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Arguing with Dad over buying a used VW Cabrio

Hi Click and Clack! You helped me 2 years ago when I called in to your show, about my Honda Civic and my new job at that time, with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. Now I have a completely different question: I need to buy a used car for about $3000. It’s my parents’ money because I came to live with them, due to a back injury. (The injury is healing nicely, thanks). So now I need a car. And I found a shiny red VW Cabrio convertible, that a mechanic is fixing up. He said he’s been going over it with a fine-toothed comb, because it was supposed to be for his daughter (who decided she didn’t want to drive a stick). So I found it today (it wasn’t even for sale yet; I just pulled in to the shop when I saw it parked outside) and found out it will be for sale, soon as he’s done going over it. He said he’s doing everything, whatever hasn’t been taken care of…timing belts, cv joints/axles, brakes, tires, the top, any warning lights, any oil leaks, etc… And I really like the idea of buying a car from a mechanic that’s actually been driving the car as his daily driver for several weeks now. So I told him I wanted to buy it (for $3500) as soon as it’s done, later this week. BUT my Dad has completely vetoed the idea of any VW’s, because he references the Consumer Report guides exclusively in his car-buying decisions…and says that CR totally does not recommend “any VWs”. I haven’t found anything else I genuinely LIKE for $3000, (although there are some very boring Toyota Corollas out there), and wonder if you could help me convince dear ole’ Dad to let me buy this adorable little convertible. Yes, I’m a girl, and no, I don’t have anybody else to cart around in the back (no kids, pets, etc). And it’s summer! Can you help? Thanks, ~Tina

When it comes to cars Consumer Reports is not as meaningful as I would like.

This is a typical result of the “accurate” but misleading results published by Consumer Reports.

The numbers published are accurate. The interpretation people put on them are generally not.

Let’s look at the situation. CR gathers their information from CR readers. They ask their readers to fill out forms to give them feedback about reliability. Good idea. They may find that 6% of VW owners reported problems and only 3% of the average had problems. What could be worn about that? It says that VW’s are twice as likely to have problems.

Well there are a few problems. Owners who have problems are more likely to fill out the reports than those who don’t. So problems are over reported. Both VW and other cars have problems over reported. So what does that mean. It means that maybe VW’s have a 3% problem rate and overall there is a 1.5% rate. Now you are looking at a VW rate that you though was OK for all cars when looking at the raw numbers.

In addition CR breaks up the problem rate by area, which is good.  It does not adjust for the cost of the problem, so a bad brake light ($1.00 DIY repair) and a $600.00 transmission repair both count as one problem.  

I don't have the numbers to really look at those results (CR does not either) but I would have to guess (SWAG) that VW does have more problems than most other makes, but that those problems are somewhat less severe than some other makes and the apparent results published are a little high for VW.   Still the reports are a good indication of more problems and more overall repair expense and bother for VW's than other cars in general. 

I would suggest that the difference from one car to the next and from one driver to the next ( one who does the maintenance needed and drives conservatively ) is far greater than between brands. 

Now after all that, you are not likely to convince your parents, and after all they are buying and you should be extremely happy that they are willing to do so and don’t try to argue, even if you are right.

Joseph, I Totally Agree With Your Consumer Reports Assessment.

I have subscribed for decades. I have stated before that I use this publication for buying coffee makers, vacuums, TVs, diswasher detergent, washing machines, etcetera. They test these products in their labs.

The car owner’s surveys “weight” all complaints in a given category the same, as you say. Some of the best cars I have ever owned, in fact some of the best cars on the planet, have been on their “not recommended” list. Also, I think they are biased when it comes to cars, but that’s my opinion. Furthermore, since I can’t buy Japanese cars where I live, their over-exposure of these products is useless to me. I only buy American badged, anyway.

I will say that their “review” of new cars and their features could come in handy for somebody looking to purchase, much more so than the owner surveys.


You’re in a difficult position, since you’re not spending your own money. Are you borrowing the money or is this a gift? You didn’t tell us the year of this shiny red convertible, or the mileage, but I suppose we can guess by the price it’s perhaps a mid-to-late-90’s car. Am I close?

I suppose my next question is “Who’s going to pay to keep this car running?” It will need maintenance, insurance, fuel, etc. Who’s paying for that?

I know you’re seeing a flashy convertible, but I’m sort of on dad’s side here. I don’t always agree with CR, but they have lots of research to back up their findings. VW’s reputation for reliability has been less than stellar for years, and their repair costs can be rather high when something goes wrong. Then there’s the oil consumption issue, but we wont’ go there.

Here’s my personal theory: If I were giving my adult daughter money to purchase a car (which I have done in the past) I would not put any restrictions on what she bought. I would strongly advise her to purchase something reliable and economical, and not to let emotion cloud her judgment, and I would show her the statistics to back up my advice.

But if she chose to buy a VW Cabrio so be it. I know a good VW mechanic, and I would recommend she take the car to him. She would be expected to pay for maintenance, repairs, insurance, etc. I think she would take better care of a car she likes than a car she felt “stuck with.”

Good luck.

“Owners who have problems are more likely to fill out the reports than those who don’t.”

Isn’t that true of all the different brands?

I went through the same thing 46 years ago. I was starting my second year of graduate work and was driving a well worn out Buick. When I came home after the summer session, my Dad had purchased a new Studebaker Lark from a dealer that he really liked. I took his car in for servicing and on the showroom floor was a new stripped down Studebaker Lark with a price tag of $1495. When I got home, I said something about having seen a brand new car that was really inexpensive. My mother said that I should borrow a little money from them and buy the car. My Dad and I went to look at the car and he thought that I should have something better than that and began looking at more expensive cars for me. I know that he meant well, even though most of the cars he had purchased in the past were stripped down cars that had interiors that made a school bus seem luxurious. At any rate, I kept the old Buick I had for a couple more years. When I had job that paid more than a graduate assistant stipend, I bought the car I wanted–a stripped down 1965 Rambler Classic 550. There will always be cars. You may want to wait until you can by the car you want with your own resources just as I did.

I read Consumer Reports, but only as a starting point. The population that responds to the frequency of repair questionaire is the subscribers to Consumer Reports. This population may be different than the population of all automobile owners. Furthermore, I don’t think the return on the questionaire is 60% or higher. It could be that those who don’t respond would have much different responses than those who do. In my opinion, the condition of an older car, such a the VW you are considering, is much more important than the repair rating in Consumer Reports. I currently drive a 2006 Chevrolet Uplander that doesn’t have a good repair rating by Consumer Reports. However, I have had no problems with this minivan in 50,000 miles. It is a bottom of the line strippo model.

For $3,000 I get a used Miata over a VW any day. 1) more reliable, 2) more fun to drive, 3) RWD as apposed to VW’s FWD and 4) cheaper to fix. Drive both and buy what fits you the best.

A couple of concerns regarding your post – “a mechanic is fixing up”, “he’s done going over it”, “doing everything, whatever hasn’t been taken car of”. All of those comments do not reflect a well maintained car to me. Was it in an accident? Did the previous owner never maintain it? Sounds like it could be trouble to me.

Hope this helps,

PS: CR is OK when it comes to collecting frequency of repair data (cars, washing machines, toasters, etc.), but they are not a car magazine. I prefer Car & Driver, R&T, Automobile, Autoweek and Motor Trend.

Just out of curiousity, is this a trusted mechanic that the family has been going to for years or mechanic you’ve never gone to before?

Unless you know and trust the seller, don’t believe everything you hear and get the car checked by a trustworthy party.

Ed B.

One last thought: Is the VW Cabrio comfortable for you to drive, particularly in light of your back injury? I say this because my daughter-in-law had back surgery for her back problem. She has a nice Ford Mustang that she can no longer drive. My son, who could care less about what he drives, has been driving Mustang while his wife is only comfortable driving their minivan. Before you buy the car, take it on a trip of at least 50 miles to see if this car is right for you.

Click and Clack don’t come here. They only do the newspaper column and the radio show. In their honor, I will attempt to answer your question as they would.

If it’s your parent’s money, they get to call the shots, you ungrateful leech! Now go apologize for questioning their sage wisdom and thank them for their generosity!

Convertible owners also need to own a garage to keep it in.

Sorry Tina,dad has it right cause he’s holding the cash and it’s his investment in you. He buys what he wants with his money, you can buy what you want with your own. Think of it as a “borrowed” car. You’ll be happy to have wheels during your unfortunate times.

[i] “Owners who have problems are more likely to fill out the reports than those who don’t.”

Isn’t that true of all the different brands? [/i]

Yes it is true of all brands. My point is that all brands will show inflated problem rates.

I should also add that the buyers of some brands are going to be more likely than others to report or not report so the reported rates will be less accurate.  

My educational and professional background included a lot of statical work.  I would love to get into the problem and try and work out unbiased reports, but frankly I enjoy being retired and unless CR would pay me more than I expect they would, I don't thing that is going to happen.