fixing this car, I installed some Dieselgate-era Jetta wheels to spruce up the car’s looks.
I think I finally found the right one. Every single fatal flaw has been solved in this one, so it’s just a matter of making it look better cosmetically and getting the cruise control back online. I can handle that. One thing’s for sure, my fourth Passat TDI wagon has demonstrated that Volkswagen should have sold these in America with a manual transmission.
Of course, I could just be insane and this thing will break in a couple of more months. That, it’s probably that…
(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)
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