A couple years back my oldest son was starting college, and would need transportation to an off the bus-line campus. For a teenage boy, I wanted a boring four door sedan with airbags (every thing since 1988 has airbags, so that was not a high bar), a stick shift, and a broken radio.
I came across a low mileage 1999 VW Passat. It had been well cared for, and it ran well. It had a handful of little things that needed attention like various lights and cover panels needed cleaned up and replaced, along with a broken mirror switch.
We got a fair deal on the car and it was way better appointed than I wanted. It came with heated leather seat, power everything, six disc CD changer, sunroof, and a hoot of a 150 HP 1.8 liter turbo-charged engine.
We've owned the car now for about 4 years. It is still fun to drive, but something seem to break on it a regular basis. The anti-lock break module failed, the CV boots cracked, the cam seal started leaking, the suspension arm joints wore out. And now the windows have stopped going up and down.
And today, for the second time, the button to open the fuel door stopped opening the fuel door. The system to open the door is a bit Rube Goldberg-esque. Electricity comes from the fuse panel, the wire splits, one side goes to the button in the center console to open the fuel door, the other to a button in the glove box that opens the trunk. From the button in the center console, the power runs back to a small electric motor mounted behind the fuel door. The electric motor drives a worm gear that retracts a latch holding the door closed.
I stopped to fill the gas tank today, hit the button to pop the door, and... nothing. Inside the trunk, I pulled the lining away from the wall, reached my hand to the motor, pulled the latch with the tip of my fingers, and filled the tank.
At home I pulled out the switch and found there is only 3.5 volts a the end of the power wire. I have no idea why. There is 12 volts at the fuse, and there is 12 volts at trunk release switch on the same circuit. But somewhere, and I cannot find where, the voltage falls off on the way to the fuel release door. The system components are wonderfully crafted, well mounted, tucked in behind tasteful panels, tactically satisfying to use, and fragile.
It would have been simpler to use a cable, like Honda, or even simpler to use a spring loaded door like Ford or BMW. But nope, VW used a highly designed, under engineered, complicated, and fragile system. The fuel door is not the only system. There is a cover under the car that manages the airflow, held on by half-turn spring clips exposed to rain and road grime that corrode and fall out. The security system central-control-unit is safely ensconced under the floor on the drivers' side of the car. The failure of a 5 amp fuse results in security system preventing the starter from engaging. Oh, and did I mention the the beautifully integrated rainwater management system clogs resulting in the rain ending up inside the car filling the compartment where the security system central-control-unit is now swimming. Little things that look nice, and are enjoyable to use when they are working, but keeping them working requires a advanced degrees in mechanics, electronics, and metallurgy.
So today I spent the afternoon futilely disassembling the car's interior attempting to trace wires back to their source. And in the end, I trained my son to reach over the lining of the trunk to open the fuel door.
But on a happy note, I found my sunglasses in the back seat!