Eurovans: Might Be Our Last Camper

Gear case (3)The last series of campers exported to the USA were the Eurovans. Like the Vanagon, the Eurovan has held up well and has a huge resale value. First available in 1993, the Eurovans filled the camper needs after a year of having no vans available, yet they did not sell very well. The customer feedback was bitter in general as to why many refused to buy. “It looks like a monorail.” “It’s too big.” “It’s too slow.” Vanagons had achieved all the panache and cliche status of the 60’s and 70’s Type 2 hippy vans, and the prospective van owner was buying a used Vanagon instead of a new Eurovan. The price of used Vanagons began to sail upward, averaging 4% to 10% increases every year.

The 1993 sales were so dismal that a 1994 was not imported, and thereafter only every other year was available until 1999. Once the original 108 hp 5 cylinder engine was replaced by a 138 hp VR6, the sales began to pick up. When the 24 valve 201 hp VR6 engine arrived in 2000, the sales skyrocketed. The last year manufactured was the 2003. After that, the used Eurovan sales prices began to rise as the Vanagon market had in 1993. Eurovan prices seemed to have peaked out and stabilized in 2010, but are on the rise again. Used Vanagon prices continue to rise.

Eurovan BB 128x128The first Eurovans were all the short wheel base of 115″. The 131″ wheelbase came out in 1995 with the Eurovan Camper, which was outfitted by Winnebago. These were only available on the longer wheelbase platform. Winnebago also offered three motorhomes based on the Eurovan called the Rialta, Vista, and Sunstar. A shorter wheel base van with a retractable table and a pair of rearward facing seats was made by Westfalia from 1999. The model was called the MV and/or the Weekender, and be aware that there is a poptop and a tin top version, both called the MV / Weekender. The 5 cylinder versions through 1996 were available with either an automatic transmission or a 5 speed manual. The first 12 valve VR6 could be had with a 5 speed, but were rare as most sold with automatics. All models from 2000 with the 24 valve VR6 engine only had the automatic transmissions. Forget about converting an automatic to a 5 speed, don’t even ask.

All Eurovans are the only vehicles with a transverse mounted engine installed with the cylinder head angled forward, which is for fitment issues, but degrades handling due to the large percentage of swung weight, which is the weight that extends beyond the axle line. Eurovans all came with a large bucket type belly pan. Those vehicles who lost their bellypans due to neglect were more prone to failure of the plastic heater core pipes, as the bellypan is essential for proper air flow. The plastic heater core pipes live in the back of the engine compartment above the exhaust manifold. When the bellypan goes missing in action, the air drops quickly down past the engine, and the upper rear part of the engine compartment runs hotter, making the plastic parts crystallize much faster over time.

Eurovan Automatic Transmissions

All model years have a poor score board for automatic transmission failure. The biggest factor is that as of 1996, the manufacturer does not recommend ever servicing the fluids, and in fact many dealerships often discourage or refuse to change the ATF and differential fluids. Around 30% of those units failed before 100,000 miles. Pretty much none ever make it to 150,000 miles unless the fluid got changed at least once. As a standard, Karmakanix recommends changing the automatic transmission fluid every 30,000 miles as an absolute minimum, and ideally every 20,000 miles. The gear oil in the differential section should be changed every 60,000 miles.

One should understand that less than half the ATF fluid gets changed during a service, and about a third get changed during a drain and fill. For those transmissions which had not gotten fluid changes early on, we often service the unit, and if we find the fluid really tar baby dirty or find more than just slight debris in the pan, then we recommend doing a drain and fill with every other engine oil change until the fluid cleans up.

There is a myth that servicing an old transmission will cause it to fail. It is true only by coincidence, and only in the rare cases that the fluid is completely burned and opaque, and the transmission is already shifting poorly. The real story is that all these transmissions are adaptive, and the shifting speed and force changes according to the driver’s habits and the transmission’s condition. When the old fluid is trashed and has lost most of its friction modifiers, it is therefore too thin and slick. The transmission has adapted to shifting faster and with more pressure to compensate. It will shift more harshly with new fluid, and could contribute to wear and damage until the transmission adapts. The real fix is to disconnect the Transmission Control Unit for a minimum of half an hour, which discharges the TCU’s internal capacitors and resets the adaptation tables in the TCU. One also needs to manually reset the adaptations for the engine throttle body using a computer with VAG COM or the factory scan tool. The TCU will then quickly “learn” how to operate the clutches with the new fluid.

Early 5 Cylinder Eurovans

The early Eurovans from 1993 to 1996 were sold with the inline 5 cylinder engine of Audi descent. The Eurovan version was sturdy as an engine, but suffered from a few stereotypical mishaps. All have early failure of the coolant flange on the driver’s end of the cylinder head. The Audi version had a steel pipe pushed inside the head, and retained by one 6mm stud and nut. The Eurovan version had a plastic coolant flange failure pressed against the head and retained by one 8mm bolt. Warpage and leaks are rather predictable, and many failed at around 5 years of age.

The first 5 cylinder offerings in 1993 had a water pump that rotated, as it was the tensioner adjustment for the timing belt. This had never been an excellent idea, as one leg of the belt ended up very long, and many times the belt tension would get set too high, requiring readjustment, which was no small job. A properly adjusted belt might need readjustment before the 90,000 miles of the belt life was up, risking coolant leakage from twisting the old pump on the engine block.

So few 5 cylinder Eurovans were sold, that no 1994’s were imported. In fact 1993’s were still left over over for 1995, but smog regulations now required a secondary air injection system, so a radical injection system update was required. The 5 cylinder for 1995 came with a different timing belt system where the water pump did not rotate, and had a separate roller for the tensioner. Since then, the timing belt replacement on a 1993 model meant updating the system, requiring a new cam gear and replacing the cam seal, which meant R&R the valve cover and replacing the gasket.

Exhaust manifold cracks were a tradition with the Audi 5 cylinders until the 2.3 model used a two piece version to eliminate the issue. The first Eurovan 5’s came with a one piece exhaust manifold, and the tradition of cracks has continued. The second generation of 5 cylinder engines got a 2 piece manifold, and the crack situation actually got more prevalent. The reason is that the cracks were forming above the downpipe flange where all the exhaust tracts come together. As of 2015, the manifolds became unavailable, and welding is the only real fix. Welding is tricky, as the manifold needs to get preheated. The upshot is that a cracked manifold needs to get repaired before it turns into a broken manifold that cannot be repaired. All used replacement manifolds will have some cracking and will require welding to be used.

An occasional 5 cylinder leaks oil like crazy from the oil pump gasket. Sometimes the leak was brought on by a mechanic leaving out a bolt, sometimes from gasket deterioration from insufficient oil changes or the sudden change to synthetic oil. The fix is long and hard, since the oil pan and oil pickup sump come off before the oil pump. The oil could be leaking really fast since, unlike a crankshaft or camshaft seal with just a fraction of a psi of crankcase pressure behind it, the oil pump gasket is holding back 15 to 80 psi of full on oil pressure. Even more rare is the 5 cylinder oil pump that sucks in air around the gasket, causing bubbles in the oil which will make the valve lifters collapse and rattle, especially after a long hill or other hard load. The bubbles are easily visible in the oil.

Late VR6 Engine Eurovans

Starting with the 1997 model year, the Eurovan got a 2.8 VR6 engine in a 12 valve design that put out 138 horsepower. In 2000, a different 2.8 VR6 engine with a 24 valve design shot the power up to 201 horsepower, and the sales shot up as well. Both engines have always had similar mechanical histories. The change from 12 valve to 24 valve accounts for only about 1/3 of the huge increase in horsepower. The biggest change was due to variable valve timing technology, meaning that the camshafts could change timing in relation to their cam gears. Advancing camshafts at low rpms and retarding them at high rpms radically increases power output. Precise cam control while cruising also increases fuel mileage.

A consistent topic with VR6 engines is the timing chain system. Eurovan VR6 engines seem to have more timing chain issues than the smaller cars partly due to the higher power requirements and the resultant increased load on the chain system. But mostly wear is commensurate with oil condition. Old acrid and contaminated oil degrades the plastic parts. They wear much faster and sometimes crumble. It is a fact that the metallurgy of the intermediate gears of the first 6 months of the 24 valve engines was poor and the gears have a tendency to wear badly.

Given frequent oil changes with high quality oil, plus a reasonably conservative driving habit, the timing chain system can easily last 250,000 miles or more. By that we mean a MAXIMUM of 5000 miles between oil changes, or 4000 miles with mostly city driving. And HIGH quality oil, not the slime from your average lube pit. VR6 engines definitely benefit from synthetic oil or at least a synthetic blend, but synthetic was not specified from the factory. Click here for Instructions on how to change to synthetic oil.

All VR6 engines have a series of plastic cooling system parts. The thermostat housing and pipe located on the engine generally need replacing at about 150,000 miles. Best to frequently review those parts and replace them as soon as any seepage is found. Ofttimes, we will recommend that those parts be replaced before a very long trip, just because of age and condition. Over time, the black plastic may slowly look more grey due to degradation. The coolant tee next to the bottle and the plastic fittings on the heater hoses should be tugged on gently with the engine cold to see if they shatter due to crystallization.

Many shops will replace just the thermostat housing leaving the old plastic pipe behind to break another day. This is because replacing the pipe requires taking off the belly pan and removing the oil filter and oil cooler housings, and a couple of tricky maneuvers, adding a couple of hours to the job. That plastic pipe is just as old and brittle as the thermostat housing that just failed, often catastrophically. Lo barrato sale caro.

The VR6 models occasionally get cracks in the welds of the exhaust manifolds, causing exhaust to come in through the climate control (heater). Repair by welding is difficult due to clearance issues with the fasteners. Rarely, a VR6 head will have a secondary air passageway plug come loose and cause an exhaust leak that is hard to find, and hard to fix, as it can barely be seen with a mirror.

All Eurovans

As these Eurovans all getting old enough to vote, some problems are becoming prevalent through the whole series. Some issues like long term CV joint wear just go with the picture on any car. But a few issues are Eurovan specific.

Engine mounts failure is a mostly VR6 problem. When assessing the automatic transmission, the torque converter stall test involves full throttle with the brakes pressed hard, and recording the maximum rpm. If the engine / transmission mounts are sorry, then if the throttle is released quickly, the engine drops back with a big bang. Whether or not all those expensive mounts really need to be replaced is all about the condition of the rubber mounts on the bottom of the transmission, and how close is the clearance from the exhaust downpipe to the steering rack. As these vans get older, more of them are getting noisy contact and some of them are sawing through a hydraulic line on the steering rack. Somehow it does not sound good to have all the power steering fluid hit the road within seconds.

Shift bushings on all manual transmission models have been breaking for a while. Since major failure will leave you stranded, the old bushings should be visually assessed for wear and age. Change the manual transmission oil while you are at it.

Air conditioner compressors have always been a sore point with Eurovans. Since most of the Eurovan clan are summer road warriors, this system needs to be serviced regularly. Running the system low on freon is one way to overheat the compressor and loose it. Age IS a factor. But not using the A/C system makes it go bad even faster. Use it or loose it!

Coolant fans need attention. The big strap fuses go bad over time due to warpage from heat cycling. The series ballast resistors overheat and get damaged over time, more so in some hot weather, low-speed driver cars. Crappy Asian replacement fans fail really early. Thank the stars that there are two fans, but if the second one goes bad, you are really in trouble and can loose an engine.

As more and more heater cores fail due to age and lack of coolant changes, it should be mentioned that coolant vapors are TOXIC!! If your core leaks, get it fixed, or at least get it bypassed so you and your children are not breathing toxic vapors that accumulate in your liver and will eventually cause irreparable damage. Note that leaking coolant will often cause the foam on the blend door to fall off, leaving huge holes in the blend door. Then the heater blows only barely warm and the air conditioner is not cold enough. And you get to do the whole day and a half job over again to fix this secondary problem. Get quality service. Special foam and high heat adhesive is required.

As all of these vehicles get older, consistent professional inspection and service is required to keep them in a reliable condition. Most of our customers drive their Eurovans long distances and mostly during the heat of the summer. For a complete list of recommended services, please see our Ultimate Maintenance Guide page.

Gear case (3)