Why I Think I’m OK With Buying A Car That’s Probably A Time Bomb

Why I Think I’m OK With Buying A Car That’s Probably A Time Bomb

I want to preface all of this by saying that I really try not to be a hypocrite, which means that the automotive lifestyle I so freely espouse and blather on about is how I actually live. That’s why my daily driver is a weird little right-hand-drive 53 horsepower lump of charm, and I hold on to my old Beetle and have a Yugo—these are cars that delight me for whatever reason, and that’s enough. So when it came time to get a car for my wife to replace our old Scion xB, I wasn’t in a position to judge. If the car made her happy, good enough. Even if that means dealing with what could be a very fatal flaw. But I think it’ll work out.

While we love our old xB, which has been an incredibly reliable and useful car, it’s ageing and showing signs that its five-speed manual transmission is on its way out. It’s hit a deer, and a bunch of little things are starting to wear and break. That, along with the parade of modern press cars, flirtily showing off all their modern candy, has made my wife feel like it’s time for something a bit more refined.

So, we’ve been looking at a lot of things, especially Volvos, but a chance encounter with a Volkswagen Tiguan ended up having the most impact.

I hadn’t really been considering Tiguans, as our previous experience with modern-era VWs hasn’t been great. I used to have a lovely 2001 V6 Passat Wagon that drove and looked great, but had an oil pan made from what I can only assume was Graham crackers and the whole mechanical design of the car seemed to have been developed specifically to make anyone with the audacity to try and work on it hurt, and hurt deeply.

Otto wants you to have these worms

Seriously, whoever positioned the various parts of that engine and crammed them into that engine bay was working from a very rich and internalized sense of contempt for any fool who opened that hood.

That car was a seductive nightmare, and I didn’t want to repeat that experience.

So, I was a little nervous about the Tiguan, but, at the same time, I understood why my wife was so taken by it.

The interior—which is where most of us spend our time in our cars, feel free to check it out and confirm—was pretty fantastic. After test driving so many cars that felt like dark, claustrophobic coffins regardless of their exterior dimensions, the airy openness of the Tiguan was a revelation.

The panoramic glass roof helps a lot, but so did the light interior materials colour and a relatively tall greenhouse. In this sense, it’s sort of proportioned like the xB, which is one of the things we liked best about that car.

Here, look how pleasant this interior is:

The car is a 2010, but the interior was pretty immaculate, and felt as up-to-date as most current-model cars I’ve been in.

The overall size is good—plenty of interior room, not too big outside, and pretty nimble for a crossover/tall wagon thing. It’s only a FWD, which is fine by me, as that’s one less system to go wrong compared to the AWD version.

Oh, there is some weirdness in the taillights: the design of them looks like this:

The turn indicator is the amber bulb in that ovoid section on the left, and you’d think that other clear ovoid would be the reverse light, right?


It’s just a weird little silvery reflective panel. The reverse lamps are down low in the bumper:

I don’t really get why that is, but my wife was unfazed by it, somehow. Maybe she likes fake decoy reverse lights.

She just really liked the car. She got in, felt comfortable, happy, excited, all those feelings people get when the find a car that’s pretty much what they want.

OK. So, my wife has been extraordinarily tolerant of my car-hoarding, and all my weird car tastes and projects, so as far as I’m concerned, we’ll get whatever makes her happy and figure out how to make it work. Cars are never really entirely rational decisions, anyway. At least not for me, where rationality barely even gets a vote, and when it does vote, it gets heckled.

In this case the car that’s making her happy is a 2010 Tiguan, and the tricky part is that these cars have a very fatal Achilles’ Heel: a fussy little bit called the timing chain tensioner.

This Achilles’ heel is a pretty damn big one: there was a whole class-action lawsuit about these things, and VW had to pay to replace them for anyone that asked.

Now, if this problematic part was replaced, the 200 horsepower 2.0-litre TSI turbo four engines in these things are actually pretty reliable—I looked it up, and even our own David Tracy, who has a gut-level visceral fear of German engineering from the 2000s, admitted that, aside from the timing chain thing, these engines seemed pretty decent.

The problem is that timing chain tensioner, if it fails, essentially destroys the whole engine. And while many—arguably most—affected cars had it replaced with a fixed one, I couldn’t actually prove that the one I ended up buying had that fix.

It might! But it might not. Hence, the time bomb thing.

The price of the one we were looking at was a good $US800-$US1,000 ($1,352 – $1,690) cheaper than most similar ones, especially if you factor in all the options. Paying to replace the chain tensioner would be about $US1,500 ($2,536), and if it failed, well, at least $US4,000 ($6,762).

I could have talked her out of it and walked away. We could have found something else.

But, that didn’t feel right. I go on and on about how, fundamentally, you should drive what you love, without judgement, and what would it be saying if I just ran away?

Besides, all used cars have their potential issues—at least with this one I know what it most likely will be, an advantage one doesn’t normally get with used cars. And, even better, I was able to talk David into coming out and helping me change the timing chain and tensioner, if it proves to need it.

There is a way to check the tensioner, but it’s more invasive than you can get away with in the parking lot of a used car lot.

As I mentioned, I ended up taking the risk. Well, I’m not even sure it is a risk if it turns out it needs the tensioner—that will fail, and catastrophically, so it’s a time bomb. But, if I can take care of it soon, then we end up with a reliable-enough car that makes my wife genuinely happy, and that’s all I really want.

I changed the oil on it when we got it, both because I read more frequent oil changes can sometimes extend the tensioner’s life, and to see how the oil looked to get an idea of how often it may have been changed before.

In doing so, I was delighted to find that VW seems to have come to terms with its backyard mechanic contempt over the years, as the engine compartment was roomy and everything was easy to get to.

The water pump—another iffy part on these—was just replaced, too so that’s one less worry. And the oil didn’t look all that bad, and the oil pan appeared to be made of something that wouldn’t crack if you said a word with a hard “k” at it, unlike that Passat I had.

So, at the moment, I’m cautiously optimistic. Yes, it’s a time bomb, but I know the problem and—with some significant help—I can take care of it, and come out with a great car afterwards.

That’s the thing with cars with fatal flaws—if the flaw is well known and understood, these cars can be very good deals, as long as you go in knowing what’s up, and willing to take care of it. When I do drag David out here, slather him in hand sanitizer, and get him to help me (read: do most) fix this thing, we’ll cover it in detail in case any of you out there find yourself with an un-updated TSI engine.

Now I just need to not procrastinate. My track record for that is not good, but I’ll do my best. I hope.

No, I will! I mean it.