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Timing Belt, VW Passat - $$$$?

So my son is about to drive his 2003 Passat Wagon (that we gave to him a few years ago) from Chicago to Connecticut. He took the car to the shop for a final lookover before leaving, and they said he needed a new timing belt, and it would cost about $1200. ?? Does that seem right? I’ve never paid $1200 for anything in the nature of maintenance, and it just seems like an absurdly large amount of money … Anybody know anything about this? Thanks in advance

I don’t know your car specifically, but timing belt jobs are often in the $1,000 range. (I live in a cheap area and my upcoming Acura MDX timing belt job will be $900, with five hours of labor involved.)

I’m concerned when you say that your son is relying on the shop to tell him what maintenance needs to be done. Why isn’t he using his owner’s manual as VW intended? With his approach, he’s likely to pay for unnecessary work or skip necessary work.

That’s about what it cost me back in January at an independent mechanic, about twice what I’m used to paying on my Camry. There’s a fair amount of front end disassembly required to get at the belt. Make sure this includes the whole kit, i.e. tensioner, water pump, etc.

Thanks for the info - as to why he’s relying on the shop, that’s a long-ish story, I’m afraid, but he’s never been a hands-on kind of guy with cars (and to be honest, didn’t really use the car much over the last few years since we gave it to him … but needs to now).

do it now or wait until it breaks, then pay for the tow to the shop, and, most likely, a new engine.

Having been a technician and manager in the business, yes, he does need a new timing belt. It’s very common practice in the industry (and one I don’t have trouble with… both to make money and keep cars moving) to take a vehicle that’s in for a pre-travel/trip inspection, or any other type of regular service, to shake down the major components to see what’s worn, AND to look up major maintenance intervals that are recommended by the manufacturer. I think VW recommends timing belt replacement at 120K but I’m too lazy to fire up alldata at the moment to see. What the shop did was look at your son’s wagon’s mileage, and looked at all of the “big item” type maintenance due within the last few thousand miles, and/or coming up in the next 10K or so. Other items that shops typically try to see if it’s due are major flushes (transmission, transfer case, differential, coolant) and major component replacement (plugs, wires, ignition system in general, etc).

Most manufacturers have a timing belt change interval anywhere from 90K to 120K, and with a good deal of engines today, they are known as “interference” engines, meaning the valves’ movement is timed to open/close during a very specific window of piston travel so as not to be struck by the piston OR the other set of valves (intake hitting exhaust, exhaust hitting intake… any of the above hitting the piston, piston hitting any of the above… you see what I’m getting at). This is EXTREMELY important, as if the timing belt goes, unlike the old straight sixes and V8’s of yesteryear, if your timing belt goes during operation IT WILL GRENADE THE ENGINE! Once the valve damage occurs you WILL be stuck on the side of the road, and you MIGHT get away lucky by ONLY having to do a head/valve job on the engine. Others will end up with metal flying throughout the lower end of the engine, warranting a replacement or PROPER overhaul. Basically, that timing belt “in the real world” won’t go until it hits 150, 160, maybe 170K miles… heck you might get REAL lucky and make it to 200K or more without it going. What that 120K manufacturer recommendation is simply them saying “we are confident in our belt on our engine up to this point… after that if it snaps, it’s on you ya dope.”

If it’s a VR6 engine, you’re also going to want to change the water pump, pulley, and tensioner while you’re in there because it’s driven by the timing belt, so don’t get mad at a shop for refusing to do the job unless you agree to those additional items which will add to your parts expense, and probably an extra .5 to 1.0 hours of labor on the book for the total job. It’s just simply not worth it, as a garage, to have to deal with a customer who insists on JUST a timing belt, and then comes back reading the riot act because the water pump is leaking 15K later.

True story. My beloved Mazda B3000 pickup that I loaned on an extended basis to my parents was driven trouble-free by my dad for nearly three years. It has/had a 3.0L Ford “Vulcan” engine under the hood… great little truck, got 24mpg on the highway at 65, and by golly, at 146K my dad called me from the side of the road and says “hey there number one… what the heck’s going on with your truck? The engine quit, and now it only cranks over REALLY fast and won’t start.” What happened was he maintained the vehicle well, and it wasn’t on my radar after 3 years that the thing was due for a timing belt. When it snapped, it busted up the valves, and the lack of compression meant the starter was having a REAL easy time turning that crankshaft over.

VW’s can be a little tricky because zee Germans have fasteners that aren’t terribly common here across the pond, but in the end they’re just like all the other cars out there, with all the same major components and method of operation. If you don’t want to pay retail type prices, you could always find a shade-tree to do it, but I’d find one that specializes in German imports. Guys like my friend who work out of their home garages and used to restore classic Mercedes for a living could do this job in his sleep, and needless to say his hourly rate is a little less than the 90-110 bucks an hour a lot of retail shops with large overhead are charging.