Cars – 2016 Volkswagen Golf R

I’d mentioned earlier in this series how my favorite car to date was my 2005 Volkswagen GTI. The car was just plain fun, I had a lot of great memories with it, and of all the vehicles I’ve owned in the past 24 years, It stayed in my driveway the longest – 6 years.

My job situation changed. After fighting the idea of working in New York City for YEARS, I finally caved and took a great job in midtown with a great team of people. I was learning again, I was earning again, and for the first time in 6 years – I was completely and utterly debt free.

What ever was I to do?

Buy another Volkswagen, of course!

I absolutely loved this thing from the first moment I sat in it. As the glow of my Subaru’s check engine light began to fade, I sauntered into Jack Daniels Volkswagen. Originally, I had planned on a white Golf R with the DSG (dual-clutch automatic transmission) and a few other fancy features. Again – I ignored my own advice as I laid out in my post about car buying.

What I wound up with was the base model Golf R. All wheel drive, 292 HP, 6-speed manual, leather interior, heated seats, etc… etc… etc… The only options I didn’t have were the parking sensors, adjustable suspension, DSG, and premium stereo. Otherwise, it clicked off every box. Had I heeded my own advice though and walked away, or waited for another DSG model, I’d probably still be driving it.

I loved this thing. LOVED IT. I’d never driven anything with such handling, such power. It took everything I loved about my 2005 GTI and turned it up to 11. Heck, one of the coolest things about it was that turning the steering wheel turned the headlights. I’d never seen things like this before in a car.

Every curve I came to, I threw the car into it faster and faster. There was no end to the available grip and traction. Turns were flat and firm. Acceleration was explosive with minimal lag. Tack on it being a roomy 4-door that got decent gas mileage, this car was nothing but win.

The only problem the car had from my POV was a programming defect. It had a backup camera that intermittently worked. On cars that had the parking sensors, it worked every time, but without them – half the time I put the car in reverse it wouldn’t start. Not a huge deal, a minor annoyance really.

The thing is… I’d never driven anything like this before. My primitive teenage driver mind returned. Where I’d mellowed over years of driving that Subaru and Chrysler, a switch got flipped. Every corner? Full speed. Every red light challenge? Adios! I felt like a kid again. It was great…until.

I was headed to work one morning, and somebody came flying up the onramp. I went to give it some gas so they would have room to merge behind me… Not enough acceleration in 5th gear. I went to shift from 5th to 4th when it happened. I lifted the clutch, the transmission and the engine synced up, the RPM’s rapidly climbed, and the car began to rapidly slow.

I missed a shift.

I’ve never missed a shift before. I’d driven several manual transmission cars over the years and this literally never happened before. I quickly depressed the clutch and shifted back to a higher gear. No lights. No noises. No smoke. The car seemed OK. All day at work I feared getting back to my car and seeing a puddle of oil underneath it… yet I got back to the car and it was fine.

One thing I will say, something I noticed, is that the gating on this car’s transmission was sloppy. Compared to my ’05 GTI, compared to my ’01 Neon, compared to my father’s 94 Ranger. While the car was in gear, that shifter could move around quite a bit. Going from gear to gear, I was no longer sure that it would quietly slide into the correct gear.

On my way home, weeks later, I was behind a slow moving BMW. They were doing 35 in a 55. I pulled out to pass, downshifting to 3rd. After the pass, I went to upshift from 3rd to 4th. I went from 3rd to 2nd. RPM’s climbed. The car slowed. I corrected the missed shift, but it was too late. Lights were blinking. The engine was running, but the power was gone.

I got it home, turned it off, sat for a minute, then started it. It started right up but it sounded different. All the lights were blinking. Was it limp home mode? That’s when a car will shut down certain systems in order to avoid a bigger problem. I cleared the computer and started it back up, same thing. Same errors. Crap. The money shift.

The money shift is a term nobody wants to use. You miss a shift, and spend money to fix it. Worst case scenario here, $7k to install a new engine. Best case, through some miracle, warranty covers it. I call up the dealer, report the problem, and they send a flatbed. I kept my mouth shut about the shift. All I said was the lights came on while I was passing.

The guys on the VWVortex board were relentless. Maybe 1 or 2 members felt bad for me, the rest decided I simply didn’t know how to shift properly, or drive a manual. I kept the details minimal as there was no secret that dealers would watch this message board for guys proudly voiding their warranty. There was even a specific error in the VW computer system for what I did. “MECHANICAL OVERREV – WARRANTY VOID”

Service advisor calls. The engine appears ok, but the rocker arms for the intake valves on cylinders 1 and 4 were no longer on the valves. They were going to have to strip the engine down, replace the broken parts, verify everything was back to OEM spec. He asks me “any chance you missed a shift here?”

I don’t like to lie. Ever. In my youth, my ability to lie well got me out of many tight situations. As an adult, lying requires that you remember the lie lest you be found out. Mark Twain apparently said it best: “If you tell truth you don’t have to remember anything.” I’ve done my best to live by those words.

I began to stutter. A split second before I admitted the truth, that miracle came through, as the service advisor said 2 words… “Say no.”

They had the car for a week. I didn’t bug them once. The repair was covered by the warranty. I went online and researched how to properly shift, how to avoid this. Aluminum shifter bushings. Check. Guide the shifter, don’t grip it and pull. Check.

When I got the car back, I babied it. It took a solid month before I chanced opening up the taps again. When I did, no missed shift. Everything worked. The relief washed over me like a flood… until two weeks later when even using my more relaxed and community approved shifting style, I missed the 3 to 4 shift again. This time I caught it RAPIDLY. The RPM’s never hit the danger zone, but something was definitely wrong.

I went back to babying it, and looked online for the shifter bushings… but by that time the joy of owning this car was gone. I was afraid that I’d either drive it off the road and kill myself with it, or that I’d money shift it again. One day I’m at the gas station, filling up, and checking the oil (which is a good habit to have in general, but these cars burn a quart every 2-3 thousand miles) when I saw it.

A slight glimmer of shiny metal on the dipstick. Sparkles are wonderful things. On a dipstick? Bad. On the dipstick of a car with 15k miles that you’ve money-shifted? Forget it. To this day I say it, had I taken my own advice and opted for the DSG, I’d still be driving that car. It was truly a feat of engineering and the most fun I’ve had behind the wheel.

I needed a break. I needed to take a step back from the speed demon in me and get something responsible. Something fun. A vehicle I was proud to own, proud to drive, and was most of all useful. That’s why I bought my 2017 GMC Sierra. It wasn’t my first choice though…

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