If there's one thing International Sport Motors of San Francisco has encountered over the years, it's problems with Volkswagen's automatic transmissions. The reason Volkswagen's ‘lifetime' automatic transmission fluid system sounds too good to be true is because it is. Although the modern synthetic fluid protects better and lasts longer than competing oils, it will not last forever. In fact, legally, the term ‘lifetime fluid' refers only to the duration of the VW Powertrain Warranty. So when the warranty expires, you're out of luck.
Volkswagen, along with many other auto-manufacturers, knows that most owners don't keep their vehicles past 100,000 miles. The so-called ‘lifetime' fluid is simply a marketing twist used to help sell cars that require ‘minimal maintenance.' But after the 100,000 mile mark (when vehicles need real attention) most Volkswagen repair guarantees are null and void. That's why VW schedules a 105,000 mile timing belt change on 1.8T engines, and why most ‘lifetime' guarantees are bogus.
If you intend to keep your car for a while, the cost of never-replaced ATF will terrify you. Left untouched for an entire ‘lifetime' this fluid can cause serious damage to your filter and oil pans. Deposits of metallic shavings will build up on your filter and oil pan, and ultimately damage the transmission. The resultant repairs will be costly. So do yourself a favor. If you plan to keep your car around to see 150,000 or 200,000 miles, change your ATF yourself on a regular basis.
Although this task can be complicated, it's well worth the effort. Visit your local VW-Audi auto parts retailer (GermanAutoParts and ECStuning, among others) and purchase a VW-specific oil and filter kit. For both the 01M automatic transmission and the MK4, get the filter kit and ATF Pentosin G-052-162-A2. Do the same with manual transmission oil, and your car will keep running well into old age.
By the way, don't bother asking Volkswagen Service writers about these ‘lifetime' loopholes. They'll insist that products like the ATF are ‘sealed with lifetime' but that is only by corporate mandate. If you really want to keep your Volkswagen running smoothly, follow the advice above. Or, if you want to get the longest life and best performance out of your Volkswagen, do it yourself, or contact a Volkswagen repair shop that is willing to perform these kinds of preventative maintenance services for you. It's far more cost effective than replacing your entire transmission.