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Extended-Use Report: Volkswagen Vanagon at 24,000 miles
Versatile people and object hauler
We admit this 24,000-mile report is somewhat anticlimatic. If you're inspired to run off to your local Volkswagen dealer to buy a new Vanagon like ours, you'll be disappointed: there aren't any more. The air-cooled van has been superseded by the water-cooled Vanagon Wasserboxer (R&T, June 1983). But this report isn't all that pointless, because only the engine is changed. The rest of the water-cooled Vanagon is the same boxy vehicle the R&T staff has come to know and respect during the past year. And, as it turns out, the air-cooled engine was the primary source of our complaints about the Vanagon anyway.
During the first 12,000 miles (R&T, April 1983) our Vanagon seemed to be infested with Black Forest gremlins that loved to play tricks with the electrical system. Coy little creatures, they always struck at the most inopportune times, like when the VW was at the summit of a mountain in a national park, or in the midst of the Mojave Desert. Then, after lengthy tows back to civilization, in this case defined as any burg with a Volkswagen dealer, the gremlins would immediately stop their shenanigans, leaving the Vanagon running perfectly, much to the befuddlement of both the driver and dealer mechanic.
With the Vanagon, there doesn't seem to be any single cause: both the electrical fuel injection (Bosch L-Jetronic) and, more likely, the electronic ignition (with a Hall distributor) can be the culprits. Gordon Cline and Andy Vaughn, two capable fellows in the service department at Commonwealth Volkswagen in Santa Ana, California, try to isolate the problem with a procedure that begins by cleaning the connection at the idle stabilizer and ends with checking for corrosion in the power supply for the impulse coil. Cline and Vaughn say it's often must a simple matter of a loose or dirty connection. On one occasion a thousand miles from home, our Vanagon's engine died, stranding the Engineering Editor by the side of the road. Under trying conditions -- the VW was packed to the gunwales with friends who hurled epithets about foreign cars -- the EE attempted to effect a cure with his Swiss Army knife. Instead, he discovered an innocuous blade-type connector had slipped apart, which left the entire electrical system without a ground. It's odd that the wizards of Wolfsburg would choose such an insubstantial way of securing such a cricitcal connection. We can report, however, that after the third stranding and replacement of the fuel pump relay, distributor rotor and ignition coil at about the 11,000-mile mark, the gremlins tired of our Vanagon and departed.
The VW carried on for another 13,000 miles with no hint of electrical trouble. In fact, the second 12,000 miles was rather uneventful from a repair standpoint. At around 16,000 miles the engine began weeping oil. Apparently the pushrod tube seals on either side of the flat 4-cylinder engine frequently become embrittled by engine heat. Commonwealth performed a fix using Porsche 911 seals, more expensive but also more durable than VW's. This was done under VW's standard 1-year or 20,000- mile warranty, which, by the way, has been extended for 1983 to one year with unlimited mileage. Had the Vanagon been out of warranty, we would have been charged three hours of labor and $40 for the Porsche seals for both sides. Beyond this, there were a couple of routine services, at 15,000 miles and 22,500 miles. At the latter service we had the front end aligned to eliminate some wheel shimmy. At that time the air conditioner belt also needed adjustment. You may recall from the 12,000-mile report that the large overhead air conditioning unit had been a source of constant trouble. We've learned that reliability of the Vanagon's air conditioner is a function of how expertly the unit was installed, which can vary considerably because all of them are dealer installed. For instance, if the stock engine mounts are not changed, the unit will often have chronic belt-throwing fits. For 1984, air conditioners will be installed at the factory in the Fatherland, which should mean fewer problems.
Altogether we paid $253.34 for repairs and routine maintenance during the 24,000 miles. Incidentally, Volkswagen calculates that repairs done under warranty were worth $364. At an overall average of 19.1 mpg, we spent nearly $1700 for gasoline. Including $2945 for depreciation, but not including such variables as insurance, state taxes and delivery charges, the Vanagon cost a reasonable 20.4 cents/mile during our extended-use test.
Besides the electrical system, there was another aspect of the Vanagon's air-cooled engine that continually bugged us: a lack of power. On the straight and level the Vanagon cruised along nicely with a low noise level. But in climbing grades or moving away from stoplights this oversize Beetle is more tortoise than hare. Lack of acceleration combined with an occasionally balky transmission linkage that made finding 1st gear a real crapshoot added up to major frustration at times. Here the water-cooled engine offere some real improvement, with a 22-percent increase in horsepower.
The engine aside, the rest of the Vanagon was a joy. We used it to carry everything from a rowing shell to a hockey team, and it did so with aplomb. The interior proved not only commodious, but comfortable. Our Vanagon GL had none of the austerity of its ancestors, the flower- power, hippy VW vans of the Sixties. Instead, the seats for seven were plush, covered in materials you would expect to find in an elegant European sedan. And the interior stood up well under use too. There were a few minor failings -- a window winder, a side-window seal and a piece of torn carpeting. But at the end of our tenure, the interior seemed nearly as fresh as it did when we took delivery.
Despite the Vanagon's lack of spunk, staff members were otherwise delighted with its character on the road. Drivers unfamiliar with this genre of VW often had preconceived notions of a truck-like ponderousness, not unreasonable considering its resemblance to a city bus. But the first mile usually dispelled such ideas. Time and again, drivers commented on how the Vanagon rode and steered like a regular car. As something of a backhanded tribute to its maneuverability, several staff members forgot about the Vanagons' bulk. Consequently, it accumulated a few dings and dimples, including a bash on the top when one driver discovered that his garage door opener reduced clearance more than he thought. However, the Vanagon will go through car washes, an important consideration because the tops of vans are always a real chore to hand wash.
We've always thought the Volkswagen to be the best of its kind, especially when pitted against Detroit's offerings in recent years. But now the people-hauler market is rapidly changing. Toyota is entering the fray with its Van Wagon and Chrysler has recently introduced its T-115 and Vista (nee Mitsubishi Chariot). After living with the Vanagon and its air-cooled engine's deficiencies for 24,000 miles, we question whether VW could have maintained its advantage against these newcomers. But with the new Wasserboxer engine, the king of vans has a good shot at retaining its crown.
VW VANAGON GL
Overall Costs & Costs per Mile for 24,000 Miles
|Gasoline (unleaded, average of 19.9 mpg)||$1,672.79|
|Oil (in addtion to routine changes)||$18.00|
|Routine maintenance, by the book||$213.34|
|Repairs and replacements (front end alignment)||$40.00|
|Resale value at end of test period (est. wholesale)||$9.950.00|
|Cost of driving 24,000 miles||$4,889.13|
|Overall cost per mile for 12,000 miles||$0.204|