Posted on

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).

Posted on

Misbehaving tyres, misinformed mechanics and, well…

Hello Baraza,

I want to pick your brains on a couple of things:

1. Yana tyres: I recently replaced my tyres, one pair Yana and the other Chinese Marshall. The car started “bouncing” whenever I was at about 40kph.

After checking, I zeroed in on one of the Yanas. On closer observation, however, we noticed that the rim was slightly bent and required to be straightened (well, that should be rounded, no?)

At the workshop, which is independent and specialises in tyre service but not sales, the very experienced mzee said that the quality of Yanas has gone down and that he would not recommend them for saloon vehicles, although he admitted that their durability is still good.

He said that they were too “heavy” and therefore require frequent balancing, and suggested that I fit the Yanas at the back.

After fixing the rim, the problem persisted and I went back to Sameer. To their credit, they replaced it without much fuss.

At the workshop where we took the new tyre for balancing (at an independent Shell station where they do not sell tyres either) two different gentlemen there also commented about the “lowered quality” of Yanas.

When I asked the engineer at Sameer about this, he said that it was all hogwash, but probably he would not have said otherwise even if it was true.

In all my years of driving — heading to two decades now — I have always thought highly of and hence used Firestone, now Yana, and considered them good value, even with their high price.

But having heard the comments from two independent sources, neither of whom sells tyres, and therefore should not have a personal interest, I fear that there could be something there. What is your experience/opinion?

2. Clearance: When it comes to offroaders, I believe that clearance is key in enabling you to go wherever your heart leads. But your clearance is only as good as the vehicle’s lowest point.

So does it not beat the purpose when, say, an X-Trail has a silencer hanging what looks like inches off the ground, or some 4WD pickups that have differentials dangling like udders?

3. Many experienced drivers say that when you are going a long distance (say, several hours long) and have to make a brief stop in between, you should not switch off the engine.

Although they all seem to agree on this, none has given me a convincing reason.

Some say it is to maintain the temperature (but will five to 10 minutes make a difference really?) others lubrication (ditto), and one even said that when switched off, an engine loses “rhythm” (but he drives a petrol-powered VVT-i whose “rhythm”’ should be controlled by the computer-box).

Does this make any sense?

4. I have been doing some agriculture and now would like to take it a notch higher.

One of the things that I will need is a tractor. I have seen used entry-level imports being advertised and some locally used ones as well and have started taking a look at some.

But unfortunately, the only advice I am getting so far is from sellers/dealers who are, predictably, biased.

What is your experience in terms of the different models (assuming equivalent specs): Ford, Massey Ferguson, Same, New Holland, John Deere, etc in terms of local availability of spares and expertise, reliability, etc?


Well, you are not the first to mention the Yana issue to me. However, I usually reserve judgment until I come up with conclusive evidence (myself). This might call for a comparison test between tyre brands to see who the culprits are.

2. Yes, that is true, and that is the likely reason the X-Trail with the “udder” exhaust is never taken off-road.

However, the bigger SUVs with the “udder” diffs work well. Off-roading is a skill, and part of that skill is how to avoid knocking out those diffs when driving over a rock or a tree stump.

If you have been following events of late, I was in South Africa (again) recently to drive the little Range Rover Evoque off-road, and you would not believe what it did, even with its (lack of) ground clearance.

It boils down to skill as much as ground clearance.

3. The theory about losing “rhythm” is hogwash, but there is sense in leaving the engine running if your stop is going to last less than five minutes.

The biggest problem is the sudden loss of oil pressure, so if you are going to drive off again, you would not want an oil-less engine to work with (start lubricating from scratch).

Heat dumping is another issue: while oil is used to lubricate, it is also used to cool certain parts of the engine.

With the oil pump not delivering oil to those parts, they cannot cool fast enough and so they “dump” the heat in whatever little oil happens to be around there.

If the dumped heat exceeds the heat capacity of the oil there, the oil is coked, or broken down, so you have no oil, but sludge. This heat dumping is the number one killer of turbochargers, especially in diesel engines.

4. I will have to disappoint you on this one. The last tractor I was involved with was a Ford Hughes 6610, and it was older than I am. I have not had much experience since.

Hi Baraza,

I am an ardent reader of your articles. Please give me some advice on what I can do about my Toyota Wish.

I refuelled at a Shell petrol station in Machakos and a pump attendant messed up by pumping diesel into it instead of V-Power, as I had advised him.

They later emptied the tank by disconnecting the fuel pipes and off I went. The car is new and I request you to advise me on what I can to do to clear the mess.

Second, what is your take on this car? I have never heard you comment positively about it. You once equated this expensive car with a bicycle and my fiancée now tells me that I drive a cheap car.


Disconnect the fuel lines, empty your petrol tank, and rinse it out with petrol.

As for the fuel lines and the filters/injectors/pumps, you may need someone who is knowledgeable in the exact workings of a Wish.

A common method of cleaning out wrongly fed vehicles used to be to disconnect the fuel filter from the injectors, then prime the pump until only petrol is coming out through the filter. Then reconnect the throttle body to the filter and crank your engine.


Thanks for the good work you are doing. I want to engage you on a new-found love in the Mazda RX8.

From the little knowledge I have gathered, the RX8 is a 1300cc and does not have pistons. Here are my queries;

Is there a garage you know that services other types of engines that are not piston-driven?

What is the biggest weakness of these types of engines?

Would you buy this car?

How is the fuel consumption?

Which other vehicle would be ideal as a sports car?


The “non-piston” engine in the RX-8 is actually called a Wankel.

To differentiate them, let us use their proper names: Piston engines are called reciprocating engines because the pistons move in an up-and-down (reciprocating) motion.

The Wankel engine is called a rotary engine because, one, rather than conventional pistons, it uses rotors (usually two or three) and these rotors move in a circular/rotating motion, hence the name.

I cannot declare any one garage competent enough to service these engines because they are rare and delicate.

If one garage proves its mettle, I will be glad to get their name out there.

There is very little torque, they require regular servicing, the oil consumption is high and they are thirsty. The rotor tips also get fried very often, requiring frequent overhauls.

See 2 above.

No, and for the reasons, see 1 and 2 above. There are also very few around, so spares and replacement engines may be hard to come by.

This is compounded by the fact that the Mazda unit is the only automotive engine of its kind in recent times and it is no longer in production.

When getting one, the best thing to do is a compression test to see if the rotor tips need replacement (replacement means overhaul, by the way).

There are many sports cars. Keep looking.

Hello Baraza,

Kindly advise me on the effect of keeping your foot on the brake pedal in an automatic transmission car as opposed to engaging the neutral gear for those short start-stop moves, especially in traffic jams.

Also, where can one read and keep abreast of traffic rules and their relevant actions or fines since policemen frequently take advantage of our profound ignorance even for trivial issues such as a cracked windscreen or failing to carry your a driver’s licence.


The only effect of keeping your foot on the brake pedal is a tired calf muscle from applying pressure on the pedal all the time. That is it. It does not hurt the car at all.

On traffic rules, I think a regular subscription to the Kenya Gazette would be a good source of updates on rules and regulations, because the ones we see on TV are not always very well explained.

However, I can tell you from experience: you will never win an argument against a traffic policeman. If he decides to take things a step further, knowing full well that he has no case, he has nothing to lose.

You, on the other hand, will be inconvenienced thoroughly if your car is impounded or you are given a court summons.

Hello Baraza,

I have a Toyota Duet fitted with a manual gearbox and for a while it has given me problems to the extent that I have grounded it.

The problem started two months ago while I was on my way to Thika. The car started intermittently jerking then running smoothly before it stalled.

My mechanic came, checked the engine, and said that I should buy a new head gasket to check the leaking oil, but even after we installed it, the engine would not run well.

After a lot of guesswork, during which he removed the timing belt but could not re-instal it, he finally told me that probably the car needs new piston rings and a lot of blah blah blah.

Kindly advise me on whether there is someone out there who can return the duet’s timing belt to its proper position, and what is required to put the car back on the road.


My deepest sympathies for your woes Tony, and for being at the mercy of a clown of a mechanic.

The jerking, I suspect, comes from an erratic electrical current in the high tension leads. The leaking oil may or may not be a contributing factor.

My advice is for you to visit a reputable garage. Since I cannot market particular enterprises, all I will say is find a big one, preferably one referenced by a friend.

Dear Baraza,

What are the advantages of the VVT-i engines in Toyota cars in terms of safety, speed, fuel consumption, and manoeuvrability on both tarmac and tracks in rural Kenya? These cars also come in automatic transmission trims.

J B Angote.

The transmission type is largely irrelevant when considering the pros and cons of VVT-i, but anyway here goes:

Safety: The use of variable valve timing has no direct effect on vehicle safety, but the engine management could utilise this variable timing to dial back the power in conjunction with the traction control system.

Speed: If by speed you mean outright performance, then yes, VVT-i does help. In the low rev range, say 4,000 rpm and below, the valve timing and lift is programmed for economy and smoothness.

At higher revs, towards the red line, the engine management assumes a racer-type personality and adjusts the valve action accordingly.

In some engines, this is achieved by the use of two different camshafts, or a camshaft with two profiles, one for economy and one for performance. Honda’s equivalent of VVT-i is called VTEC, and in some cars (such as the Type R vehicles), one can actually feel the change-over taking place as you drive along.

Fuel consumption: Same as speed above, but this now happens at low revs. At low engine speeds, the valve timing and lift is set for optimum economy (and thus poor performance).

Manoeuvrability: This has more to do with suspension and chassis setup than engine management.

Hello JM,

Many thanks for enlightening us through your insightful articles. I enjoy reading them every Wednesday and have picked loads of tips.

I was very eager to read your responses regarding issues that one of the writers had about his/her AE 111 (1,600CC). I have a similar experience with my Caldina 1,800CC, 1993, manual transmission model.

1. At a speed of 40KPH, the vehicle shakes/vibrates so much, it feels like a person limping while running. Several theories have been fronted by mechanics who unfortunately have failed to diagnose the problem.

Some say it has to do with the Yana tyres I bought recently — two of which I bought early last year and the other two in 2010, and all of which are in fairly good shape.

Others have recommended wheel balancing and alignment, which I have done several times without any success.

I am at my wits end and considering replacing all the shocks soon to see if that is where the problem lies. I have replaced tie rod ends, stabilisers… name it.

There is also a light on the dashboard that usually comes on when one of the brake lights is not functioning. Despite replacing the bulbs, this light is on. What would you advise on this?

Lastly, I intend to buy a new car soon and am considering buying a Toyota Alphard. Are there manual types? Any pros and cons you may wish to share?


That Yana tyres issue has arisen several times in the recent past from different readers, but I am avoiding it for now. Without solid evidence, I cannot comment on it yet.

I expect that the manufacturers, after reading this, will be in a position to reaffirm the superiority of their brand, which, as one reader says here, has been top-notch for decades.

I am, however, compiling a list of repeat offenders and planning on putting their products to the test to verify whether or not they are indeed below standard.

As for the vibration, if wheel balancing and alignment does not solve the problem, tell the mechanics to look at the wheel bearings.

They might have gone out of round or suffered some other physical affliction and need replacement. One of the cars I drive has exactly that problem.

On the brakes issue, what light is that? The dashboard has a variety of lights and graphics.

Finally, I know not of any manual transmission Alphards. The car is smooth, comfortable, fancy, handy for large families and if only Toyota’s G-BOOK telematics software worked here, it would be really awesome.

Its cons are; Toyota’s G-BOOK telematics does not work in Kenya (Japan only), the car is expensive and a 3,000cc V6 petrol engine powering a large van means one thing: thirst.


Your educative motor articles on Wednesday are a must-read for me. I drive a Toyota Probox, 2005 Model (NCP 51V).

I have been using it for a year and was its first user in Kenya. Problem is, the starter needs to be cranked twice for it to start running, but in the morning it starts well, albeit with a “choking” feel.

Once the car starts, it picks properly and has enough power. I have taken it to five mechanics and all have given me varying verdicts.

The first one argued that we needed to change from Denso to NGK plugs, but this did not help the situation at all.

The second one had his finger on the alarm system, but the installer said it was okay. I did a diagnosis that returned a low/high voltage verdict, but the battery technicians at Chloride Exide said all was well with the battery.

The third mechanic argued that the fuel pump was delaying delivery of fuel to the engine, but after cleaning it I noticed no change. The fourth said the throttle was clogged… same story.

The fifth one, thank God, was clueless.



Let us go back to the second mechanic because it seems he came closest to locating the problem.

The diagnosis said wrong voltage, right? Too high or too low. The battery and charging systems might be fine, but what about the high tension leads? The ignition system?

Check the distributor and the alternator, as well as the cables themselves. Also check the ignition coil and make sure the starter motor is getting enough electricity.

Check for loose or frayed connections which could lead to sporadic shorting.