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Extended-Use Report: VW Vanagon at 12,000 miles
Terrific utility, but is it reliable?
It's been our custom to maintain at least two, and perhaps three, cars in our extended-use vehicle collection. Currently, that means our beloved 1979 Mazda RX-7 and a spirited 1982 Alfa Romeo GTV 6/2.5. Both are terrific fun and in constant demand, but we wanted something practical for balance. One staffer seems to enjoy hauling an amateur hockey team around and the less sporting among us are called upon to help move various objects such as a pump organ, a Lotus 7 frame, an art exhibit and the occasional Benjamin ficus. And some of us enjoy getting together with as many family members as possible and going on jaunts: This might include spending a day at the Huntington Library, or loading everyone up and batting up to Oregon. In Volkswagen's modern, functional Vanagon there looked to be our best choice for a new member of the team.
When we took delivery of our blue GL in May 1982, we wondered if it would prove economical, reliable and fun to drive as the miles accumulated -- 12,000 as of now. First, economy. Using our calculations of cost per mile as a definition of the term, economy begins with the base price. In our case, we actually lease the vehicle, but had it been purchased as received, the bill would have read $11,360 (sans delivery charges and taxes, which can vary regionally). Our only options were an AM/VM stereo/cassette unit ($325) and the elaborate overhead air conditioning system ($1125). Next, we must consider our Vanagon's current resale value and the KELLY BLUE BOOK pegs that at $10,125 (conservatively). The difference is a depreciation of $2685.
Under fuel consumption, we can report our somewhat heavy-footed driving manners have caused our Vanagon to deliver 18.5 mpg on average, quite good considering its barnlike frontal area and 3290-lb curb weight. Compared with our original Vanagon road test results (July 1980), the present long-term testing has yielded a 2.0-mpg improvement. It might be that this engine is benefiting from being fully broken-in; anyway, the total fuel bill comes to $942. And as for maintenance, Volkswagen's specified schedule for the test period has meant two checkups: the first being on-the-house at 1000 miles; the second, a routine 7500-mile service that cost us a reasonable $35.13. The total for depreciation, fuel and maintenance costs (omitting insurance) comes to $3662.13, which means an average operating cost of 30.5 cents/mile for these first 12,000 miles. This is a very high figure, three times that of the Mazda RX-7, for example (see 48,000-mile report, R&T, December 1982). But don't be fooled by the comparison.
The Vanagon is actually a mini-bus, after all. With seven roomy seats in our GL version, the interior's utility quotient is enormous. Indeed, if you have reason to haul several people around regularly, the cost per mile analysis is deceptive. And also notice that a major culprit in the cost equation is the sizable early rate of new car depreciation -- which, of course, is not exclusive to Vanagons.
Reliability: Early on, there were a few teething problems: The a/c lost its Freon charge, and later one of the unit's pulleys worked loose. These are not uncommon occurances and both were quickly fixed under warranty. However, soo a rash of quirky electrical troubles broke out. First, a simple electrical connector came loose, and because it is the ground for both the fuel pump and fuel management computer, this mishap stranded van and driver until the elusive connector was discovered. Next, it refused to start at a high altitude where a tow truck was needed to restore the Vanagon and people to lower ground and where the bus started readily the next morning; no one seemed to know why. Further, on the same trip, the driver's side window winder broke as did a clip that holds a windshield visor -- small, but irritating problems. The third air conditioner-related malfunction came at about the 10,000- mile point when the unit threw its belt while out on the road. And five days later, it was the electrical systems' turn again, this time completely shutting down while crossing a California desert. This entailed a 48-mile tow to the nearest Volkswagen dealer, where strangely the system (again) sprang back to health unaided, no trace of the ailment detectable to the mystified mechanics. Clearly, the earlier electrical troubles had not been left at high elevations. Trying to limp home, the Vanagon did 85 miles before stopping once more and, again in tow, it was off this time to a different Volkswagen dealer. Amazingly, it took them two months to locate the fault, obtain parts (a fuel pump relay, distributor rotor and ignition coil) and implement the fix. Later we learned that this dealer had given up business so perhaps other troubles added to the delay. Yet, it should be pointed out that all replacements and service costs were picked up by the warranty..
So if the Vanagon's reliability has been spotty, is driving it still fun? The answer is yes without hesitation. It has a lot to do with the basic control's offering a delightful directness of feel. On the road, the bus responds accurately to the driver's wishes, somehow managing to belie its outward sheet-metal barn-like look. And, it has been a part of many enjoyable excursions: It has been used to camp out in at races, visit the Oregon Sea Lion Caves, stop at every weaving shop and used book store from here to Eugene and go through the California wine country several times. We look forward to the next 12,000 miles and hope that our Vanagon's reliability improves.
VW VANAGON GL
Overall Costs & Costs per Mile for 12,000 Miles
|Gasoline (unleaded, average of 18.5 mpg)||$942.00|
|Routine maintenance, by the book||$35.13|
|Resale value at end of test period (est. wholesale)||$10,125.00|
|Cost of driving 12,000 miles||$3,662.13|
|Overall cost per mile for 12,000 miles||$0.305|