To change the bulb, just remove the bumper. Wait, what? - UPDATED.

Photo: Ehecatzin

I was warned. I had been a loyal Honda owner for my entire driving life. But, after realizing that my Honda Civic Coupe was just too awkward for my growing family, I started looking around. I saw the VW Passat, I loved it; but a friend told me “hey, just so you know, she’s nice but she’s ‘high maintenance.’" Boy, was he right.

The ’06 Passat I purchased was low mileage and well taken care of. Black, pristine, a work of art from German engineers. Aside from a few small problems that were fixed within weeks of purchasing it, everything was going great. Then the passenger-side headlight went out (prompting a handy warning light on the dash to start annoying me). (For an update on the Daytime Running Light issue, scroll down.)

I popped over to Checkers and asked the helpful man behind the counter to look up what type of bulb the Passat takes. He pointed me in the right direction, I got to the checkout and then the guy asked me why I was buying it. Strange question, right?

“My headlight’s gone, passenger side, so I’m swapping it out,” I said with a smile.

The guy looked at me quizzically; I must have just oozed naivety from every pore.

“You know these things are really tricky right, and you’ll need a special tool to get it done.”

This was all news to me. When the headlight bulbs went on my old Honda Accord, I swapped them out in five minutes. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

So, I didn’t buy the bulb, I called my VW dealership. As it turns out, bulbs are covered under the warranty so I just sat around for an hour (yes, an hour) while they swapped the bulb out. Fast-forward one month and the driver’s side bulb decided to go out on me. I guess these VW bulbs only last a couple of years. That would have been good to know. Anyway, I made an appointment and this morning, I dropped it off. That’s when the service manager asked me a strange question (these strange questions keep popping up with this vehicle).

“What time will you be picking the car up?” he said.

"Oh, I’ll just wait” I replied, and went to sit down at the customer service lounge.
That’s when the service manager dropped the bombshell.

“You’re going to wait 2-3 hours?” he said, shocked.

As it turns out, the driver’s side headlight in the VW Passat is nowhere near as easy to get to as the passenger-side bulb. No, this one requires them to remove the front bumper and a few other parts to get to it. Seriously. So, I took the complimentary shuttle service to work and decided to write this post, as a warning.

Do your homework. It’s not just about comparing cars, and up-front prices. Check out the Cost To Own, which can add thousands to the cost of the car. has a very handy calculator that you can use that helps establish the True Cost To Own, or TCO.

Also, if you know someone with the make and model of the car you’re thinking of buying, ask about maintenance, parts that fail and general ownership experience. I had failed to do this thoroughly on the VW Passat (brushing off that brief warning from my friend and thinking no more about it); if I'd looked into it more carefully, it may well have changed my purchasing decision. When my car is out of warranty, a new bulb is going to cost $55 (or more for the newer, brighter bulbs) plus labor (2-3 hours for the driver’s side, with labor typically being $70/hour). That’s over $200 for something that would have cost just $15 on my old Honda.

If you’re skilled enough to do that kind of job yourself, then maybe this doesn’t apply to you. But for the rest of us, it’s a kick in the wallet. And it all leaves me pondering some simple questions – “Why did the VW engineers make the bulbs so inaccessible? Could it be anything to do with giving more work to the service centers? Or is this just what to expect from German engineering?” All questions I may never know the answers to.

UPDATE: The Daytime Running Light (DRL) issue.

So, as I have mentioned in the comments box, I am no fan of DRL. In fact, there's even an organization out there against it, here . They were introduced for satey reasons but to be honest, the closer you get to the equator, the less likely you are to need them. If you're in Alaska, they may be a good idea. Here in Colorado, I have no need for them most of the time.

I did a little digging around after my VW dealer told me they could be disabled, but they wouldn't do it. Well, this being the information age, I went to the web and found the following video . Please note, you do this at your own risk. I'm sure VW frowns on this and it may invalidate the warranty. If you want to try it, it may be better to wrap the pin in electrical tape rather than bending it. That seems like a more reversible method.

If it works, you're looking at extending the life of your bulbs considerably.


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Guest's picture

I had heard about VW's being high maintenance before and this confirms it. I had been thinking about getting a Jetta soon (a clean-diesel version is supposed to be re-introduced and they get great mileage and could eventually run on biodiesel), so I decided to do some googling regarding headlight replacement. I found this link which confirms the quirkiness of the driver's side headlamp and blames it on the battery placement. I'm curious as to whether newer models have the same problem--definitely something I will specifically look for and ask about if I ever go VW shopping!

Guest's picture

To be completely honest, I don't think this to be all that newsworthy.

For the last 15 years, cars have progressively gotten more and more complicated and convoluted to maintain. You need an OBDII tool just to figure out WHERE to start looking for a problem.

The Passat is certainly not the only car that requires you to take a bumper off to replace the light...a good number of cars require you to do that now. Every manufacturer is trying to cram as much stuff into their vehicles as possible, and throw the largest engine they can into the chassis...which doesn't leave much room for anything else.

Some might rue the day that these changes started happening, but it is not for naught. Closed loop systems like all OBDII vehicles are vastly more reliable, efficient, and tunable than their non-electronic counterparts.

Guest's picture

I own a '99 new body Jetta and while the headlights have been a bit of a hassle to replace it is possible for me to replace them. The driver's side is a real bear to replace but I can just get my hand in between the battery and the wall to get the old bulb out and the new bulb in. Maybe having smaller hands works, being a girl and all. I also change my own oil. The car has been rather low maintenance over the 7 years I have owned the car (since '01). It does burn a little oil but nothing a quick check at gas up doesn't fix. New muffler, new timing belt, new water pump, new windshield (seems they crack easily), new oil pan (notoriously close to ground), new brakes and rotors, and new strut mounts. I'm planning on running it into the ground so I can continue to sock away money.

Guest's picture

Yup, VW's are a complete PITA.

In fact there was a story on Fifth Gear a couple of weeks ago comparing this exact issue. Replacing a headlamp bulb, on a Renault though.

Paul Michael's picture Top Gear? Sounds almost the same, I love that show. And great clip Lee, thanks. As an aside, but very related, I discovered that my bulbs wore out more quickly because of the Daytime Running Light feature. The headlights are always on, as opposed to the much more infrequent use they get when you use them for night driving only. Does anyone know how to turn these things off? Car experts, is it just a fuse? And what use are DRLs anyway?

Guest's picture

It differs from car to car.

I know that it is law in Canada for all cars to have DRL's.

You could probably pull a fuse, but knowing german cars you'd get an irritating warning light on the dash. You could probably then pull the fuse for warning lights, but then you'd get an annoying chime i would imagine..

Guest's picture

I drove a 1992 Accord for years, and you can't change the passenger side bulb without disconnecting and removing the battery. When it came to the driver's side, I couldn't get access to the bulb either. I finally just had them change it at Jiffy Lube when I got my oil changed - I had a great time watching them try to remove the old bulb and put the new one in. Of course, in the 9+ years I owned the car, each bulb only had to be replaced once...

Guest's picture

I traded in my '01 Passat on a Honda Civic Coupe last year, because of all kinds of stupid little issues like this. So far, I've enjoyed a year of (relatively) problem-free driving, without these kinds of dumb quirks. German engineering indeed. Parts fell off of that car while I drove down the road :-(

Paul Michael's picture

So, I asked the dealer if they could disable the DRL. They said it can be done, but they're not allowed to do it. I didn't know there was any law against this, many cars on the road don't have DRL. All I know is, DRL is making my headlights expire 3 times as quickly for no legitimate reason.

Guest's picture

My acura was the same way.. I had a bad headlight and used to fix it myself from time to time. not too bad .

Guest's picture

But I was able to replace the driver's side headlight after I removed the battery. It seemed like a lame thing to have to do, especially as my Golf went through batteries at a somewhat alarming rate, but it was doable. Not as easy as replacing the bulbs in my old '93 Sentra, though.

Guest's picture

D'oh - I meant that the BULBs burnt out frequently, not the *battery*. Oops.

Guest's picture

We have an older Passat, changing the bulbs is really easy once you get the hang of the metal retaining clips and how they clamp the bulb in.

My dad has a Ford Taurus. He called me to come replace his tail light bulb. I wondered on the way over why my dad needed me to help him change a light bulb. The tail light assembly on that model of Ford require you to take the tail light assembly apart to swap the bulb.

VW is not the only car with bizarre engineering feats these days.

Guest's picture
Christopher Smith

While it certainly may be true that VW headlights are significantly more difficult to replace (I haven't had to yet in my '02 Jetta), there are other differences that compensate for that kind of irritation. For example, I can change any of the bulbs in the taillights in about a minute, including opening the package. On previous cars I've driven, this has been at least a minor hassle.

The VWs' disadvantages may, overall, outweigh their strengths, but I've found it not to be so lopsided as some dissatisfied customers will tell you. I'd say to find someone who's driven whatever car you're looking at getting and finding out what to look out for.

Guest's picture

If DRLs keep someone from pulling out in front of you just once then they are more than worth the hassle of a little decrease in headlight life. They are extremely helpful in the early morning or late evening and in tunnels, under bridges, and in fog or mist. You can't tell me you experience only bright sunny days in Colorado.

There's really no way to know that your DRLs haven't already saved your life. or someone else's. or at least the hassle of an accident.

Using the same logic, why not disable your brake lights? They're there for safety, but they'll definitely last longer if they never turn on...

Guest's picture

I live in Canada, and have really appreciated the difference in Daytime Running Lights. Many times they indicated to me that someone is actually in the car ahead of me on the street, rather than it just being a parked car. The difference is obvious, though subtle - I have NEVER been "blinded" by DRL! They are simply too dim compared to the ambient light.

Oh, and that brings up another point - they are most effective in alerting oncoming cars when it IS a bright sunny day! That is the time that other cars can be missed (due to sun glare, for example). In fact, James Dean was killed when his car was hit by another car that didn't see him (due to sun glare, and the fact that Dean's silver car blended in to the background and was therefore hard to see). Would DRL have saved his life? Who knows... but it's something to think about. Is one life worth the addition "hassles"?

Oh - and my last car (Toyota Camry) had DRL; we had it for 7 years, and drove about 40000km (25000 miles) a year, and never replaced the bulbs once. Maybe Toyota just has it right, but clearly they are not the only factor in bulb replacement.

So before you condemn the things, try them for a while with an open mind and a thought to safety. Sure, we'll never know for sure how many lives were saved or accidents avoided because of them, but I can tell you I certainly have noticed cars that I might not otherwise have if they didn't have DRL!

Guest's picture

that have parts replacement issues.

A lot of it is because cars and trucks are MUCH more reliable than they used to be and the factory is looking for ways to increase Dealers Revenue.

One friend has a VW Beetle and the only place to get wipers is the Dealer...and thier $85 a set....NOT INSTALLED...just passed over the counter to you.

I also used to have diesel trucks...injectors have to be changed out about every 75-100,000 miles..the term is called "running the rack". Used to be changing one fit the six injectors in a large engine took 10 minutes and 2 wrenches.

About 15 years ago ALL the engine manufacturers changed the design so that you have to remove the heads to take the injector out from the bottom.(inside) its a day or more in the shop and $1500 labor to replace a single $60-$100 injector instead of 10 minutes.

And another good one....too replace a single Turn Signal Lamp Lens in a Corvette (4 phillips head screws and $30 part) entails disassembling the entire front the the car to get at them...7 HOURS start to finish in the body shop...$500 labor.

~ Roland

Guest's picture
Amy K.

Scion xA: Remove rubber cover & squeeze retaining clips to replace light bulbs, but requires tiny hands, and I swear I'll never do it again, every time, and then I do. My bulbs burn out once a year, as I keep the head lights on at all times (did not come with DRLs). Haven't asked how much it would be at a shop since I can do it myself for $20 and a half hour of my time (and some scuffed knuckles).

Chrysler Pacifica: requires removing the headlight assembly. My brother does this himself, but I bet it would be pricey at a shop.

Amen to all comments above that things are getting more complicated, and more crowded.

Guest's picture

Daytime running lights reduced vehicle-vehicle collisions approx. 11% when introduced in Canada.

Nevermind the reduction in pedestrian fatalities.

Guest's picture
Tanya Brown

It sounds as though, in situations like this, it would be a good idea to replace every darned bulb accessible once the bumper/battery/whatever has been removed.

It's a reasonable bet that if one bulb has burned out, another of the same type which was installed at about the same time may soon follow. Anyhow, bulbs are cheap compared to time and labor.

Or I suppose one could use this as the modern counterpart of the old saw "Honey, the ashtrays are full! Time to buy a new car!"

Paul Michael's picture

...that's cool. I know why they're effective there, or Alaska, or any of the Northern states. But in my state, I just don't see the need. I'm not sure how you can't notice another car in broad daylight unless the car is painted the same color as the road.

Guest's picture

DRLs are designed for safety and should not be disabled. If they didn't work then they wouldn't be on almost every car/motorcycle. Some bulbs use a third filament for DRLs. Other run lower voltage through the bulb on the high-beam filament which has very minimal effect on the life of the bulb.

When replacing bulbs it is always best to replace both at the same time. Often when one bulb blows the power surge will cause damage to the other bulb and it will fail soon after. You will keep replacing alternate bulbs over and over. Bulbs are most often sold in pairs as well. I have seen this happen and I have seen this not be the case as well. I say its better to be safe then sorry. (please note that this is not gospel, your mileage may vary)

Guest's picture

I had a 2002 Passat (brand new--bought in 2001)for three years before we sold it. I LOVED, LOVED that car. It was beautiful and handled like a dream (love that German engineering). However, as we approached 60,000 miles (yes, we drove a LOT), I realized that it was going to be too costly to keep once it came out from under warranty if we ever needed to fix it. What were my two big indicators? Two items that, thanks to insurance, I didn't have to pay for--

A STANDARD windshield shattered thanks to a rock-induced chip and heavily fluctuating temperatures. The price of the windshield ALONE (no labor)--$1200. That's no tint, no rain sensors, just a windshield.

The other items...a bumper and the molding just above the bumper that were heavily damaged when I was rear-ended in the Wendy's drive-thru (yeah...I know, laugh if you want). $800+ with no labor. Sheesh.

Granted those were not warrnaty issues, but if a windshield cost $1200, what would an ENGINE part cost? Plus, the nearest dealership was 60 miles away and many local places didn't work on VW engines.

I loved that car, but I can feel your pain. It was hard to part with.

Paul Michael's picture

What was it made of, Kryptonite? A friend just had his BMW windshield replaced for half that price. And I thought that was steep!

Guest's picture

I've been driving Volkswagens (and, infrequently, replacing their bulbs myself) for about 15 years. Yeah, replacing the headlamp bulb on my '03 Jetta is a tight fit, but no more physiologically difficult than adding a video card to a computer.

Two points I haven't yet seen in the comments:

First, almost any part you'll need on a late-model car can be purchased elsewhere -- usually for substantially less than at the dealership. Often, it's exactly the same part. And when more than one manufacturer makes the bulb or wiper blade or whatever, parts can be even less expensive.

Second, buying any car involves weighing priorities. For me, safety and driving enjoyment hold more value than the cost of parts or pushing TCO down to the lowest possible level. I can tell the difference between how a Passat and an Accord drive. I know my Jetta came with standard safety equipment for which Toyota would charge me. Certainly people should honor their own priorities in buying a car. But I don't believe there is universal agreement on the idea that the "best" cars are the ones which are cheapest to operate.

Guest's picture

My mechanic in our small town says he won't work on foreign cars. He's honest about when he says he doesn't know how. So, I have never owned a foreign car. This article makes me think I never will. I live too far out in the sticks to have a high maintenance car.

Guest's picture
Jimmy DaGeek

I don't understand what the beef is about with DRLs. Ever since I read about the idea about 20 years ago, I've turned my lights on myself in the interest of safety. Of course, this caused me plenty of grief as I've forgotten to turn them off and come back to a dead battery. Thankfully, my current car reminds to me turn them off.

Guest's picture

I own a 2002 Mitsubuishi Lancer with going on 150k miles. After my waranty (60k) ran out I began doing the majority of the maintenance myself. I still pay to get the oil changed (it's a time thing, for 20 bucks extra the 45min I save by having the shop do it is worth it) but tune-ups and other minor repairs I do at home. I've found that it is rewarding and worth learning to do myself. However, I understand your frustration with getting to your headlights - recently I put in a new sterio system with a bluetooth system because of CA's new hands-free law. It took me not one, not two but three hours to get my dashboard off. I was shocked! After googling it finally, I found out that there are two seeming unconnected screws that you unscrew and the whole thing simply drops off. Frankly I think that they should put these sorts of things in the owner's manual!