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Adventures in Volkswagen Eurovan maintenance.

On Eurovan Transmissions or How Eurovans Got a Bad Rap

Published: June 2017

The reputation of the Eurovan usually preceeds it for potential owners. Just as quickly as someone starts to think the Eurovan might be everything they wanted someone tells them that the transmission is a ticking time bomb. Potential owners worry they'll get stranded. Long-time owners worry that the next weird shift will mean a $8,000 repair. This is no way to enjoy a vehicle! Okay, maybe the bum rap was deserved 10 years ago when nearly new vans were having transmissions failures. But the Eurovans in the US are approaching their 20th birthday. It's time to re-evaluate.

As far as I can tell the persistantly bad reputation stems from three main arguments:

First, "the transmission is too small for the Eurovan" and because of this it is prone to failure.

Second, servicing "the transmission is uniquely complicated" and very expensive.

Third, Go Westy labeled the transmission the "Achilles' Heel" of the Eurovan.

Let me go over each point:

"The Transmission is Too Small"

The argument that the transmission is too small and thus overheats is often substantiated by pointing to the fact that the same transmission is in many smaller/lighter Volkswagens. The fact is, however, it's also in much heavier vehicles. The Winnebago camper and Rialta versions of the Eurovan are much heavier than a Weekender yet shipped with the same transmission and there are exampes of long working lives. Clearly the transmission can handle more than a VW Golf.

The heat exchanger for the Eurovan transmission is perhaps a more accurate culprit. This exchange is where the engine coolant is supposed to keep the transmission fluid at a constant and safe temperature. Unfortunately the hardworking transmission can sometimes be underserved by this heat exchanger causing the transmission fluid to get too hot.

To make matters worse, even though there is a transmission temperature sensor it's not connected to anything useful for the driver*. An overheating transmission won't trigger a warning light. So without a laptop and special software or a 3rd party temperature gauge you'll never know when your transmission is dangerously hot.

A common solution is to install an external transmission cooler. (A whole different topic, for another time.)

* This isn't completely accurate; at high enough temperatures the computer should put the transmission into emergency mode which locks the torque convertor where much of the heat is generated. Unfortunately (but understandably) the threashold for this is quite high and there is room for the fluid to be hot enough to do damage but not hot enough for the van to respond in a helpful way.

"Transmission Service is Expensive"

While this is true on the surface I think people erroneously conclude that there is something especially complicated about Eurovan transmission that justifies this.

I believe the service cost is influenced more by two factors: first, that these vans and transmissions are getting older meaning technicians experienced or interested in working on them are increasingly hard to find. And, second, when people are spending $20,000+ on a used van it's pretty clear that these are vanity projects. In other words, people aren't buying Eurovans in the US because they are the thrifty choice. Transmission shops know they can charge a premium and often do. Go Westy is a clear (but not lone) example of this approach to market by vendors.

The fact is the transmission on the Eurovan isn't especially complicated or difficult to service. It's the same (or nearly the same) transmission that's in the Jetta, Golf, Beetle, GTI of the same age. Add the nearly identical 096 it is even more common.

Once one thinks of the transmission as being, actually, rather common and having a rather unexceptional service life (positive or negative) I believe the way one thinks about them can change. For example, if one believes there is something mysteriously special justifying a premium cost it's easy to understand avoidance of service when there are early signs of problems. If the thought of servicing is less frightening perhaps more people would seek help earlier and there would be fewer instances of full failure. Fewer cases of failure would lower anxiety and more people would not assume the worst when early problems manifest themselves. It's a theory anyway.

"Achilles' Heel"

My argument against this isn't so much to dispute GoWesty's claim but rather that their influence with this article has outlived its usefulness and has actually caused bigger problems. As the fleet of available Eurovans in the US ages the reality is that transmissions that shipped with QA faults have all been replaced. Yet the influence of this article seems to be growing and is frequently mentioned by Eurovan owners or potential owners.

I believe that the key to avoiding complicated transmission problems is early detection followed by service with someone competent and willing to do diagnosis work instead of being predisposed towards transmission replacement.

Failure on these transmission will increasingly be due to relatively minor issues in electrical connectors or valve body wear and not QA issues from the factory. The valve body and transmission wiring are remarkably easy to inspect and service and don't require the transmission to be removed. You can even replace all of these parts for less than a 5th of the typical cost of a transmission alone. The key here is fixing any issue with these less expensive parts before their malfunction causes serious damage to the entire transmission. That is: don't drive a malfunctioning transmission!

Here are some early warning signs. If you pay attention to them and have the van serviced by someone who's not selling transmissions you are likely to avoid a transmission replacement:

Finally, here are some practical tips for dealing with the Eurovan transmission:

Before even considering replacement ensure that: