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Living with a VW Jetta TDI: Weighing diesel fuel economy benefits against eventual maintenance costs

Consumer Reports News: February 15, 2011 02:54 PM

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When I set out to buy my son a car, I went with my conviction to buy him the safest one I could, so hopefully he will be around in my declining years to drive me around like I have been doing for his first 17 years. As a parent, testing cars has given me great insight in what would be the best car for a teen--one that's not too big so it is difficult to handle in emergency situations and not too small that it would not stand up well in a crash with a heavier vehicle. When parents ask me what car they should get for their teenagers, I more often than not suggest a four-cylinder family-sized sedan with good crash-test results, side and curtain air bags, ABS and, most importantly, ESC (electronic stability control).

My son is a bit of an environmentalist at heart. He likes the Toyota Prius and the thought of great gas mileage, but he doesn't like the way that hybrid drives. We found a Volkswagen Jetta TDI fit the bill nicely, with the requisite good mileage and motoring enjoyment. It also performs well in crash tests and has decent reliability according to our 2010 Annual Auto Survey. So, we bought one.

Our Jetta has been running well and came with free maintenance to 36,000 miles. I've always taken care of all my vehicle's service needs--oil changes, brakes, even head gaskets, A/C compressors and the like. So I took out the Jetta's owner's manual (yes, that book that hardly anyone reads) to check what was required at the 40,000-mile service. It included the usual engine oil and filter change, normal checks, a fuel filter change--which I expected being a diesel--but it also included a transmission oil and filter change.

Change the transmission oil and filter? Really?

Our Jetta TDI is equipped with a DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) transmission, which, instead of having a torque converter like a conventional automatic transmission, acts like a manual gearbox that shifts automatically by using two clutches. This is designed to improve fuel economy by eliminating the energy losses in the torque converter. And it seems to be working: Our TDI is getting around 36 mpg... even with a 17-year-old boy at the wheel.

Considering the complexity of the DSG, I thought that changing the fluid and filter wouldn't be a big deal. I've worked on transmissions before, and I figured all I had to do was get the oil and filter from the VW dealer and change it while I'm replacing the engine oil.

So I sent my son down to the dealer to pick up the supplies on Saturday morning (but not too early as a 17-year-old is not really conscious until noon). However, things changed a little when he called me at the dealership parts department. He said that the service staff told him that we need special equipment to change the oil on a DSG transmission. I told him to come home without the parts and we'll investigate further... I don't always trust car dealers.

After reading forums such as VWvortex and TDIclub, I learned that to change the transmission oil and filter I had to get a special filler tube and a computer scan tool to recalibrate. These two pieces of equipment cost around $250, plus the cost of the fluid and filter. The dealer quoted $350 for the transmission oil and filter and $480 for the complete service, so I was left asking myself: "Where is the financial incentive of having this energy-saving transmission and even the diesel?" Doing a quick calculation the savings I would have achieved over a gasoline-powered car getting 28 mpg have just been cut in about half due to the cost of the transmission fluid change. The DSG transmission is only adding a small percent fuel economy gain compared to a regular automatic.

I have been called tight with my money, but I like to think of myself as frugal. But we decided to bring the car to the dealer, begrudgingly, to do the complete service. I suppose I did have free servicing up to 36,000 miles, but I still think it's odd that the first service I'm paying for necessitates spending money on the transmission.

When my son got back I looked at the invoice and saw the DSG fluid and filter had not been done, so I called the dealer. They told me they didn't perform this service as I would have had to ask for that separately--even though the service schedule clearly states that the DSG oil and filter charge are part of the 40K service. I learned that the DSG service would be an additional $350 on top of the $480 for the so-called complete service. They did agree to change the DSG for free when I complained that the "complete 40,000 mile service," for which I had paid, should have included the transmission.

If you own a VW with a DSG transmission that requires the oil and filter change every 40,000 miles make sure the dealer is performing this work at the service point. Failure to do so may void any warranty or "good will" should you have problems with the DSG later.   

I'm also a little put out because the opportunity for quality bonding time in the garage with my son is gone, but, of course, he doesn't quite see it that way. He enjoys sleeping late on Saturday mornings.

-- David Champion

Also read:
Best cars for teen drivers: More affordable alternatives

   

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