Carfaxfauxpas: 2003 Volkswagen W8 Passat 4MotionWagon

Like us, You probably spend most of your working day looking for cars on the internet busting your hump for an unappreciative boss, so it’s only natural that you’ll
occasionally find a car worth pursuing.  You’ve read a million ebay, craigslist, Traderonline and Turbobricks ads which has given you a certain confidence. You now believe that you know how to spot a
scam.  Besides, even if your own training lets you down, you know that you have the
ultimate firewall between internet scammers and your wallet; the
paid experts at CARFAX! If you’re a frequent DT reader, you can already smell the unhappy ending to this. This is not about the car, it’s
about what we discovered about the car, so don’t deprive us of the opportunity
to tell our story…read on past the break, please.

ONCE UPON A TIME, You’ve just spotted this 2003 VW W8 Passat 4Motion
wagon listed on, for $6,995 at a used car dealership in El
Cajon, CA (a suburb of San Diego)….but the saga has only just started on this one…

This car appeals to you because the W8 distinguishes it from the myriad
car-parts/family/junk haulers that you’ve stumbled across lately.  This
just might work!  It’s the right size and it has just enough power to
make you forget that you’re driving your wife, your two kids in their
adjacent car seats
and your mother-in-law who struggles to remove herself from the
roof rack, while heading for WalMart or WallyWorld. It
s a one owner, clear-titled car
located in Southern California, so its probably rust free and close to
the beach. You live hundreds of miles away, but can see yourself flying
into San
Diego and driving this wagon back home over the weekend. Now, that’s
some high quality alone time.  


If you’re like us, Carfax has bailed you out more than once by disclosing that several of the cars you thought were “too good to be true” turned out to have multiple accidents, odometer replacements and/or a salvage title that no one will lend money on, or insure.  Carfax has built its reputation by preventing a lot of interweb hunters from becoming disappointed buyers.  They do this by providing access to those highly coveted DMV and insurance documents that you can’t access from your home, unless you’re a subcontractor to the NSA (nope, this is not going to end well).

What’s next?

Step 1 – Check out the ad.  Just a hair under 100,000 miles. The all wheel drive will get you through the snow, generally gives more traction and the W8 beats the basic 4-banger. There are several pictures which create the impression that this car is in pretty decent shape. The only thing out of place is that peculiar looking orange bumper sticker on the left end of the rear bumper. The dealer is not just proud of the car’s clear title, he’s also advertising a warranty! The add even contains one of those handy links for access to the free Carfax report (you can smell the heartbreak waiting just down the page, can’t you).

Step 2 – Check out the free Carfax link. 

Yee-haw!  No Accidents, 1-owner just like the ad says. Looking at the maintenance records it appears that this car spent its first 2 years and 20,000 miles in Missouri and then sometime between 2004 and 2007 the car was relocated to California where it shows that it had its biennial inspections in Seaside, CA  (just up the street from Monterey CA) between 2007 and 2011, then appearing in 2013 at a San Diego VW Dealership where they seem to have done the usual maintenance.  The car was offered for sale, then a few days later it passed smog. 

Step 3 – Look more closely at that Carfax 

It shows a pretty recent inspection at the Volkswagen Kearny Mesa dealership for just about everything except smog.  California requires biennial smog inspections.  Its previous smog inspection was 4/27/11 which was 1 year and 11 months before the maintenance work.  Why didn’t they smog it then?  Who knows.  Take a closer look at its mileage.. between its 2009 and 2011 smog inspections it traveled approximately 23,000 miles, but it only traveled 6,000 miles between its 2011 and 2013 inspections.  Why the sudden drop off in miles?  Who knows, but its starting to gnaw at you, so you dig deeper. 

Thanks for sitting through the boring bits as it’s about to become more interesting.

Step 4 – Look more closely at the Carfax.

On April 9, 2013 it was offered for sale with 99,000 miles (most likely rounded) but where was it offered for sale?  The car is currently at Car 1234 in El Cajon (a suburb of San Diego) but the Carfax shows it was “offered for sale” twice in a matter of weeks.  What gives?  Here’s where I’ll take some creative license and weave a story that may or may not have any basis in reality, but it fits the circumstances.  

Let’s assume (without any foundation whatsoever, this part is pure conjecture) that this car was taken into Volkswagen Kearny Mesa where the maintenance work was done and a cracker jack salesman got a hold of the owner and convinces the owner to trade it in on a new car (any salesman worth his salt hangs around the service department looking for 5+ year old cars in decent shape as they’re generally paid-off and still hold enough value to provide a decent down payment… but we digress.  Let Tom Clancy rest in peace).  They trade.  The car needs to be prepped for sale and ends up on their lot on 4/9/2013 (we do not know whose lot it ended up on, this is all baseless conjecture fueled by too much coffee).

Step 5 – Look more closely at the Carfax. 

Either it was offered for sale at two dealerships in a matter of weeks, or the same car was entered for sale at the same dealership, twice in as many weeks. Not very likely.

Step 6 – Ditch Carfax and start digging deeper.  Grab that VIN and hit Google!  

Yowsa! Top of the Google heap “Salvage Volkswagen Passat 2003 For Sale”.  That link redirects us to which shows a black 2003 Passat Wagon with a 4.0 litre 8 cylinder engine and 99,186 miles on the odometer is listed for sale. What’s this??    The primary damage is listed as “front.”

What’s this??    Its shown as a “Salvage.” 

What’s this??    Opening bids of (wait for it)……………$975!  

This couldn’t be our shiny black, one-owner, clean Carfax car, could it? Afterall, Carfax shows it
as a clean title, whereas this salvaged car is damaged on the front end with
lots of pine needles under the hood and scuffed up front and rear
bumpers and a generally ratty looking appearance.   

That car pictured above doesn’t look near as nice as the car you were just looking at on, but wait just a
second, there’s something familiar looking about this car. Look at the picture below which shows the same orange bumper sticker with the word “Liquid” peering back
at you…….just like in the dealer’s ad 
(but it’s gonna get worse)!

Step 6A- Review the information about what/where this auction is? 

According to the information at this link, the car was in San Martin, California.  Google maps indicates that San Martin and Seaside, CA are 45 miles apart.  The odometer is stated to read 99,186.

Step 7 – Go back to your Google search.  

The first page shows a couple of links to the current ad, but flip to the next page… 

There’s a link for Autobidmaster offering a VW W8 Passat Wagon through Copart.


The auction was scheduled for February 14, 2013 in San Jose, CA which is just another 20 miles up the road from San Martin.  The details in the listing are exactly the same, with the exact same 99,186 miles on it, but this time it shows the car as having been donated and was certified to run and drive.  It’s definitely the same car and it uses the same pictures as you can see from the picture below with the orange “Liquid” bumper sticker on the back.

If you take the time to look at all the pictures on both sites, you will notice that the pictures are the same.  Notice the cars that are around the car, also notice the number on the sticker at the top corner of the driver’s side of the windshield.

So, the car was listed variously as a donated car or a salvaged car, with visible damage for auction(s) in/around San Jose with an odometer reading of 99,186. The damage doesn’t look that bad, so perhaps it was just donated.

But how about those odometer checks?   

Another of the many features a Carfax report offers is a check of the odometer readings for a given car, looking for irregularities that they can alert you to.  However, the Carfax can only report what is input into the system. So, how’d they do on this car?  

The Carfax report shows that on 3/30/2013 the car was in San Diego (with no mileage reported) and then shown 10 days later (on 4/9/2013) when the dealer apparently rounded the miles to 99,000 miles when entering it into their inventory.  A week later it gets reported with 99,404 miles when it shows up for its emissions check.

Why is that mileage reading such a big deal?  Because San Jose to San Diego is 450 miles which means the car should would have a minimum of 99,536 on it if it had been driven directly from the auction lot on 2/14/2013 to the San Diego dealership on 3/30/2013. But somehow they did all that driving and only put 218 miles on the car.

Mileage aside, the damage to the front end doesn’t look that bad, so are we led to believe that the car was driven to the auction, where it was donated, or do we believe the other auction description which says that it has a salvage title?  Either way, neither of those scenarios paints a very pretty picture of this clear titled, no accident, no mileage variation, one owner car.  What is clear is that was trailered, but was definitely not a trailer-queen.

The San Diego Dealers- Why does the Carfax show this car as entered into Dealer Inventory on April 9th and again on April 23rd?  Did two dealers own the car in two weeks or was it just entered twice by the same dealer?  Who knows.

Wrap Up-  Based upon all the conflicting data points, this is the ugly scenario I’ve painted in my head, which in fairness to all the parties involved may not have any foundation in reality. At minimum, this is a Carfaxfauxpas as they show this as a clean, no accident, one owner car.  The current selling dealer feels so strongly about that they are offering it with a warranty.  There’s a dirty secret in here somewhere and there’s only one person who can answer it: The selling dealer.  He has the title and knows whether its either branded as a salvage (as suggested by the google search) or its not (as suggested by the carfax and the selling dealer).  

Most states have pretty good laws regarding sales of salvage titled vehicles by dealers and California is no exception.  In fact as reported by Keith Griffin at, as of July 1, 2012, California new and used car dealers are required to place a red sticker on any vehicle that has a salvage, junk or flood title.  Keep in mind, that law only applies to dealers and does not apply to individuals, which makes this even trickier as we tend to rely on Carfax even more when we’re trading with an individual seller.

This particular selling dealer is probably very well versed in selling salvage cars as there are a couple that are shown on their website.  Many of their cars proudly link their Carfax, while others…describe a malady that’s been attended to and they offer “free Carfax available.”

While I tend to shy away from this sort of vehicle, others might consider it to be the very best way to grab  a really good deal (e.g. hoping to find a rebuilt 911 that looks and runs perfectly for a dramatically reduced $12k).  The one thing we know for sure in this case: the car is priced at full retail which suggests that its a clear title.  The best feature of this Carfax report is the fact that it has been sitting at this dealer’s lot since mid April! Average wholesale on this car (subjectively) in the $4,500 range.  Regardless of whether it has a salvage title or not, it’s severely overpriced.  Afterall, it has just spent six months “ripening” on their lot.  

Bottom line- No one is casting any blame on Carfax or questioning the motives or honesty of either of the dealers or the auctions here.  The real status of the title can be quickly determined by picking up the phone and calling the selling dealer and asking them what the status of the title is. If they say its clean, one might consider informing them that a Google search of the VIN indicated that this car has showed up on two different auction websites with one listing it as donated and the other listing it as having front end damage and a salvage title.  Their pictures and the pictures from the auctions are definitely the same car given the same orange bumper sticker on the back bumper.  The car doesn’t look like it was too badly damaged, but they’ve now owned it for more than 6 months. If anyone is game, they could probably name their price and own it in a matter of minutes….but, if I were you, I wouldn’t  buy it with your $$.

We ran a similar story back in December 2012, dealing with some shenanigans going on with a Volvo wagon up in the City of Brotherly Love which can be found at the link above.

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