There are some questionable practices by car dealers. I'm sure this is news to no one. In this case, however, I have to wonder. Who's at fault?

A few months back I discovered a local dealership that tends to carry a selection of relatively inexpensive daily-driver candidates for car-people. Unlike your average dealer lot, in which you'd be lucky if every tenth car had three pedals, this lot seemed to be composed of about half manuals. I initially took this to be a good sign.

I needed good signs: I was on a mission. My E36 325i had served faithfully as a daily driver for almost a decade, but it was getting tired. I needed a replacement. I'm not a fan of spending a lot on a daily just to rack up the miles, but the car still has to be reasonably fun.

Part of my goal was to change strategies. In the past leaned toward a sporting coupe or sedan for daily duties with a truck or van for utility purposes. I felt like it was time to move the slider. I figured a station wagon or 5-door hatch for daily duties and light utility, and then something much less reasonable for weekend jaunts and the occasional trip to work on nice days. Step one to this was finding a fun, cheap, manual hatch or wagon. This is where the aforementioned dealership comes into play.

I'd driven by it several times and noticed a "bargain" section off to one corner. There were always a few hatches and wagons that appeared to be in good condition with prices under $6,000. More often than not, these were of German or Swedish origin. They were the sorts of machines that seemed just the ticket for a daily driver. There was just one crucial detail kept me from stopping to take a peek. I was afraid that things in this section of the lot were packing slush-boxes.

One day, I spotted a bright red Golf 5-door, with a roof rack already fitted. It was wearing what looked to be very intact paint, and best of all was the large sign bearing "just 70,000 miles" and "$4500." I initially drove by.

Half a block later I found myself turning around and heading back to the lot. I walked up to the car to peer through the driver's side window to check for the most important detail. I prepared myself for disappointment. No need. A gear lever with a 5-speed pattern was waiting inside.

I immediately headed for the sales office. I already had visions of heading to the trails with my mountain bike secured on the roof. I wondered if the bike could be fastened securely enough for a bit of hooning on the way to and from the trails. I made my way to the desk and presented all the required documents. I was handed a key, and a little reminder card to try and keep the test drive under half an hour. Seems this dealership doesn't send a chaperon for the lower end offerings.

I'm not what you might call a "Volkswagen guy." I quickly discovered that while reverse appears to be in the same place as on BMWs, it's selected in a different way. The pedal placement left something to be desired as well, the gas was offset from the brake in a way that seemed to render heel-toeing unlikely. Not a big deal, just different from what I was used to.

The 2.0 was acceptable. It lacked the urgency that seems to build with the revs in more highly strung engines, but it made up for it with what felt to be a broad flat torque curve. As engines go, it wasn't particularly powerful but sufficient for the weight of the car. It was actually kind of nice as it encouraged higher entry speeds and conservation of momentum through turns. This aspect was what really let the chassis shine; I was certainly impressed by how planted the car felt through the twisty stuff. I was starting to see the appeal of the Golf to VW fan-boys.

The only bad spot was attempting to rev-match for downshifts. It was ponderous at best, and frustrating at worst. I had no idea if this was just a quirk of this engine or if something was wrong. At a stoplight on the way back to the dealer, I happened to have the window down. I noticed the telltale sound of a bad throwout bearing or some other drive-line malady. Perhaps this was the reason for the rev-matching difficulty. Nice. They let me test drive a car that clearly wasn't ready for sale.

I let them know of the issue as I handed the keys back over, and mostly forgot the whole thing for months. I was a bit wary of the dealership at this point, but I reasoned it could have been an honest mistake. Today I spotted a black A4 Avant at the same dealership. Three pedals, all-wheel-drive, 1.8t, and chock full of wagon-y goodness. Nice find. Decent price. Test drive time. Out the corner of my eye I notice another 5-door Golf of similar vintage/mileage/price to the last one I test drove. I decided to take that first to sate my curiosity in relation to the first one I'd driven.

Golf #2 was a better experience in terms of rev-matching, which confirmed what I'd suspected of the first one, something had been wrong with Golf #1. It felt just as planted, until I tried to carve a few corners. It felt VERY front-wheel drive, pushing much more than the previous Golf had, it was a different sort of letdown. What was the deal? When I got back to the lot, I took a look at the tires wondering if the fronts were low on air. They were a different brand than the rears, though both sets had similar tread depth. Worse still the fronts were unidirectional while the rears were omnidirectional. Clearly mismatched.

How Dealerships Shoot Themselves in the Foot

No big deal. I was really there for the A4 wagon. Swapping keys, I headed back out to the lot and gave the engine a moment to warm up so as to protect the turbo. Attempting to pull out was strange. The engine seemed ten times livelier than the VW's had. The revs spiked easily with a tap of the go-pedal. As I let the clutch up from the floor it didn't seem to engage. Further still nothing. Nearly off it entirely the engine stalled. Embarrassing. The engagement point seemed to be in the first inch of travel. Odd. Things only got worse from here. The brakes were vague and non-linear to the point where I could swear there was air in the lines. Lifting off the gas at any time rewarded me with a nice clunk from the middle or rear of the car. Drive-line lash or failing rear differential mount? I want to sample the handling so that the session isn't a total loss, but the iffy brakes and sketchy drive-line inspire zero confidence. Almost back at the lot, I realize that neither the oil nor water temp gauges are registering anything, but the heat from the vents indicates that the coolant at least is coming up to temp just fine. The final blow comes when remember Golf #2's mismatched tires. Upon inspection, the A4 has not two but three different brands wrapping its wheels. That can't be good for an AWD car.

It's worth mentioning that none of these cars were marked "as-is," and I would discover that the asking price was $2000 over the blue-book for an "excellent" example of the A4 wagon.

What. The. Hell.

I check with other locals. Surely, if this were par-for-the-course, the dealer would have a bad rap. Nothing. Not one unkind word. What? Whomever is attending the auctions seems to have their heart in the right place. The clerk at the front desk, in charge of the test drive forms, seems unaware of anything wrong. Could it be that the mechanic is cutting corners? That would not be good as the dealership is also one of the few "European specialty" garages in the area. I've ordered hard to find parts from them in the past; the turnaround time and customer service was great.

What does one do in this situation? Besides head for the hills. If the place is shady there's no helping it. But what if they got a new mechanic that had worked for a shady dealership before? What if the owner doesn't realize the type of person he hired? It could severely damage the business's reputation.