Defending the indefensible

What would it take to trust Volkswagen again?


Picked up a Volkswagen Passat for test a few weeks ago. Not the new B8, but the still-on-sale B7. Mostly, I was curious to find out if it still has the legs against the current crop of D-segment competitors, and partly to get reacquainted with a Volkswagen, especially one with the now infamous dry-clutch Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG).

It started out well many years ago

passat6My impression of the DSG has always been a positive one, having first sampled the DQ200 ’box in a Mk5 Golf way back in 2007, somewhere in the outskirts of Munich. So impressed was I with how it worked that I remember declaring that particular DSG-equipped Golf, powered by a 1.4 TSI engine, to be “all the car you’ll ever need” in a report which I filed. Satisfying to drive, frugal and utterly inconspicuously – just how a Volkswagen should be.

Since taking my leave of absence from writing about cars in 2010, my encounters with DSGs have been brief affairs (a Mk6 1.4 TSI and later, a Mk7 1.4 TSI). So when the friendly PR exec at Volkswagen Group Malaysia (VGM) passed the keys to the locally-assembled Passat test car to me, I was more than mildly interested, this despite seeing a couple of check lights on the dashboard that stayed lit.

The higher you are, the harder…                                                               

passat7I don’t think we need to go into details as to what has already been said about defective Volkswagen vehicles, and how various mechanical issues (not only the DSG) left owners stranded by the side of the road. Yeah, cars occasionally do break down, but it was the inability of Volkswagen Group Malaysia, along with its dealers, to provide competent after-sales service to its customers that elevated disappointment to fury. As far as I can recall, no other car company in this country has had to suffer the ignominy of having disgruntled owners picket in front of its office.

Meanwhile in the Passat, I managed to rid one of two illuminated check lights by filling up the wiper washer tank. The other one, an airbag error, chimed whenever I started the car.

The road to recovery                                                                         

It was both reassuring but also a little bit worrying to hear what VGM’s CEO Armin Keller had to say over a radio interview recently (BFM podcast below). To his credit, he acknowledged that his organization had not done a good enough job looking after its customers, and to that end have implemented wide ranging measures to address issues such as parts shortage, the lack of technical skill and customer vehicle downtime. To have 200 courtesy cars (not including what dealers have) on standby must be a first for any car brand in Malaysia, which gives you an idea of the gravity of the situation, but also a testament to VGM’s resolve to get to the bottom of this.

jd_csi2014However, Keller also defended the brand by saying that high-tech components tend to have problems, and that technical issues happens to every brand. While we agree that high tech components may have a higher tendency to fail, and that every car maker has skeletons in the closet (German cars, we love you, then we hate you), I can’t say I’ve heard of a Prius failing, nor could I find a Facebook community dedicated to defective Toyota Prius/Lexus CT200h hybrid systems, though there is a prominent one on DSG defects. Surely, hybrid powertrains are considered high tech too, if not more so than a DSG. Anyway, according to JD Power’s 2014 Customer Satisfaction Index, Toyota clearly did a better job looking after its customers than other brands in Malaysia, and Volkswagen hadn’t.

Volkswagen needs the DSG to work


All through the weekend behind the wheel of the Passat, I was reminded what a nice piece of invention the DSG really is when it’s functioning as intended. Not only are the gear-changes near instantaneous and seamless, with the punchy turbo-charged 1.8L engine in tow (160ps, 250Nm), the Passat offered a lot of driving joy for what is a model soon to be superseded. It may look a little bland and lack some creature comforts of newer rivals, but its performance, handling and refinement levels are certainly worthy of paying a premium over the Japanese or the Koreans. Like it or not, the main appeal of Volkswagens lies in the perceived notion of “German Engineering”, which means the majority of people choose Das Auto because of its high-tech powertrains.

passat8Considering how much grief the VW brand has suffered because of DSG, it’s ironic that the all-new B8 Passat – due early 2016 – actually needs DSG more than ever to keep a competitive edge over the rest. Insiders have also revealed to us that Volkswagen is firmly committed to DSG (be it dry- or wet types) and that the core components of the dual-clutch gearbox, namely the Mechatronics module (the component that houses the electronic brain that governs the gearbox’s hydraulic functions) and clutches, have undergone many rounds of improvements to ensure reliability. Closer to home, we have also learned that the pre-production test programme of the CKD B8 Passat have now been expanded to include a wider range of driving conditions in Malaysia, particularly the punishing stop-start nature of city traffic. So yeah, it’s DSG or bust.

So can you trust Volkswagen again?

IMAG0494_editedOn the public relations front, the DSG recall has been an own goal for VW, exacerbated further by poor customer service. But we are not in unprecedented territory; remember the brake-by-wire system that crippled the W211 Mercedes-Benz E-Class and CLS in the early-to-mid 2000s? If you don’t, it’s because manufacturers are simply too talented not to be able to overcome mechanical issues. They eventually do, and will make you forget about it as quickly as possible. As Mr. Keller clearly proclaims, the DSG isn’t a problem anymore (though some owners might dispute that). Whichever the case, the road to regaining trust will now rest heavily on how well customers are served from here on, and that is a ball that Volkswagen Group Malaysia can ill afford to drop.

Now, how about that airbag check light in the Passat media test car?