One peron’s experience with Volkswagen FSI Engine carbon buildup issues

I own a 2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI with the 2.0L FSI engine. It’s a lovely car, and a big part of that is the engine: it’s small, so it’s not too hard to get 30+ mpg on the freeway, but it’s also turbocharged so it has plenty of juice when the car needs to go. I’d been driving the car (mostly) trouble free and the odometer had just rolled up on 50,000 miles when the check engine light came on. Now, normally this isn’t such a big thing on a modern car and especially a VW. They do all sorts of checks, and maybe I got some crappy gas, or I didn’t tighten my gas cap enough. Point being, there could have been a hundred little things that could make the check engine light come on, but after a few days the light would always turn off. This time, the light stayed on for days, and then the days turned into a week. So I brought the car into my dealership (here) to have them check it out.

A quick note: there seems to be this view that all dealerships (or the stealership as a lot of people like the call them) are bad – but that just isn’t true. Just like any mechanic, there are good dealers and bad dealers. I’ve been dealing with Auburn since I bought the car and they seemed like they were on the up and up. Sure there might some places that were a bit cheaper, but I liked knowing these guys had my back since they were using all OEM stuff and doing all the work. They would also do everything from the service manual the way I would have done it myself.

Diagnosis Round 1

Anyway, they diagnosed it as sparkplugs going bad, and replaced them. This is a 60,000 mile replacement item, and the car had been running rough, so I didn’t think anything about it. Total cost: $300 and 4 hours of my time.

So let’s tally the thing’s we’re seeing here:

  1. Persistent Check engine light. Stays on through multiple restarts and gas fillups.
  2. Engine starts roughly

Got the car out of the dealer and it seemed to run a bit smoother. Let’s fast forward 4 days…

Diagnosis Round 2

Driving to work several days later, my heart drops as I see the check engine light come one. WTF. Ok, time to chill, maybe the engine is just getting used to the new spark plugs – nope. 5 days later and the light is still on, causing my brow to furrow in consternation each time I take a look at it. I call Auburn VW and setup another appointment to have them take a look at my car.

This time my service advisor is Joel – he checks me and and fills out the paperwork for my loaner and I’m on my way. Later that day, he gives me a call to tell me what they found and he says a lot but two words standout among all the explanations: Carbon Buildup.

Carbon Buildup? What is that anyway?

I tell Joel to start the needed work and I immediately hop onto my computer when I get home from work. I don’t need to look to hard. My first query: VW fsi engine carbon buildup. Here is what I get:

image

Oh man…this doesn’t look good. I try Bing too:

image

There are a whole bunch of threads but some of the best ones are at Fourtitude and Audizine.com. Fourtitude also is the same as VWVortex. They have some really great pictures of what the engine looks like with the carbon buildup. At this point I’m pretty depressed, because it looks like a systemic issue that all direct injection engines have. Owners from all different models are reporting this problem

The low side estimate that is being quoted in those threads is around $700, so when Joel calls me back, I’ll cross check that price and see how much higher a normal price is. From the threads, I also accrue a few more things to add to the list of symptoms that indicate carbon buildup:

  1. Persistent Check engine light. Stays on through multiple restarts and gas fillups.
  2. Engine starts roughly
  3. Excessive carbon deposits on the tailpipe. I always wondered why my tailpipes were so dirty. It’s like a thin black soot that is very difficult to clean.
  4. Engine cylinder buildup. This is sort of linked to number 2 as it causes the roughness.
  5. Loss of power. I didn’t really notice this one, but apparently if the buildup is not fixed it eventually leads to this.
  6. Replacing spark plugs too soon. Spark plugs are often mistaken for carbon buildup.

The clean up takes 3-4 days, I can’t remember anymore, and when Joel calls me back he tells me that the entire engine has been scoured by hand of the carbon deposits. Additionally, some of the cylinders had massive buildup (check point 4) and the total cost is around $800 (check $700 low side estimate from the online threads). We start talking about the issue and he is very sympathetic because he knows from my long service record at the dealership (check using your dealer) that I regularly service the vehicle. He gives me one ray of hope: he tells me to call Volkswagen Customer care and let them know about my situation. My total cost at this point is still just the $300 from before, but right now I’m on the hook for up to:

  • $800: engine cleaning
  • $10/day that I’ve had the loaner. Thus far it’s been about 7 days.

Calling Volkswagen Customer Care

I call the number and they pick up pretty promptly. I describe my problem and the person on the phone dutifully records my issues without giving me any shit or doubting my claims. He tells me that a regional case manager will be in contact with me soon. Well, I don’t have to wait too long before Daryl calls me and lets me know he will be contacting my dealership and investigating my issue. I’m crossing my fingers that something happens.

Joel gives me a call a day later and good news: VW thinks that I deserve some help, but they are still deciding how much. He tells me he wants to hang onto the car until they decide, but that we’re almost at the end. Another day after that, both Daryl and Joel confirm that VW of America is going to cover around $250 of my problem! Joel also tells me that he’ll waive the loaner fee and a few other costs. My new damage is around $450 and although it’s not the whole thing, it’s a lot less. I’m also really happy Auburn VW and Joel hooked me up because they could have just let me fight it on my own.

VW of America follow up and conclusions

Daryl gives me a followup call to see if I’m happy with everything, and I tell him roughly the following:

  • I’m happy with the dealership and the customer care experience. It was really good.
  • What I’m not happy about is the fact that the car has this issue, and that there isn’t any good information about it.
  • I understand that there is wear and tear and a car, and it can be expensive – timing belts, water pumps, tires, brakes. All those things cost money and there is sort of a tradeoff between how you use the car and how those things wear. The problem with the carbon buildup is this:
    • You can’t monitor it. It’s inside the engine. You can guess, but until you pay them to crack open the car, you won’t know.
    • There isn’t anyway to maintain the issue other than not driving the car – which is ridiculous. I drive the car, I know I need to change the oil. I don’t see “carbon buildup” anywhere in the owners manual of things to watch out for.
    • It’s crazy expensive – sure I got help this time, but what happens in another 50,000 miles? So every 50,000 miles I’m going to have to shell out $800 just to drive the car?

Daryl tells me he’s going to let VW know about my concerns and that he understands everything I’m saying.

I really don’t know what is going to happen with the vehicle. This issue has made me very hesitant to hang onto the vehicle, and it has also made me wary of picking another car from VW/Audi group as they all exhibit the problem. I hope at some point VW comes out and announces some official recognition of the issue, but until then I’ll keep driving the VW since it’s ok for the near future.

UPDATE  (February 2012): I ended up keeping the car. It’s got like 80,000 miles on it now. The carbon build-up is a bitch, but the car is just too damn good – hope they add it to the regular maintenance checks to inspect for carbon buildup.

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31 thoughts on “One peron’s experience with Volkswagen FSI Engine carbon buildup issues

  1. Buy a Japanese car. Those snobs who think they are buying a more sophiscated Euro machine vs those of us who just want reliable mode of transportation will pay the price! LOL. Don’t know whey everyone, especially Americans are so infatuated with German cars. Hell, we beat them in both world wars. Their machines are overengineered and unreliable.

    • Ray, I agree that alot of people buy german cars for the image and percieved status rather than the merits of the car. For me though, at the time I bought the car, there just wasn’t any car american or japanese that had the blend of practicality, luxury, and sportiness that I was looking for. I did test drive the Acura TSX, but that car feels much less sporty the the GLI did. There seems to be renewed interest in the sport-luxury sedan entry level segment these days, but I wonder if i’ll be able to get a manual transmission car by the time I get a new car! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

      Huong

  2. That’s very unfortunate but I also looked at both an Audi A4 and VW GTI last year. Good thing a friend of mine told me about the carbon deposit problem. I ended up with a Hyundai Genesis coupe 2.0T which turned out to be a fun car for a price. I no longer trust European cars anymore. Seen so many design problems with Mercedes and Audi owned by co-workers. Fuel leaks, ECU failure, fuel pump. The sad part is that almost all relate to inferior material and bad engineering and they refuse to improve on their products. Rather the same design is churned out year after year with the “sue me” attitude. If you think VW customer service is good, try Honda or Hyundai. My suggestion is get rid of your VW while you can still get some good money for it. That’s exactly what my neighbor did. After about 40,000 miles you will get rough and hard start daily and really bad gas mileage. It’s either that or the valve cleaning costing thousand $. Good luck.

    • As I noted with Ray, I don’t think it’s an exclusive decision to get a German car or not. I do agree that German designers will tend to favor gimmicks or gadgets over reliability. By the same token, I think that they tend to focus on other attributes during design that make them cars to consider above and beyond any perceived prestige that many people feel. I’m glad that you find the tiburon a good fit for you, but I still don’t think there is a car in the Jetta GLI’s class that matches it. Unfortunate for me, but good for you. 🙂 Thanks for reading Jim.

      Huong

  3. Ray, just had the very same ordeal with my 06′ jet gli. Engine light came on, dealer changed plugs. Engine light came on again, dealer changed ignition coils. Engine light again, maybe ashore inthe cooling fan. Engine light still again, this time compression tests and stuff. All leading up to a carbon deposit diagnosis. It cost over $500 to this point. The fan thankfully fell under the pre- owned warranty. They’re about to break the cylinder heads down. My problem is how many guesses VW makes, and how many things get changed at my expense before they finally solve this bs. Not to mention losing the car for weeks. Supposedly they’re in touch with the district reps for VW. Who knows?

  4. i understand your experience but i’d like to add some thoughts. this is a common issue in ALL engines (not just FSI). ive taken apart hundreds of engines of all makes, models and miles. there are very few that have clean intake valves. here is why. when your engine is in the exhaust stroke there is a bit of an overlap in the cam that causes the intake valve to open very slightly just before the end of the exhaust stroke. this is done on purpose. a small amount of exhaust in your intake charge is beneficial to the burn. it causes the burn to be hotter and thus burns up more fuel/oxygen and makes more power. however, a small amount of that exhaust (containing carbon and soot) will travel back through the intake side and build up on the valves. the reason it happens more to some and not others is driving habits. short cold runs tend to cause more build up then long hot runs such as highway driving.

    one argument against FSI armchair mechanics have is that there is no fuel getting on the valves to “clean” them off. these people have no idea how fuel injection works. when they fuel travels past intake valves in a traditional fuel injected engine it is almost completely atomized. its tiny droplets of fuel that are literally floating in the air. they are so tiny that it would not be possible for them to collect any spare carbon laying around and drag it into the combustion chamber. the fuel pump is pressurizing the fuel to 40-50psi and spraying it out a tiny nozzle about the size of the tip of a pen. if you sprayed a fuel injector in to the hair the fuel would evaporate immediately. there is no fuel what so ever that is running over the valves so this argument is silly.

    the real problem is your computer. even the dirtiest vales ive seen would still allow MOST of the oxygen to be drawn or pushed in to the cylinder. so was gives? FSI is an EXTREMELY fine tuned injection system. instead of 40-50 PSI now we are talking 100+ in millisecond bursts at exactly the right moment for exactly the right engine speed and exactly the right engine load. if its even slightly wrong it could cause a lean burn that would damage the engine.

    ask yourself this question. is there a sensor that detects carbon build up in the engine? no. so how would the computer have any idea that its there? even if the intake is half blocked the computer will adjust the timing accordingly and will not throw a code. it just thinks there is a lack of oxygen as if you were driving through a mountain pass and goes on its marry way retarding the timing and you’ll never notice (except maybe the lack of power). there is some other sensor that is causing your problem. probably a bad 02. ive NEVER seen a code that doesnt give a SPECIFIC reason for the code. even the most hard to diagnose codes (random misfire) are ALWAYS associated with a coil pack, plug or plug wires. you need to ask the dealer what the code is (or rent a reader and find out for yourself) and ask if they diagnosed that problem first. if the code has anything to do with a 02 sensor, you can clear it and the code will come back in hours or days.

    im not saying you shouldnt get dirty valves or blocked intakes cleaned. all im arguing is that it is in no way FSI’s fault for your issues. try running your car at operating temperature and higher rpms a couple times a week if you normally make short trips where the engine doesnt get to temp. also reduce idle times. dont let it “warm up” for 10 minutes before you leave. a minute of warmup time is fine. better quality gas helps too and stay AWAY from fuel injection “treatments”. these are a waste of money and do nothing.

    • Steve,

      Thanks for the lengthy and informative reply! I appreciate you bringing your mechanics experience to bear on the issue. I agree that it’s not as simple as people make it out to be, and I also agree it’s impractical to try and detect it “magically” with computer chip. I also concur that older engines get buildup, but they don’t have as sophisticated ECU’s and probably never inform their owners of any power loss so tons of people probably never figure out that they have buildup at all.

      That being said, a few responses:
      1) During the time when the car accrued it’s carbon buildup, I was driving 20 miles one way to work. I don’t do a long warmup.
      2) I don’t do those injection treatments – my car experience isn’t as extensive as yours by a long shot, but I do enjoy cars very much and used to work on a few CRX’s quite a bit so I try to treat my car nice in a realistic way and not “it’s a pony!” way.
      3) You’re probably right, it’s not a specific FSI issue – it’s probably just how VW is making their engines now.
      4) My biggest issue was and continues to be the transparency of the issue. I don’t think it’s normal that a car being driven fairly normally gets enough buildup to generate enough carbon deposit in 50l miles to make the engine shudder from the piston sliding along the deposits against the cyclinder wall. I wish VW would be upfront to owners to have it checked during their 60k, and then subsequent 60k checks. It’s a little pricey, but those checks tend to be fairly expensive anyway, so it’s not too much more. If they would just let me know what to look for, then I wouldn’t have an issue.

      Thanks for reading!
      Huong

  5. I own a similar vehicle to yours (2008 Jetta Wolfsburg with the same 2.0T FSI engine). I have carbon build up as well, but not to the point of triggering the CEL. I recently performed the BG Induction Service to treat some of the carbon. I’ve linked to this page from my YouTube video. Thanks for sharing.

    • That’s awesome man. I’m coming up to 86,000 miles and I haven’t had another CEL. I’m wondering if the initial break-in generates most of the carbon buildup. we’ll see if I get another CEL when I hit 100,000 miles.

      • Talyor,

        Yeah, I’ve been using synthetic since I got the car. I got a chance to watch your videos and they are great. I hope that people can try your method of getting rid of the buildup – it’s alot cheaper than the full price. I got VW to cover part of my costs, but it was still expensive. I’m keeping my eye out as my car creeps up in the miles…If I get another CEL I may get to try your method. 🙂

        thanks for reading,
        Huong

  6. Huong,

    I have an update from my carbon cleaning experience. I spent this past 4th of July manually cleaning the valves. The process takes forever and chemicals don’t seem to be the answer. Hope you’re well!

  7. I’ve just joined the club…took my 2010 Tiguan with the 2.0L turbo in to Chaplin’s for 60K service (car at 59,200 actual). When they gave it back to me, it instantly had rough idle, which it did not have before, and the CEL came on in about one minute. Gave it back to them, and got a phone call later telling me about this carbon problem. Wow, more $$$ and being out of the warranty period by a long time and mileage, I’m sure its all on me. I’ve worked on engines going back to 1930s-era vehicles, so I get carbon build-up, but it is very discouraging that sophisticated and highly-engineered modern cars develop such extreme cases as what we are seeing, some at very low mileages.

  8. Wife’s car just joined this club. Same quote, $700, with the statement ‘must be dirty gas’ – since we only buy gas at affiliated stations (Sunoco, etc.), this does not make sense. And wife generally insisted on using the top grade available for each fill up. It’s crazy since the engine has on the order of 60k miles – that’s not a lot. We’ve had other cars get close to 200k with this never coming up. Did not help that this happened at the same time as some software fault locked the electronic parking brake – which has no manual override. So we had to have it winched out of the garage, towed to the dealer, and it has sat for almost a week.

  9. Have an 07 EOS with 60k on the FSI engine. No problems.The carbon build up comes from oil burning on the valves as the fuel is direct injected. I have also noticed that there are many complaints of high oil consumption with these engines. There are only a few oils recommended for these units as the turbos run hot and will waste oil into the intake system if the incorrect oil is used. Just because the oil is synthetic, does not mean it will meet the VW requirements. I have found that just about all service stations and supply stores have every oil grade but the correct oil for this engine. Running anything but the VW specified oil is almost fatal, and I am sure there are many who have been told the oil is just fine when it isn’t.

    Philip

    • I’ve only ever had my dealer change the oil and I still had carbon build up. My car is coming up on 120k miles and it hasn’t come back – perhaps it’s a combination of factors, but I think you can do everything rocky and still get buildup

  10. I have 2007 GTI Fahrenheit #666 now at 86K miles. My check engine light came on and VW replaced the starter coils for about $500 and said that if the check engine light comes on again, I may need a costly carbon buildup job. Most of my mileage is in 300+ mile highway trips. My car does not sound great starting in the cold these days, but it drives fine and gas mileage is unchanged. I use Shell 93 Octane gas. Should I wait for that check engine light or should I bite the bullet and take care of this now?

  11. I owned a 2007 VW GTI for 7 years, I bought it brand new and recently traded it in after 7 years of ownership and almost 50,000 miles (I didn’t drive a lot). My GTI had this supposed Carbon build up prone engine, the 2.0 FSI engine, the identical engine to your GLI. I always used premium, minimum 91 Octane TOP TIER gasoline. I never once filled the car with anything except top tier gas. In 7 full years of ownership it never had a loss of power levels (and believe me I’d know) and it never had a drop in MPGs (I measure my mileage by hand when I fill up with gas so I’d know). That engine was running as good or better the day I traded it in as the day I bought it in 2007. I changed the oil every 3-5,000 miles, I never changed it at 10,000 miles as suggested by VW. The engine was perfect, I just needed a bigger car or I’d have kept it. The people who blame the engine for problems need to be honest and look in the mirror and admit that they use cheap gasoline and probably don’t change the oil when they should. These FSI engines are great, if you take care of them they’ll last and last. This carbon build up BS is that people put cheap gas in the car and skimp on oil changes and then blame the car when there’s carbon build up. Maintain your car correctly and these things won’t happen! All gasoline brands are not the same and you’ll pay the price for cheap gas in time.

  12. These TFSI / FSI engines must always use premium 98 gasoline, and oil 5w30 norma vw 504 that replaces the old norma vw 503.01. So here in Portugal have this problem of carbon build, is who uses oil 5W40 and gasoline low cost 95!

  13. Wow, thank you for all of this information. I just bought a 2010 Jetta – Wolfsburg edition, haven’t even made the first payment yet and it’s been in the shop for over a week because the engine light came on the 3rd day I owned it. Thankfully the dealership paid for a rental car for me when they changed the spark plugs and one of the coils, but the light came on again, so they took it to a VW dealer and found out a fuel injector was bad, they replaced it under warranty. 4 days later the engine light came on again, so I just took it back and he said it was most likely carbon buildup and they would need to scrape it out. I am seriously disappointed. The car only has 78k miles on it and one owner prior to me. As much fun as the car is to drive, if I could return it, I would at this point. I feel like I should have stuck with Honda. I am glad to hear at least that this may truly be the problem and once they fix this it should run fine. Maybe I can at least drive it for a year or so and get my money back out of it.

  14. Oh my goodness, I have a 2010 VWCC and last week they had to give me a new transmission. I tried to tell them for 9 months almost that there was a problem, but everytime I was told of they couldn’t recreate it they couldn’t detect what it was. They changed teh spark plug (one). FInally I drove it in after work, not before… Hallellujah, while the tech drove it, it bucked and knocked. They kept the car for furhter diagnostics and called me to say it was my transmission… It was 3k miles beyond the warranty… Well, they fixed it under warranty… but that is not the end… when I got the car back I called them back because the car shaked and the engine light would flickers at start up. I brought it in and they said its carbon buildup that will cost $600-700… I am kicking and screaming because again… I had to fight to get a new transmission a major issue for a 4 year old VWCC… They asked what fuel I use, only Sunoco high octain 91. they said I need to DRIVE my car. I drive my car everyday on the highway to and from work… I had a Chrysler Cirrus for 11 years and I never had a Carbon Buildup or TRANSMISSION. Well, I guess I will see what happens – they are supposed to acall me tomorrow. I really was banking on not having a car note after next April for at least 4 years+… Looks like I may have to break down and let it go before it completely breaks me. I am truly disappointed and aggravated and dissatisfied with the whole experience. I really like my car, but I am not a bit leery about keeping it. I am afraid something else is going to go wrong that will be as costly or more, not covered under extended warranty, like this carbon buildup… What is a consumer to do?

    • I think a class action suit would definitely be something a firm would take on here. I just had this issue with my 2010 VW Jetta 2.0. EPC and CEL came on – diagnosed as a bad coil. Came on 6 weeks later – another bad coild and spark plugs this time. CEL came on the next day and they say it’s carbon build up. Total price is $965 taxes in. There is no maintenance called out to prevent this in any of the VW literature that came with the car. I’ve owned cars for a long time now and this is the first car I’ve had this issue with. I love the car but this is making me consider dumping it. It has 98k KM’s on it.

      • I don’t know about a lawsuit. I spent nearly $1000 on a carb job last summer for 2007 GTI Fahrenheit #666. The next costly service will be a new timing belt. I’m at 97K miles now. I really like my car. I just hope it never gives out on I-95. I’m thinking of carrying the title in the glove compartment in case it does. Apart from the carb job, the only costly problem has been the need to replace tires after hitting potholes, and I can hardly blame VW for that.

  15. 2007 gti with carbon buidup. exhaust valve failed- check engine light came on. i had the car towed immediately. now being told this damaged the cylinder head and that this will all cost me a total of $4500…not including towing etc. Vehicle has only 75,000 miles. what to do? is it worth fixing?

    • I have a 2008 Passat with the same 2.0T engine. I have about 130,000 on my engine. I am the original owner and have only used high test gasoline (mostly form Costco). At about 75,000 miles I had the same problem with the engine light. My service adviser suggested that I use VW gas line cleaner on my next fill up, fill up again and then use the gas line cleaner on my next tank. The engine light went out. Seems that the configuration of the spark plugs does not allow for a complete burn of the carbon. I have had this problem ongoing and most time just use other than VW fuel cleaner to solve the problem. Still getting 25 city and and as high as 33 highway. Love the car and am looking forward to 250,000+ miles with the occasional PIA of the engine light. I guess even German engineers make mistakes.

      • Bill,

        At this point the science is in and our engines are just pretty much flawed. The 1st and 2nd generation direct injection will always have this carbon buildup since it doesn’t get evacuated from the valves like a traditional injected vehicle. I recently had my car totaled when someone rear ended me, but the car had 140k miles on it and you can expect the carbon buildup to happen every 50k – 60k like clock regardless of precautions you take. I too decided to keep the car even with that taken into account for maintenance since everything else was holding up so well, but it is really disappointing.

        Thanks for reading,
        Huong

  16. My husband bought a 2010 Volkswagen Eos Komfort May 2015 for my birthday. It has been in the shop four times since then…usually 5-7 days each time. This fourth time the Check Engine light came on and a few seconds later the EPC light came on. Two miles later I was sitting on the side of the road. I had the oil/filter changed a week or so prior. Now I am told the engine stopped because of carbon buildup, and the repair cost will be $895. I am livid!

  17. I have had this issue with my VW too and am frankly tired and fed up with the dealers trying to say it’s the gasoline i’m using when all I ever used was the best gasoline! Where do we sign up for a class action suit on this issue?

  18. Just got the same issue on my 2012 GLI. I was told it was not covered by my CPO warranty , but that’s not what the salesperson told me (ahh well). Seems this is a common issue going on and i am surprised that VW are not doing anything to take care of this issue. I got my GLI when it had 42K miles and it’s now on 55K miles and within a year i am being asked to pay $1K for something that’s a result of flawed engineering

    • Joseph,

      I agree 100% that the on going cost of the vehicle to clean the carbon deposits is ridiculous. I unfortunately am in a different vehicle after someone rear ended my beloved GLI and totaled it, but even with the ongoing cleaning cost, it was worth it to me to keep the car. I think you want to look at the total cost of ownership and what you get out of it and decide now if you want to keep the car. I can attest that the car is going to need the cleaning pretty much every 50k-60k miles like clockwork, even with using premium gas, warming up the engine , replacing the spark plugs regularly.

      Thanks for reading,
      Huong

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