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

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It Gets Better (seats)

It's rather pathetic to buy a new car and then complain that it's uncomfortable. It's been on the back of my mind since I took delivery on Thursday. I have memories of my BMW 330i and how I micromanaged every detail of that car, and how, over time, I grew to hate it. I hated it mostly for its rough ride and neck snapping shifts.The GTI was feeling a bit like that over the weekend as my back creaked and popped each morning.

The problem was the seats. The thing about German cars is there's one way to do things and every other way is mistaken. This is true as you read through the 500+ pages of manuals that come with this car, which not only tell you how to do something (the Japanese way), but explain why every other way is wrong (very German).  With the seats, the first thing I realized after a day of discomfort was the headrest had to be higher.

In most cars, the headrest, and the seats exist only to prevent you from snapping your neck or flying backwards through the rear window. The GTI, because it's German, encourages you to engage with the seats. In fact, if you resist, you will be punished. You must engage.

With the headrest adjusted properly, it took me another few days to realize that I wasn't actually sitting in the seat and this was causing me problems. I was resisting, slouching and not sitting all the way back, which was becoming painful. Every bump was jarring and because of that, I was tensing up, which caused a feedback loop of discomfort, making driving the car an unpleasant experience.

This resistance came from driving with my horrible Mazda seats, which again, were only there to keep you from catastrophically exiting the rear of the car. The Mazda seats offered no support, so you learned not to trust them, to lean, wiggle or slouch in whatever way you felt was best for the situation. They were mildly unpleasant within minutes of driving, but never overly demanding in how you sat in them. The GTI is different. It will have none of that. No slouching. No wiggling. Would you care for more lumbar support?

So I've finally learned to stop fighting the GTI and to just give in to its demands, to sit back and allow the seats to do what they're supposed to do. I have capitulated. The GTI has rolled right over me. Now I feel European.

Miles: 303

Sunday, July 10, 2011

San Francisco Jaunt

We took the car into San Francisco this weekend. The most obvious thing I noticed was the "auto hold" function of the manual transmission. While shifting, the brakes engage for three seconds to prevent roll back. That's just magical in San Francisco with all the hills. On the down side, I got myself in a couple sticky parking situations when I couldn't get the car into Volkswagen reverse the first time. With all the nagging about gear changes on the dash board, seeing an "R" when I'm in reverse would be a nice feature.

Outside Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco. Hooray for frequent flyer miles.

Removed the center rear headrest finally

My Sunday project was to clean the exterior. I started with a wash and then a clay bar treatment. I was surprised to find no visible contaminants on the clay bar, despite its trip from Wolfsburg. I recall my black 2001 BMW 330i having a ton of debris on delivery. Following the clay bar, I gave it a coat of carnauba wax. If I were serious, I would be giving it multiple coats over the next few months, but I doubt I'll have time for that.

Next Project: We're going on a road trip next week. I hope to get the new Pioneer head unit installed in Southern California.

Miles: 226

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Now with 80% Less Light

Got the rear windows tinted today. It was at a local shop literally down the street with the grumpiest owner you ever did see. It says how good I think he is that I still go there, the soup nazi of window tinting. There's a story behind that, but I'll let it go.

The tint job was 20%, meaning 20% of the light comes through. They consider that a "standard" tint, as opposed to blacked out, drug dealer "limo" tint (like the shop owner's black Magnum). At 20% you can still look inside and see what's up, but you have to stand at the car to do it, which is what I want to discourage casual thieves.

Miles: 171

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pushing my Buttons

So I've decided to be impartial and tell it how it is on this blog. As I mentioned to the salesman yesterday, I know the GTI is rated very highly by J.D. Powers, but I also expect to take it back in for a few tweaks after delivery. It's a Volkswagen. Sure enough, one of those necessary tweaks reared its head. It was basically defective upon delivery, but the first pre-set buttons sticks. You can pry it back out with your finger nail, but it's basically a head unit fail. My Mazda 6 had two head unit failures before that issue got settled.

The button problem is minor and with my plans to replace the head unit in a couple weeks, it likely won't get fixed unless I bring it in a box on my first service visit. I'll want a fix if I intend to sell it. Speaking of which, the dealership sent me a coupon for a discount on a service visit, but it expires in a month. Plus my service is free for 3 years. Confused. Even I can send a specific email to a new customer. What's up with that?

Not a defect, but kind of annoying is the rear center head rest. I need to remove it to get my car seat situated, but it won't budge. You used to be able to lift the head rests out of the seats with the button on the post, but apparently you now need a narrow screwdriver to pop it out at full staff, at least according to this video. I will be searching for said screwdriver this weekend, since none in the house are narrow enough. Apparently there is a toolkit with one somewhere in the car, but I haven't found it.

Tomorrow: Rear window tint appointment at 9am
Sunday: A solid washing starting with a clay bar

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mile 69

I bought the GTI today with 69 miles on the odometer. It was a trade with a San Jose dealership. It's a base model 2011, four door, manual, in black. I got it through Volkswagen of Oakland. The purchase experience was friendly after we got past the fact I was getting a steal of a deal through  Once the salesman agreed to the price on the phone, originally negotiated by another salesman on leave, he took a day to get the car in stock for me. I was flexible with my color choice, allowing for red, white or black. I honestly didn't care, but I definitely didn't like the grey and blue. My salesman was J.D. Livesay, if you want to try to replicate my excellent experience.

As a side note, my saleman at Volkswagen of Oakland taught me how to drive stick on my 1997 Jetta. Talk about a great way to cement a sale.

My main request was that they don't wash the car. Black cars, especially, tend to get permanent swirl marks when the dealerships do a quick wash and buff (this is my third black car). Granted, I'll probably detail this baby by hand once and then run it through car washes for the rest of its life, but I at least wanted those swirl marks to be my responsibility. One amusing detail of not getting the car washed was the circles on the outside of the windshield, the suction cups from when they installed it at the factory in Germany. Yes, the Golfs are made in Germany and still have higher build integrity than the Mexico made Jetta (although I owned two Jetta III's build in Puebla with few problems).

While at the dealership, after the purchase, we spoke with their tech guru, David. He was game for trying the MFSW install.  This is the multi-function steering wheel controls. He had done such an install on his own car, so although he wasn't up on the exact specifics, he was willing to try, which is really all you can ask for. Multi function buttons were standard on the 2010, but VW cheaped out and now only offers them on the sunroof package and above on the 2011. I really want the buttons, since they control the stereo, future NAV unit and trip computer, but I don't want to spend a couple grand to get them. Even if the MSFW costs me a grand, I would rather have exactly what I want.

So how do I like it? Comparing it to my Mazda 6 Sportwagon, the most obvious thing is how there's power all over the rev band. It handles much better too, albeit with a slightly stiffer ride due to a shorter wheelbase and 18" wheels. It's made up by the fact that the seats are so darn good [edit: on day two my back is sore, which tells me I need to adjust them -- a good sign]. It shifts smoothly, lightly and accurately. I would compare the handling to my old BMW 330i (at least without pushing the GTI too hard) but without the whiplash from the extremely annoying manual BMW transmission.

There are a few things that caught me by surprise. It came standard with Sirius satellite radio installed and working. I'm not sure how long the subscription is for. Since I'm upgrading the head unit, I'm not too interested in that. The Bluetooth seems difficult to configure for my phone but I have it kind of working. There's no climate control, which I knew about, yet seems sort of missing based on how upscale the interior feels. My wife even noticed the premium interior, so it must be true. We're trying to get the rear center headrest to work with our car seat without much luck.  There are some annoying "VAGCOM" configurations, like the auto locking, which is very kid unfriendly. The honking of the horn when you lock the doors is annoying. I think these things are probably easy to re-configure. My 6 year old son has a new phrase he's picked up from me: "It's a German thing." At least that's what he's saying when he's not praising the GTI.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sold the Mazda

The sales guy at the VW dealer is on family leave, so getting the new guy to take the deal we negotiated was pretty tough. Nevertheless, he has promised to have my car ready by tomorrow night. I don't even know the color yet, one of my three options (red, white, black). Sounds like roulette.

First order of business after delivery is figuring out how to add the steering wheel controls. After that, it's installing the after market Pioneer head unit down in Southern California. But I get ahead of myself.