Has the gearbox of your VW Golf conked out? Join the club!

Dear Baraza,

I have been reading your column and find it quite interesting and informative.

I am a car importer specialising in Volkswagen Golfs. The past year has been tough for me as I imported three Golf vehicles from Japan and they have given me transmission problems since they landed in Mombasa. I find this quite unfair to importers and I know a number of people in Kenya who have had this problem.

I have not been able to sell any of them. I believe this touches on 30 per cent of the imported Golf MK Vs. Is there a way this can be sorted out and importers compensated and future importers protected?

These are the specifications of the vehicles:

Yr/Mo Registration: 2005


Model: GOLF

Grade: GLI/GT

Chassis No: WVWZZZ1K123456789

CC Rating: 2000

Engine Type: Petrol

Six-speed gear box, triptronic.

I personally know that this is a big story as it has touched quite a number of individuals. We have many dysfunctional Volkswagen vehicles in Kenya and I think the importers are to blame. I strongly believe that the suppliers of these cars know what they are doing.

I would be glad to share this information. Kindly advise me.

Robert Macharia.

When you say the importers are to blame, what exactly are they to blame for? Did they ruin the transmissions? Are they behind the research and development of those transmissions?
The reason people like me have a job is to tear these cars apart in every parameter, including reliability.

That is why we do road tests. And sometimes we take a lot of heat for our findings (trust me, I know), but then again sometimes it is us who dish out the heat, leading to things like pre-midlife model updates or worse yet, the bane of the industry: The motor vehicle recall.

So instead of blaming someone who may not even know how an automatic transmission works, how about doing a little research before dealing in a certain type of motor vehicle? Find out whether or not that particular model ever faced a recall in its life, and whether or not the particular vehicle you are selling was affected by the recall (these recalls are usually recorded using VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers).

Some cars get called back, some do not. Read car magazines and reviews: Some offer used car reviews that let you know the kinds of problems to expect from a vehicle model when it becomes “used”. Motor vehicle dealers in other countries do it, so why not you? That way you can simply avoid selling a troublesome car and blaming a hapless middleman for something that is not entirely his fault.

I once had this discussion with someone else about the exact same vehicle you are talking about and what we thought was this: The automatic gearbox (or parts thereof) has a certain lifespan (granted, it is much shorter in your case than it should be, but such is the way of life). By the time these vehicles reach the mileage at which the gearbox starts failing, they have already been shipped over this side.

Also, given how they spend a lot of time on the high seas (where no sort of maintenance or check-up is done), they could be leaking transmission fluid slowly over the several weeks they are afloat, then when they touch down in Mombasa, some excitable young drivers who get paid per vehicle delivery storm off towards Nairobi at 200 km/h without doing any checks. Another dead gearbox is in the offing.

I do not think the importers are to blame. These vehicles are inspected before they leave their country of origin. They should also be inspected upon arrival.

Then again, if a car is too much trouble, leave it and move to another model. Have you ever asked yourself why nobody imports Alfa Romeos? Or Fiats? Or Peugeots on a large scale? These cars have reputations, and when dealing with large sums  of money, there are some gambles you just do not make.

Dear Baraza,

I have purchased a tiny Daihatsu Charade G100s for work runs. Problem is, this car was built way back in 1989 and although the bodywork is still strong and reliable, the engine seems to be letting oil into the first cylinder. I have recently done exhaustive restoration, including body respray, an engine job, and replacing pistons. Re-boring cannot be done again.

This seems to be the only problem between a trouble-free run and myself.

I have been thinking about either:

1. Redoing the engine job to establish the cause of the leaks (badly placed oil seals or compression?) without reboring.

2. Replacing the engine with a reconditioned Toyota G100s engine.

3. Selling the car to Kariobangi as scrap since I would hate to see someone else mistreat it.

Does re-boring have to be done every time the engine is dismantled?

What would you advise since the bodywork is superb and the car, though a three-pot, is quite feisty when in a good mood. It is getting rather costly to constantly change the spark plugs from that cylinder when they clog with oil.


If the engine is admitting oil into the cylinders, then it is either through blow-by (either the piston rings do not fit well in the cylinder or the cylinder walls are not smooth) or through the valve-train (the valve seals are badly placed or need replacement). Re-boring is only necessary in the first circumstance. Are you sure the oil consumption is not via the cylinder head?

1. This sounds like a plan. It makes me wonder why you have not done it yet.

2. If the first step yields no positive results, then this is another way to go. A favourite engine swap for the Charade is installing the 5A-FE Toyota engine. It fits well and works just fine in the Daihatsu Charade.

3. I do not see why you would scrap a vehicle that only has an oil leak in one cylinder. I hate to sound like a miserly, penny-pinching Kenyan, but there are cars still running on our roads with far worse problems than that and nobody seems flustered. I would advise you take care of the leak and continue your relationship with the little chariot.

Re-boring is not always necessary every time the engine is opened up. A physical inspection will tell you whether the scouring on the cylinder walls demands a reboring or a few more kilometres can be eked out of that block before the grinding machine is unleashed.

For some engines, instead of reboring, one can buy cylinder sleeves that are replaceable, leaving the structural integrity of the engine block intact (too many rebores result in thin cylinder walls that can easily crack).


Hello Baraza,

I am the second owner of a Subaru Impreza hatchback, automatic transmission, 1998 model. Early this year, I started noticing that it jerks hard when going uphill. It also jerks hard on rapid acceleration on flat surfaces.

My mechanic has been telling me that it is normal for automatic cars to behave that way because they change gears “on their own”.

He once advised me to be driving at D3 to avoid the jerking, and went ahead to explain that placing the gear on ‘3’ while on the road “advances” the gear box and prevents the jerking.

Also, there is a green POWER message that is always blinking on the dashboard once the ignition is on, yet the power button on the gear lever is non-functional. What could be the problem since the Automatic Transmission Fluid (ATF) is at the correct level? I have never driven my car in any other position apart from “D” since I do not know the use of D3, D2, and D1.

Also, what is the use of the timing belt, how does a car behave when the timing belt is broken or loose, and what damage can it cause when it breaks when driving at high speed? I am naïve when it comes to cars and I hope your advice will help resolve the motoring problems that I have had since I bought this car two years ago.

Donboss, Kakamega.

That mechanic of yours: Jail sounds too good for him. If your child walked into the house limping in an unusual manner, then the doctor at the hospital tells you “there’s nothing wrong, children sometimes fool around. They are children, they limp for fun…” you would want to punch that person in the neck very hard, wouldn’t you?

Automatic cars do not “normally” change gear with any sort of violence. In fact, they are not supposed to. There is DEFINITELY a problem.

Another issue I have with your mechanic is the nonsense he is spewing about driving with the lever in ‘3’ instead of ‘D’. In other words, what he is asking you to do is to burn more fuel than is necessary and strain your engine by constantly driving at high engine speeds. And what, in the name of used transmission fluid, does “advancing the gearbox” mean anyway? I have never heard such rubbish.

Those positions you call D3, D2, and D1 (they are actually just plain 3,2, and 1; D is a separate, discrete selector position) are used to “lock” the gearbox. Being an automatic, the transmission will select gear for you depending on engine load and road speed.

However, a modicum of control can still be recovered by the driver somewhat using these selector positions.

When you slide the gear lever into 1 (or D1 as you call it), what you have done is “locked” the gearbox into first gear. It will not change up no matter how hard you rev, even when you hit the limiter. When the lever is in position 2 (D2), you have now given an allowance for the gearbox to go into second gear, but not beyond that.

It will only change between first and second gears, but not third. Position 3 allows it to go into third (and second and first) but no further than that.

So you can see my point. By driving in 3 (D3), your gearbox cannot go into fourth or top gear (if they are not one and the same). On an open road, you will be doing 100 km/h almost at the red line, heating up your engine, straining it also, and burning enough fuel to single-handedly create more wealth in the Middle East. And pedestrians will not appreciate the noise. You will look like a bum. That mechanic should be forced to foot your fuel bills for a month for even daring to suggest such madness.

When you say the Power button on the centre console is non-functional, what do you mean? This could be a contributing factor to the jerking (though even in Power mode the changes are not supposed to be rough). In that mode, the transmission changes up at higher RPM (revs per minute) and the clutch action is a bit more aggressive — faster disengaging and engaging if it is an electronic friction clutch, or full lockup control for a torque converter. The shift action is a bit more aggressive, but like I said, it is not supposed to be violent or rough.

Do this. There is such a thing as a transmission control module (TCM). In layman’s terms, it is the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) for the gearbox. Get a read-out from it with an error code, then send the error code to me (if you get one). From there, I will tell you the exact problem. It could be as simple as needing a new transmission filter or as bad as you needing a new transmission, but do not panic yet.

Timing belt: The timing belt is a belt (duh) that is turned by the crankshaft and is used to rotate the camshaft(s) in an engine with overhead valves. Since valve opening and closing is a very sensitive and keenly timed affair, there should be no slip whatsoever, otherwise disaster might result.

When broken or loose, the resulting catastrophe will depend on whether your engine is an interference engine or non-interference engine. The latter tends to have some substantial space between the valves and the pistons. A loose or broken timing belt will result in the engine stalling and no amount of effort will get it running again.

Things are much worse for interference engines. The space between the valves and the pistons is pretty small. A loose/broken timing belt will turn your engine into scrap, literally. This is because the relationship between piston motion and valve motion is put out of kilter, so at one point a piston moving upwards will meet a valve moving downwards with no buffer zone. The two will meet and mutual destruction will occur.

The engine will stall on the spot, just like with the non-interference type, the difference being this time round you will need a new engine. At high engine speeds, this destruction can be quite spectacular and noisy with it. Replace it before it is necessary. If the “T-BELT” light goes on on your dashboard, park the car and replace it (rather than tightening, unless you are in some remote area, in which case tightening might get you to the next garage where you can now replace it in peace).

Dear Baraza

Like many Kenyans, I have bought and driven second-hand Japanese cars for a couple of years now. Currently, I own a Toyota Gaia and I am tired of it. I have no intention of selling it but wish to get another minivan. Which way to go? Toyota Alphard or Toyota Estima (both 2007 or 2008). My main consideration would be service and comfort.

Mwangi Francis.

Well, there is no clear winner for you, according to your criteria. The Alphard is superior in comfort terms, far more superior than the Estima (this is the Previa, right?) but then again the Alphard is a highly engineered, overly elaborate piece of kit full of electronics everywhere, so repairs will  be a real headache, more so given the guesstimation, smart-Alec, hit-and-miss sort of approach Kenyan mechanics give to motor vehicle systems they do not fully understand.

So, decide. The Alphard is more comfortable. The Previa/Estima is easier to repair (but there is no guarantee, given what I have just said about most mechanics).



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