Sunday, December 11, 2011

Blinker und Wischer

That guy who said the minute I sell my expensive cable I'll instantly find something I want to do is probably right. I did a couple of minor coding tweaks this evening, one which was bothering me and another someone recently posted to the forums. The first was changing my turn signal rate from 3 to 4, since I found the three count too short to safely change lanes. My VAG-COM philosophy has been to leave things alone unless I can find a compelling reason to change them, so this finally bubbled to the surface.

The second change was a recently posted "wischer" change, or tear drop wiping. This makes the wipers perform one last sweep after you've sprayed your windshield, but only while the car is in motion. As someone whose overly sensitive to a clean windshield (I import the German concentrate fluid and mix it myself), this is a pretty cool addition. As usual, the instructions for both of these modifications got me to the general area, but the menus were a bit different, probably due to software changes. Having experience and confidence hunting through the various bits allowed me to make the changes, along with going back into the MFI and telling it to reset to factory defaults once again (you are effectively changing the factory defaults with the software).

With 9,600 miles, I've scheduled my first service for mid-January at Dirito Brothers in Walnut Creek. I'm debating about getting my tires rotated as well. I'm thinking no. There's nothing wrong with the car, by the way. My rattles have gone and it's mechanically sound.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Aha and Pandora Fixed for Pioneer

Both Aha Radio and Pandora are fixed now. Neither worked properly in IOS5 using the Pioneer AVIC930BT and other Pioneer devices, but the latest downloads fixed the issues. Aha reports there was a Pioneer bug. Aha Radio works better than ever on the iPhone 4S now, compared to my iPhone 3, which experienced many application crashes, making it a neat idea that really didn't work.

As for Pandora, it wouldn't work at all before, and now seems to be fine. There may still be pausing issues, but I haven't used Pandora enough to test it thoroughly.

Here's the Aha Radio blog post about the fix. Supposedly there's a massive update coming soon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I'm On A Boat!

For the second time in a year, the GTI was on a boat (it had to get from Wolfsberg somehow). It's also one of the rare times I can legitimately take family photos with the car without it seeming too ridiculous. We traveled along Highway 1 to Newport Beach and then Balboa Island. The idea of a car going on a boat led to squeals of delight from the small child.

One thing I noticed in Southern California is the car is pretty average in power compared to the speed racers of Orange County. This is especially true on the wide, long, surface boulevards that are often faster than the freeways. I can see why a SoCal driver would want to chip it. I had to work to keep up. Other observations: It's the city car of choice in San Francisco, as opposed to the car of choice of the monied of the Berkeley/Oakland hills, the Audi A3.

Monday, November 21, 2011

101 Road Trip

We drove the GTI down to Southern California over two days. Our first stop was in San Francisco for breakfast (photo above - my wife has a handicapped placard, in case you were wondering exactly what kind of jackass I am) and then we took the 280 to the 101 for most of the way down. We spent the night in San Luis Obispo (great food at Mo's Smokehouse Barbecue) and then drove into Orange County after another stop at my favorite restaurant in the world, Philippes. Lamb French dip sandwich, pickled beats and a banana cream pie that was straight out of the 19th Century. But I digress.

What you want to know is how did the car do? My main pre occupation as we left was the annoying, and new for November, passenger side B-pillar rattle. It's infamous on the forums at this point and can be caused by anything from a loose seat belt assembly to the will of the gods. My wife put a rattling marble game in the side pocket in a kind of shamanistic sympathetic magic move (or maybe just to annoy me). Regardless, the rattle disappeared later in the day. More than likely it was the change in humidity as we approached a pretty big storm, or maybe just the rough roads through San Jose. Driving in the storm turned out to be instructive in how this car handles itself.

It's sure footed, which was a nice surprise. It is pretty heavy, which plays a part in this. The car came with the Pirelli P-Zero Nero all season tires, which helped. Not only did the GTI feel planted and resisted wind buffeting, but the smooth power delivery of the turbo kept me from having to see a flashing traction control light as I later navigated some crazy stop and go LA traffic. I also learned the GTI has speed sensing windshield wipers. I've seen rain in this car, but this storm was in my top five ever.

When stopped in traffic, the wipers slow down and then speed up again when the car speeds up. Clever and unexpected, especially after all the forum whining about not having rain sensing wipers (they want to delete this option, of course). I've had rain sensing wipers on a BMW and it's not something I cared for. I'm the kind of guy who mixes his own washer fluid and wipes down his car with microfiber towels. Do you think I want the car deciding when to wipe my windows? As we know, for every feature, there's a jackass willing to spend a fortune to reverse it, even if it's better than what came before.

Another side note is the ridiculous way the rain water channels into the car when you open the doors. It's the absence of that kind of design that you notice on more up market cars, like BMWs. Hey, look at that! The car is trying to keep me dry! Combined with a cloth interior, water streaming into your car might raise your blood pressure a bit. Then again, I love the rubber, honeycomb floor mats the dealer extorted me into buying. Great for puddles of water (I sense some compensation for a design flaw).

I have to say I'm sore from the drive, but it's mostly from the increased stress from driving through the storm. Plus I'm in horrible physical shape right now. I've done this same drive before in the dry without even noticing it physically. I look forward to the drive back later this week, hopefully in the dry, if the weather holds.

Fuel Economy was around 29MPG at 8,500 miles on the odometer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

7,500 Mile Observations

  • Getting coolant for the car is a challenge. It's really a dealer only option, so hope you don't need any on a Sunday or after hours. You can also get it online, but shipping is as much as a bottle. My coolant is at the "normal low" level at the moment with a road trip planned for the end of the week, so I need to visit a dealer (probably in Walnut Creek, since I vowed not to go back to Oakland).
  • Scootability sneaks up on you. There are fast cars and there are small cars, but if you haven't had a fast small car before, it can be a bit intoxicating. It's true that the GTI isn't as small as it once was, but it is still the kind of car that doesn't require that you suffer fools gladly. The word "squirt" is often used to describe how cars like this can easily jump out and pass at will. There's a reason why this car is a top ten acquirer of speeding tickets. As I've mentioned when comparing it to my Mazda 6, the question becomes "why not" rather than why. It's just that easy.
  • Tire rotation is on my mind. It's often recommended you rotate them at 10,000 miles, which for me is in a couple months. However, those who rotate often report serious road noise problems afterwards. I'm inclined to not rotate them, as crazy as that sounds, and just replace the bad ones as they wear out. 
  • APR Stage 1. If I had the money, getting the car chipped on my first oil change would be a no brainer.If APR or an installer wants a detailed review in exchange for the upgrade, let me know. I'm your shill.
  • Pioneer. Also on the list of stuff I want but can't afford is probably the Pioneer traffic monitor system that integrates with the navigation. It's about $100 plus installation. For some reason I thought there was a monthly fee, which is why I didn't get it on installation (there isn't). I would also re-route my iPhone cable to the center console while the work was being done. No more problems with the Pioneer, by the way. My general feeling is the connections were loose from the installation.

My nav splash screen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

iPhone 4S and the Pioneer X930BT

I see where this blog is going. I've got this reliable car that I want to talk about, but it just doesn't do anything worth reporting, so it's all about the after market stereo. My iPhone 3, nearly obsoleted by Apple's bloated software updates, was replaced last week with a spanking new iPhone 4S.

The phone is sweet, of course, but does it solve any of the problems with integration with the Pioneer? Well yes, it does. It solves all the intermittent problems. For example, the Bluetooth connects properly every time, not just most of the time. The iPhone connects to the Pioneer via cable properly every time as well. So it basically removes all that intermittent crap that I kind of blamed on Pioneer. That said, I do read about problems with IOS5 upgrades on a standard iPhone 4.

It also highlights the design flaws with the iPhone integration, the biggest being there's no good way to leave it plugged in. Stall out your car at a a light? You'll need to go into the glove compartment, disconnect your iPhone, start your car, wait for the stupid warning screen to allow you to hit ok, plug your phone back in, and deposit it back in the glove compartment. Why? It's a lame feature that provides no safety upside in need of fixing. Put in some sort of delay for the iPhone or something. I could see buying an iPod nano or other such mini gadget and just leaving it in the glove compartment, if only this bug were fixed.

Others have reported music pausing using Pandora with the Pioneer. The fix is apparently to exit the app and go back in, a fix that might be app related rather than phone related. Since there's a simple fix and I haven't used Pandora in months, I didn't test that. There's also talk about how Siri works through the microphone and speaker, but you still need to be fiddling with the phone for that to happen. I would love a Siri button on future Pioneer units if this iPhone feature becomes a big part of future iPhone releases.

So yeah, iPhone 4S and the Pioneer is a winner.

From Pioneer:

Dear Pioneer Customers,
Certain models of our In-Dash Navigation AV Receivers that support playback and control of the Pandora™ internet radio and Aha Radio iPhone® applications are currently experiencing audio playback issues with these services. The issue occurs after installation of iOS 5 onto the user's iPhone®.
We are currently identifying the root source of this issue and working diligently to engineer a solution. We will post updates regarding this situation on our website, Please check back for the latest information.
The following models are affected: AVIC-Z130BT, AVIC-Z120BT*, AVIC-Z110BT**, AVIC-X930BT, AVIC-X920BT*.
No other Pioneer In-Dash DVD Receivers or CD Receivers that support playback and control of the Pandora Radio iPhone application are affected by this issue.
*With CNSD-210FM map upgrade installed.
**With CNSD-110FM (Pandora Radio support only) or CNSD-210FM map upgrade installed.

Dear Pioneer Customers,

Pandora version 3.1.15 was released November 4, 2011. This update resolves the iOS5 audio playback issues described in our October 14 post. We are still working with Aha™ Radio to determine a solution.

Thank you!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Random Post

The car is fantastic, no doubt. Most of my time has been spent messing with the Pioneer system, trying to troubleshoot what works, what doesn't and whose fault it is. Lately it has been about playing random songs through the iPhone, which it won't do. Random mode plays the same list over and over. It turns out it's a well documented bug in the iPhone and not the Pioneer system. It's fixed by creating custom "random" playlists in iTunes, but not without a lot of trial and error, as Steve Jobs hated the PC user.

On the heels of totally forgetting I wasn't going to keep the $350 Vag-Com cable, my new want is an APR Stage 1 ECU upgrade. This is where they chip the car to gain some of the horsepower that you just know VW is giving to owners of more expensive cars with this engine. Automotive journalists will complain that this car is underpowered for its class while enthusiasts quietly giggle, knowing massive power is bought on the cheap.

For $600 you get another 50 horsepower at 91 octane, more if you live by a jet fuel factory. That's 25% more horsepower for $600. APR is mainstream enough that even some Volkswagen dealers offer the service, such as Winn Volkswagen in Fremont. It's a want and for $600, it needs to come from some special magical fund to possibly justify the cost. Must ... resist ... the ... pull....

Mileage: 5,616

Friday, September 16, 2011

No Rest for the Wicked

I had a wonderful mini vacation this week at Harbin Hot Springs. The two hour drive up was the kind of back roads the GTI loves to soak up, especially the many miles of twisties through the hills. The tires are still new, which is probably why I couldn't make them complain doing twice the recommended limit on corners. Yes, it's supposed to be a relaxing trip, but people get their kicks in different ways.

This was the trip where I finally got comfortable with the Pioneer stereo/nav combo and getting the most from it reliably. Part of that enjoyment is the money I've spend in the past few months on iTunes music. For the most part, my musical tastes end somewhere in the mid-90's, with a few exceptions.

I came back a day early, hoping to have some extra time to try out the new Zaino polish on the car. Yes, you can only admire beautiful naked people for so long before it becomes a bit boring. Of course there were other things to do, like read Pathfinder modules on the sun deck and soak in hot tubs, and get massages, and be surrounded by nature, and ... wait, why am I home again?

The new ZFX accelerator makes the Zaino process no more difficult than wax, as it removes the extra step of laying down a polymer bonding agent before applying the polish. Now you just mix the binder into the polish and use it more or less like wax. There are still the extra prep steps, like stripping off old wax, clay bar, etc., but you would want to do that periodically anyway. So start to finish was about three hours.

My steps:

  1. Spray bug splatter with 1Z Anti-Insekt and wheels and exhaust tips with Meguiars Hot Rims
  2. Fill bucket while those two cleaners do their job.
  3. Wash with Dawn dishwashing soap (Dawn is a great way to strip wax)
  4. Clay bar (Mothers)
  5. Wash with Zaino Z7 soap
  6. Apply polish (ZFX with Z5)
  7. Wipe off Z5 after 30 minutes
  8. Spray with Z8 detailer
Sure beats yoga.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


After three months, I finally figured out how to turn on the fog lights. It's a kind of reverse corkscrew pull of a nob, a nob that threatens to break if pulled in the wrong direction. That's the kind of car it is sometimes. Willfully quirky and obscure. I do love driving it though.

On the way home yesterday I drove with the radio off and appreciated the sound of the engine once again, something I hadn't heard in a few months since installing the Pioneer head unit. The Pioneer has been the focus of much of my blog posts and much of my frustrations with this car. I managed to get the album artwork to load properly by wiping my iPhone and restoring it. Yes, I wanted it that much. The current issue is how it requires such a long time before you can plug in the iPhone before it will authorize. Since the cables are in the glove box, this means you really can't move until the Pioneer is settled.

The big discovery with the car is iTunes. Yes, iTunes has been around forever now, but I never had a conduit to my car, the only place I listen to music. So I did cut back on eating out last month to cover my new car expenses, but oh my god did my iTunes bill add up. Around $40 later and I had learned a love for new music, including some new favorites like Johnny Cash and Amy Winehouse. This meshed well with classics like Led Zeppelin and Love and Rockets. My son got in the car the other day and said, "Can we listen to some legendary music daddy?" Why yes, yes we can.

Finally, giving up the VAG-COM cable seems almost painful now. The control I have over the car and the 14,000 items checked by the computer is immense. It now seems like a pretty good investment, rather than a temporary expense. I'm torn on whether I should keep it. I may have to wait until it gathers some more dust. One of my fears is the dealer futzes with the computer in a way I don't like. In fact, I'm of a mind to never let any Volkswagen dealer near the car again. It has free maintenance, but that's really only three visits when you get 10,000 mile oil changes.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


This is my last time doing a standard wash of the car before I strip off the wax and start using Zaino polish. No, I haven't gone total car fetish nut, I'm actually trying to reduce the detailing work, as much as I enjoy the exercise. While wax needs to be re-applied constantly (I'm on round two now in month three), the polymer polishes only need to be applied every 3-6 months.

Carnauba wax has a warm look that many appreciate over the reflective look of polymer polishes. Here's my car today after a wash. I like how it looks, but the wax just wears off too quickly, despite being a "carnauba plus" with some polymer in it.

Polymer provides superior protection, but gives a blinding mirror finish. I would gladly take the carnauba look if wax lasted for 3-6 months. But it doesn't, and therein lies the ass pain.

Here's an example of a MKV GTI with Zaino polish:

A GTI with Zaino

On the positive side, Zaino has advanced a bit since I last used the stuff (my left overs have gone bad after 7 years). Rather than doing multiple coats of bonder and then polish, you instead mix their ZFX bonder with the polish and apply a single coat.  You do however, need an awful lot of prep work. First, I'll be stripping off all the wax with Dawn, followed by a clay bar, another wash, and then the work begins with the polish. In between there will likely be some additional work to remove blemishes and water marks that I've been putting off fixing.
I do this to save time. If I keep telling myself this, it must eventually come true, right?

  • VAG-COM. No problems or changes in several days, so I may be reaching that point of contentment where I can eBay it. I do want to keep it now.
  • Pioneer. I have the album artwork problem, in which adding new songs doesn't allow the Pioneer unit to see the new artwork. Pioneer really is a shoddy company, if you ask me. On the positive side, I've managed to master their confusing interface.
  • Broken VW Head Unit. VW wouldn't honor the warranty and I got tired of fighting them. I'll take it out on my local dealer by never letting them service the car. They could have been helpful, but they decided it wasn't worth it for them. I'll find an independent shop to do some of the work I have planned. I'll likely buy some electronics safe spray to see if I can fix the sticky button and eBay it.
  • PAC Problem. The East LA installer blew me off when I tried to get them to address the PAC problem. PAC never got back to me when I emailed them. The PAC unit hasn't locked up again, which is good. I need to call PAC and get a replacement.
  Average Fuel Economy: 26.9
Miles: 3976

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Man of the Cloth

    I've decided leather seats in cars are just not as good as cloth. It's something I realized in the GTI. My previous five cars have had leather seats and I haven't been with cloth since 1997 with another Volkswagen, my Jetta. I've always thought of leather as premium, better in every way, but I'm having my doubts.

    The problem with leather is it's always too hot or too cold, and once it's taken on a temperature, it's difficult to coax it to change. Leather is recalcitrant.  It's also slick and doesn't hold you in your seat when you drive aggressively unless you have enormous side bolsters. I like enormous side bolsters, but they're hard to sell to the American market with our increased ... girth. And finally, most of the surfaces you actually touch in a car with leather are plastic rather than leather, while most of my surfaces are cloth. Sure, you're sitting on leather in a leather seated car, but most arm rests are plastic, most seat bolsters are plastic, and the steering wheel is usually wrapped in plastic.

    The GTI thankfully covers those plastic surfaces in cloth, with the steering wheel leather wrapped. I suppose I would call the GTI's interior "premium cloth" since some of these features are exceptional. You're going to be touching a lot of plastic in your average leather car interior.

    When shopping for a GTI, you don't realize these premium additions, you just see check boxes and enormous sticker prices for things like leather and think cheapness when you see cloth. In fact, to get leather in the GTI, you need to spend $30,000 to get the top of the line Autobahn package. That leather option requires a sunroof, a navigation system and some cooler wheels. So if you really can't see yourself without leather, you might also have a problem seeing yourself in a $30,000 Golf. I would need convincing why I'm not driving an Audi or BMW (I know why, repair costs).
    The down side is cloth is harder to clean. I feel a little ridiculous doing it, but I use a lint roller on all those cloth surfaces about once a week. I've noticed that my allergic reactions to dust and pollen have disappeared in the new car and I want to keep it that way. It's likely a combination of keeping the interior clean and regularly changing out the cabin air filter. So there I am rolling my little lint roller along all the cloth surfaces like some OCD nut case. Cleaning my car turned out to be my new Summer exercise program, by the way.

    The other down side is that most cloth interiors look like hell to start with and only get worse over time. Sit in a five year old used Civic on a used car lot and you'll see what I mean. It's pretty disgusting. I'm told the GTI seats keep looking good for many years, but we'll see.

    Monday, August 29, 2011


    Volkswagen shouldn't have nerfed their vehicle settings for the US market. I understand why. It's why I had to sign a waiver when I bought the car stating that I wouldn't put truck chains on the car. Some moron did it, sued Volkswagen, and won. But you didn't tell me not to put truck chains on my compact car. Still, as with BMW, I think they should provide a one time courtesy change of the various convenience settings.

    They won't, so I bought a Ross-Tech VAG-COM cable, a $350 USB to Volkswagen (HEX USB+CAN) cable. It changes various settings on the car, it's BIOS, if you will, using software on a laptop. The software is free, the cable, not so much.

    Once the settings are changed, I'll be Ebaying it, although it would be useful in the future for use in diagnosing fault codes. Still, I don't have $350 for this boondoggle, so off to Ebay it will go. VWVortex has a VAG COM guide for beginners that I used to make my changes. Sometimes it required fiddling with the software to find the proper settings, especially with Staging.

    So what did I change today?
    1. Annoying horn. When you lock the car, the horn honks loudly. Lame. Not anymore.
    2. Annoying locks. The car locks itself when in motion (5 MPH I believe, AKA 7KPH), but doesn't unlock itself when stopped, which is highly annoying if you have kids that need to be extracted. Now it unlocks when the key is removed from the ignition (the other option being not locking to begin with, also a sensible choice).
    3. Remote Windows Up/Down. I had this on my 97 Jetta and apparently Americans were decapitating their loved ones with this option. I'm glad to have it again. It will make airing out the car on 100 degree Concord days more pleasant.
    4. Rolling Up Windows After Car Shut Off.  I no longer have to put the key back in to roll the windows up, if someone forgot.
    5. Drivers seat heat memory. It normally resets when you turn off the car, but there are months where I left it on constantly in the Mazda.
    6. Panic stop lighting.  The turn signals and brake lights flash during a panic stop. Cool safety feature.
    7. Staging. In the "it's just cool" department, I turned on Staging, which does a needle sweep on the instrument cluster like the higher end Audi's. Tell me it's not cool. I dare you.

       There are a bunch of other possible changes, but I'm of the mind that if it's not annoying me now, changing it will likely annoy me in the future. I'll keep it for a couple weeks, scour the forums for more tricks, and then Ebay it, hopefully getting most of my money back.


      Friday, August 19, 2011

      More Geekiness

      My obsessive car cleaning mode has finally kicked in. I've been washing the car once a week, a frequency some (my wife) would consider excessive. But hey, at least it's good exercise, right?  Below we have a wax safe insect remover, German OEM (for the most part) windshield washer fluid, which again does a great job without removing wax, and some Gummi Phlege, a magic substance that keeps rubber door seals quiet and in good health. Why Germans can't figure out door seals is beyond me.

      Moments ago I won the Ross Tech VAG-COM cable on Ebay.  Here's the deal on this magic cable that lets you change your software settings: New they're $350, but used they're around $300-320 on Ebay. You use it, change your settings, and then sell it back for that $200-220. It's a kind of rental program. They key is selling it back and not holding onto it thinking you'll somehow need it again.

      Finally, VW of Oakland won't take my old stereo back, claiming I voided the warranty by removing it, so the next step will be to call Volkswagen of America. Wish me luck.

      Average Fuel Economy: 26.8
      Miles: 3078

      Wednesday, August 10, 2011

      Geeky Stereo Stuff

      When the stereo went out, I used the opportunity to have the Best Buy installer move the satellite antenna to the roof of the car from the dash board. This has solved my reception problems, which was the biggest issue (other than outright failure) I've had with the Pioneer unit.

      I also changed the splash screen on the Pioneer. It involved acquiring a  Micro SD card and a USB adapter to transfer images I've found online to the card, via the USB key ($10 on Ebay). The Pioneer has a Micro SD slot that can be utilized for images. Here's what the Pioneer system now looks like on start up:

      The grill in the photo is from a MKV GTI, but it still looks darn good, especially with the correct colors (black and red). I may change it to one of the generic Volkswagen images I discovered if that detail begins to annoy me.

      Tuesday, August 9, 2011

      Stereo Fail

      One of the more exciting places on my commute is the curvy transition road from I80 to the 4. When to put down the power coming out of that turn depends on a lot of factors. At that max G moment yesterday, the stereo died. It just went completely dead. I was afraid it might be a loose connection, but hoped for a blown fuse. The manual doesn't provide a fuse diagram, stating in about 200 words that these things change too often and we can't be bothered. I did find one online in the UK, but decided to just take it somewhere.

      I took the GTI to Best Buy's auto installation department. They did a very good job on my Mazda, so I had some trust in their work. After the fuses were ruled out, using a really cool electronic tester, they discovered a third culprit. The head unit was getting power and there was power coming from the line, but in between the line and the head unit sits the PAC radio replacement interface. This unit allows an aftermarket stereo to use various VW controls, like from the steering wheel, but also allows for the various audio noises that come from the car, like door chimes.

      The installer, a meticulous technician who gave me lots of good advice, was able to reset the PAC unit and get the stereo working again, but there was no doubt the interface unit was the culprit. While he was on the clock, I had him re-route the Sirius antenna to the roof from the dashboard. Hopefully that will fix my satellite reception complaint [it did].

      When does a car become a hobby?  I'll let you know.

      I'll be working to get a new PAC unit from the original installers and then I'll go back to Best Buy. The installer will be re-routing my iPod cable from the glove compartment to the center console. VW already has an iPod cable in the center console, so it's a fairly clean install. I'm finding the Pioneer unit doesn't recognize the iPhone about half the time, requiring me to unplug it and plug it back in. This is a drag when it's in the glove compartment.

      Miles: 2563

      Friday, August 5, 2011

      Pinky Signal

      Driving the GTI on my morning commute this morning was exhilarating. It was late in the morning, which meant all the commuters had already reached their destination, leaving me with the pokey drivers with, apparently, no place to go in any big hurry. The GTI can really fly, and I occasionally catch myself up around 90 unintentially, having to dial it back a bit.

      Passing the pokey drivers is as simple as tapping the turn signal stalk with my pinky finger, with my hands firmly planted on that cool, leather wrapped steering wheel. Like the seats, the steering wheel requires a certain style of driving that a German might define as "correct." Hitting the stalk activates the turn signal for three clicks, but by that time I've already passed. The VAG-COM allows you to change that count to four, but if you can't pass someone in a three count, perhaps you should have bought a Buick. 

      All of this passing can be easily achieved in sixth gear. Sixth is usually called a "relief" gear in most cars, the gear you go into at highway speeds to save fuel. In the GTI, you can pass in sixth. You can't pass with any drama, but you can pass like a lazy automatic transmission driver. This I did this morning with a carpet cleaner sitting in the back and my lunch on the front seat. That might feel wrong in a more expensive car, but it's just right for a Volkswagen.

      At speed the GTI requires a good amount of your attention, unlike say, BMWs. BMWs are forgiving, while , the front-wheel drive GTI with it's low profile 18" tires will screw you hard if you don't give it the attention it deserves. BMWs are "tossable," drivable effortless with a couple fingers, and utterly predictable due to its equal weight distribution and rear wheel drive. The GTI is a lot of great things, but it is neither tossable nor effortless. It was also about $10,000 cheaper.

      Miles: 2462

      Wednesday, August 3, 2011

      NAV Update

      About the Pioneer AVIC X930BT:

      The Good:

      Navigation: Brilliant nav that seamlessly gets you to where you're going with near instant re-calculations if you miss something or if it makes a mistake.

      AM/FM: It wouldn't work for me without an antenna booster, a $65 extra which seems like it should have been unnecessary. I did not opt for HD radio because of so many other options.

      Satellite: The Sirius comes up very quickly, unlike the 2-3 minutes my last receiver took for a signal. That said, the on-dash antenna is weak and loses reception in hills, in heavy traffic, or when a swam of flies goes by. I expect this will need replacement to an on-roof antenna, but it's predictable enough to not bother me much any more. Navigating the interface is painful and confusing, but now that my pre-sets are in, it's a minor nuisance.

      iPod: Works well if you've remembered to plug in your phone, the usual place being the glove compartment. I want to re-route this to the center console area where VW has already run an iPod cord. The user interface is vague, but it gets the job done. I'm actually inspired to buy music in iTunes thanks to this nice new edition (that others have used for years).

      Pandora: Although it doesn't always come up cleanly, when it works, it works great. Pandora could be a reason not to use satellite radio, but I find myself back to my old habits of news programming. I'm dull that way. How much bandwidth does that thing use? It worries me. My data usage last month had a much larger chunk from a few hours of Pandora listening.

      Bluetooth: Works every time with my iPhone 3.  Takes and makes calls without any trouble.

      The Bad

      Aha Radio: Usually won't load. Is it any good? Don't know but it's definitely sucking. This is where the promised Facebook and Twitter integration is supposed to reside.

      AVIC: The package that's supposed to manage importation of addresses and is a buggy, complex, unsophisticated piece of junk. Let me tell you what I need: Navigate me to my iPhone contacts. You can pull up their phone number to make calls, why not their addresses?

      Like lots of complicated but useful devices, now that I've got the hang of it, it's pretty useful and I like it. I also have gotten beyond the gizmo worship of our relationship and have settled into using it for what it is. I use the maps when I feel like it, I listen to some newly downloaded iTunes music and listen to my Bloomberg and NPR on my commute. Good device, but.... you could probably get a device that does the basics for a lot less.

      Average Fuel Economy: 27.1
      Miles: 2362

      Sunday, July 31, 2011

      Rock Chips

      The Buddhist side of my brain says that one of the eight major types of suffering is the anxiety from protecting what you love. The car lover side of my brain says, yes, yes, but can't I just do something about the paint job first? "Give me abiding patience and acceptance of impermanence, but not yet," to mangle Saint Augustine.

      The fragile, water based paint job on the GTI is disappointing. With a couple thousand miles on the car, the rock chips are coming fast and furious. We're not talking about one off chance chips, we're talking about half a dozen chips that promise to leave the car looking sand blasted in no time. Rocks appear to tumble along the hood leaving a trail of chips. It's not something I can blame on Volkswagen, as all the manufacturers have gone to water based paint to reduce factory emissions. VW's Wolfsburg plant, the biggest automobile manufacturing plant in the world, is no exception.

      So for my next purchase, I'm going with a 3M treatment of the front bumper and hood.  I've gotten this before on past cars and it works very well and lasts years without trouble. These need to be professionally installed, so finding someone to do it is my next task. I also ordered a touch up pen to fix the half a dozen chips I've got now so I don't memorialize the paint chips forever in plastic.

      The other issue I'm having is underneath the car. My driveway is very steep and my usual backup place is scratching the underside of the car. This may be what I need to get the wife to clean her stuff from the garage so I have a place to properly back up, but until then, I'll be doing the dangerous reverse down the steep driveway into the street to avoid the scratches.

      Miles: 2229

      Friday, July 29, 2011

      Poker Face

      So it's a quiet evening and I decide to take the GTI out so I can play with the sound system and try to figure out why the auto dimming doesn't work on the Pioneer. Downloaded from iTunes for the evenings enjoyment were several Lady Gaga songs, you know, because there's so much range in her music. Yeah, I don't even like Lady Gaga. No way.

      I'm cruising down the street on a Friday night, listening to my Lady Gaga and trying to change the voice for the nav system, just because, when lo and behold, I get a dash light. My first reaction is "No! Not my precious German toxic washer fluid!" I know from experience the clear cleaner can't be acquired in the US, so that would be just too horrible to bear. Instead, it appears my horseshoes are bad.

      Before I could become too much of a smartass about this light, the information center informed me to check my tires. Oh yeah, tires. Far more logical. The car has TPMS or a Tire Pressure Monitoring System. The car thankfully doesn't have run flat tires, but it can tell when tire pressure is off through wheel speed indicators used for traction control. In this case, the rear drivers side tire was down to 22 pounds from 38. The rest of the tires were fine.

      Getting air was difficult at the gas station at 9pm, as there are codes needed to operate the air pumps. Damn freeloaders trying to get air for free. After filling the tire at a second station, pressure seemed to hold steady but the warning light remained on. As I'm getting used to my German car, I was sure studying the tome was in order. When I got home I learned that there's a reset button in the glove compartment, of all places. TPMS doesn't really know the tire pressure, only what's "normal" as defined by when you press that button. We'll see if the tire holds air in the morning.

      Miles: 2197

      Tuesday, July 26, 2011

      Gas Gauge

      I drove around Sunday night and all day Monday with my gas gauge pegged at Full.  The Range notification didn't move either, perpetually telling me I had 385 miles, more or less, until I needed fuel. I sighed, thinking I had the infamous fuel sender switch problem, an issue that some people have gotten multiple times in the lifetime of their Volkswagen. 

      Then Tuesday morning the gauge moved ever so slightly on my morning commute and the Range notification began to work again. Sunday afternoon I had gone to my regular Chevron station but their pump was very slow and I was shocked at how low on fuel I must have been, since I spent nearly $55 on three fourths of a tank. What seems to have happened is that slow filling pump topped off the tank beyond the normal cutoff range. Since the gauges are digital for the most part, the tank read full until it hit the less than full threshold, at which point it began to act normally. It's the extra technology that made this a concern. Most people probably wouldn't have noticed in a more analog environment.

      Miles: 2003

      Sunday, July 24, 2011

      The Big GTI Question

      So, you pay a $7000-$10,000 premium over a Golf. You could have had a variety of not as exciting semi-premium sedans or even a lightly used Audi or BMW. The big question then is whether the GTI is a souped up Golf or a scaled down Audi. After over a thousand miles, does its cheapness show through or does its premium character, instilled by its slick Audi derived drive-train, shine like a luxury sports sedan beacon?

      Well .... neither.

      At the low end of that question is the standard Golf, which is no slouch when it comes to Euro style quality and ride. It's not a cheap economy car and the reviews of the Golf's refinement are well established. At the high end is the Audi, which adds luxury to the Euro refinement and that ever so sweet 2.0 liter turbocharged engine.  What the GTI has, however, is something else. It's got refinement, but it also has a sports car soul, or at least a sports package. It can't get past its short wheelbase, which with 18" tires gives it a choppy ride over rough pavement. The ride can be harsh and you find yourself thinking about pavement quality as you're driving.

      Interstate 5 was a chore in the GTI. It was generally unpleasant (more so than normal) with no payback. That said, the 1 and 101 were blissful, mostly because they were lower speed, more scenic and more engaging for the driver. The GTI is heavenly when you're shifting gears, not droning along at 80, and it does drone. I'm sure driving a Ferrari down I5 is equally as unpleasant while the latter roads would be monumentally more enjoyable. With the GTI, you find yourself in your European car wishing very much you had European roads, or at least the European GTI active suspension.

      The overall quality, however remains. The interior is beautiful, albeit not as cleanly put together as a Japanese car. There are minor rattles over bumps, but that's true of most German cars I've owned (BMW's). That's apparently the price for a car with soul. If you're coming from something lower market, cough - American - cough, you'll be impressed with the quality of the materials, the soft textures, plastic that's not shiny and hollow, lots of cloth and a dash board that is simple, functional, and not designed to look like a Cylon's helmet, like the Ford we recently rented. Oh dear God Ford, why?

      The GTI seats are now very comfortable and after 400 miles in one day on I5, I've got no back pain or fatigue the next day, unlike my Mazda 6. The Mazda would have been more pleasant at the time, but I would have felt flogged and exhausted the next day. I guess what I'm trying to say is the GTI feels authentic. It delivers on its promise of sportiness and premium quality. At least so far at 1,767 miles.

      The car trip reality: Rattles from water bottles and Legos, Cheerios and potato chips on the seats, "The Cat Threw Up" playing on the satellite radio.

      Miles: 1767

      Saturday, July 23, 2011

      Sound System

      This isn't about the GTI, but instead the after market Pioneer AVIC X930BT head unit I had installed. Yesterday we visited Downtown Disney, drove back into LA for some food and took the long way back around to Orange County. Overall I used half a tank of gas and had some time to put the Pioneer through its paces.

      The navigation in the Pioneer is the best I've seen. After some initial frustration of learning to enter addresses, it's now a snap. The system errors on the side of not getting you lost, much to the annoyance of my wife. It will tell you to take the I5 when it's time to get on the on-ramp. It will then tell you to continue on the I5 whenever there's any doubt, which means every major interchange. "Continue on the I5 in two tenths of a mile and then .... continue on the I5." That can get tiresome, but you certainly won't get lost.

      It also won't do offramp names, instead using the various designations. Culver Drive becomes 3A. Whenever it designates an "A" off-ramp it sounds like a lost Canadian. "In three tenths of a mile, take exit three, eh?" I wish Pioneer had a way to use actual street names, eh?

      The maps and interface are fairly intuitive and just about idiot proof. There are a ton of options and views I haven't explored yet, but they don't get in the way of basic operation of the system. When you've clearly missed where you were going, it silently recalculates and starts again. There was only one time where the map was wrong, over a newer area in Orange County. It just got me to where I was going with the new route. The point of interest menu was especially helpful with finding a train station (and learning there was one 15 miles closer) as well as finding the closest Chevron.

      As for music, I am not an audiophile, but I've been impressed so far. It will play music on my iPhone, if I had any. My installer was perplexed that I only had ringtones. The satellite radio has been giving me some problems with cutting out in traffic. I think it's because the antenna is on the dash board in the corner. I never had problems with my last unit with the antenna mounted on the roof. I think that's the next thing to do, plus it removes one more piece of dash clutter. Trying to replicate the satellite problem didn't work under normal circumstances (the original reason for heading towards LA).

      Annoyed with the satellite reception in heavy traffic, I was pleasantly surprised when I switched over to Pandora. The Pioneer requires the iPhone for this and a physical connection to the phone as well. This has locked me into the iPhone and AT&T more heavily than anything Apple could have done. Pandora streamed flawlessly and with the quality of satellite radio. In fact, although I haven't tweaked Pandora to its fullest yet, it may just replace my satellite radio as most listened to. It lacks news programming, what I listen to mostly, but for music it's great.

      So how about that interface? The navigation system has a brilliant interface but the audio portion of the Pioneer is a travesty. It uses tiny, unlabeled virtual buttons on the touchscreen to change channels or add selections to memory. It's unclear what's happening at any given time. In other words, I may have to read the manual (on CD only). The "off" button seems to work with the music but not the nav. As I told me wife, it's as if someone had a patent on an easy to use radio interface and Pioneer was afraid of violating it. So an A for the navigation and a B- for the audio, F if I can't get the satellite problem resolved. We'll be taking I5 back to the Bay Area today, so I'll see if the satellite radio works better out in the wide open.  Eh?

      Miles: 1333

      Wednesday, July 20, 2011


      I got the GTI bare bones with no options other than some floor mats. However, I always planned to get a cool navigation system installed. I didn't want a sunroof or automatic transmission, but I did want the cool perk of nav, albeit not the anemic, overpriced stock Clarion unit (which required other expensive options as well). It's my one want item on the car, as opposed to a need. But who am I kidding? I could have gotten a basic Golf for a lot less if it was just about need. The nav system I ended up getting is a swanky Pioneer AVIC-X930BT.

      We woke up this morning in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with the sole purpose of getting the new nav system installed nearby. We ended up having a fantastic time in the Chinatown area. My son and wife explored Olvera Street while I did my business and we all enjoyed meals at Philippe's.

      Philippe's is an awesome restaurant about 50 yards from the hotel best known for their French dip sandwiches, but their breakfasts are pretty special too. The place is quirky with an eclectic atmosphere without becoming too kitsch. We all agreed we should go back next time we're in the area.

      I waited for the installation shop to open. It was in the wholesale district of East LA, a shop my brother uses for his electronics installation business. As they wheeled pallets of speakers and stereos onto the sidewalk for their brisk curbside wholesale business, I parked my GTI in the graffiti covered parking lot. The guys quickly got to work.

      I want to say it went smoothly, but I ended up driving back to LA later that afternoon when the satellite radio ended up not working after activation and the AM/FM reception was nearly non-existent. The satellite was a loose cable and the radio required an amplified booster cable. It's all working now, despite the issues. I'm too happy with it to be upset over the installation issues. I'll gush over how cool it is in a later post (when I'm not so exhausted).

       Oh yeah. That point of no return.

      There's actually very little glare during the day, despite the washed out photo

      Red from the Pioneer system matches the VW switch gear at night

      Miles: 1177

      Monday, July 18, 2011

      Cruising Highway 1

      Highway 1 along the California coast is considered one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world. I would have to agree, although my main concern was not beauty today, but comfort. The GTI can be choppy on freeways and the seats have been problematic since I bought it a couple weeks ago. Thankfully, the car vindicated itself wonderfully on the road.

      The seats remained comfortable for hours and even my wife thought the car was more pleasant than the Mazda 6, partially because of the seats, but also because of smoother and fewer shifts. In fact, you can cruise through most of Highway 1 in sixth gear, loping along at around 1800 rpm with reasonably good power and fantastic fuel economy. It's something I forgot a time or two when needing to pass. The car is so effortless to drive in any gear that you get lazy and forget to downshift occasionally.

      The car gobbled up the 72 miles of incredibly twisty roads without complaint. It was the traffic in front that cramped my style.

      Fuel Economy: 31.1 MPG
      Trip Miles: 240
      Total Miles: 801

      Sunday, July 17, 2011


      One of the areas of research before I bought the car was fuel economy. This is especially true since the GTI is so similar to the 40-50MPG TDI diesel. In fact, the most common question I get about this car is whether I considered a TDI instead. Wow, did I. It was far too spartan and uninteresting for the price. Now the GTD diesel from Europe, with the same GTI trim would have been a contender.

      The GTI gets good gas mileage, but it takes premium fuel. Before I bought the car, I did the math comparing my Mazda 6 to the GTI and figured I was saving about $40/month (offset by $26/month in higher insurance). When I got the car, this savings got a bit muddled. It wasn't that I wasn't getting good mileage, in fact my highway mileage is better than expected, it's that it takes Top Tier gasoline.

      Top Tier gas is a standard for detergent enhanced gas. So rather than just any premium fuel, I have to use premium fuel from an approved Top Tier gas station. There are 22 Top Tier manufacturers, but only a couple are local: Shell and Chevron. Shell has a bad reputation with its nitrogen enriched gas, so that leaves Chevron. I can find a local Chevron station at roughly the same price as my local cheap gas place, but it's one more hassle I wasn't expecting. It's probably as cumbersome as hunting for diesel fuel.

      Now you're probably thinking Top Tier is bunk, which might be true. Having worked for Chevron petroleum engineers in the past, I can tell you they're true believers in the quality of their gasoline. If Top Tier was significantly more expensive, I might argue the point, but since it's roughly the same, why take chances? 

      Project Updates

      • Steering wheel controls. Friday I got a message that the techie at the dealership had some information on doing the job, so next week I'll find out pricing. Probably more than VAG-COM but less than a sunroof option.

      • VAG-COM. There are various electronic options on the car, such as honking the horn when the alarm is set and locking the doors when it's put in gear, that are simply annoying. Dealerships used to change these options when you first bought your car, but now they won't, citing safety concerns (total crap). The alternative is a $250 cable and software package or using the informal network of VAG-COM enthusiasts to do it for you. Enthusiast payment is generally believed to be a case of beer. I'll pursue this when we get back from our trip.

      • Pioneer NAV Unit. Installation scheduled for Wednesday morning at 9am in LA. If I were patient, I would have done the steering wheel controls first to make sure the NAV functions properly with them.

      • Seats. I think I've dialed them in for comfort, which is a relief after reading about how some people took months to figure it out or never did get them comfortable. The ultimate foolishness is to learn you bought the wrong car, so I'm happy about this. Like many, the comfortable driving position is not what I expected: closer, more upright. The 10cm rule in the owner's manual seems to be spot on for me. I wish there were numerical values to the positions because I'm afraid they'll get moved and I won't find that sweet spot again.

      • Emergency kit. I never bought anything like this for the Mazda, but the VW felt like it needed a first aid and emergency kit. It's a German thing. The first aid kit was cobbled together from a Red Cross kit at Target and some off the shelf stuff. The emergency kit included a poncho, gloves, jumper cables, bungee cord, and a bunch of other stuff. It all got repackaged to fit into the nooks  and crannies of the little GTI.
      Miles: 546

      Friday, July 15, 2011

      Road Trip

      With my back still aching from the seats, I've got a family road trip planned for next week. Luckily, it's a four hour a day pace that shouldn't be too grueling. We'll be spending the first night in San Simeon on the coast, a decision made entirely based on how many frequent flyer miles I had left after our rental car from my wife's car wreck. Towards Salinas I can choose, if I want, to take the very fun Highway 1 or instead the more direct 101. It all depends on how I'm feeling, really and the attitude in the car.

      Night two is in downtown Los Angeles; Chinatown. This is about five miles from my Pioneer NAV installation appointment in East LA, scheduled for Wednesday morning. We hope to check out local restaurants and shops in Chinatown, which sounds like a worthwhile half day excursion. After the installation we head to Orange County to visit relatives and friends.  I will be avoiding Carmageddon on the 405 by a day. The way back is unplanned, so who knows?

      Miles: 479
      Fuel Economy on my commute: 32 MPG