DSG gearbox problems: Which should you avoid?

Volkswagen DSG gearboxes are fitted to hundreds of thousands of cars. However, some versions have proved problematic - our guide explains all.

  • Different DSG gearboxes explained
  • Which DSG gearboxes should you avoid?
  • Common DSG problems to watch for

What does DSG stand for?

In the original German, DSG stands for Direktschaltgetriebe, roughly translating to Direct Shift Gearbox. It is also sometimes called a DCT or dual-clutch transmission, as all versions of the DSG uses two clutches to link the gearbox to the driven wheels.

How does a DSG work?

The internal workings of the DSG gearbox are very complex, but in simple terms it is essentially made up of two gearboxes and two clutches housed within a single unit that operate in tandem.

One gearbox contains the odd-numbered gears while the other houses the even-numbered gears, so when shifting up or down each 'gearbox' takes its turn.

The sophisticated software controlling the gearboxes allows the next gear to be pre-selected when shifting up, which allows it to shift in a matter of milliseconds, making it almost imperceptible to the driver and improving acceleration compared to a conventional automatic or manual gearbox.

What are the different DSG gearboxes?

The key difference in DSGs is whether they are fitted with dry or wet clutches.

The first generation DSG, called DQ250 and introduced in 2003, uses wet clutches and was designed to handle engines with up to 400 Nm of torque.

In 2008 the DQ200 was introduced, which used a dry clutch system and was designed to work with lower-output engines below 2.0-litres and with a maximum torque of 250 Nm.

Later versions included the DQ380, DQ381, DQ400e and DQ500, the larger number indicating that it is designed to work with higher-output engines.

DSG-equipped cars with longitudinally-mounted engines have gearbox codes beginning with DL, such as the Dl382 found in some variants of the Audi A4, A5, A6 and Q5.

Which DSG gearboxes should you avoid?

Regardless of which Volkswagen Group vehicle or DSG unit it is fitted with, a full service history is highly recommended, ideally by a franchised dealer or recognised independent specialist. While this does not guarantee a trouble-free experience, a poorly-serviced car is much more likely to encounter problems.

Pre-2012 DQ200 DSG gearboxes were filled with synthetic oil, which could become conductive and cause problems with the Mechatronic unit, so these are best avoided. Early DSG cars are also likely to be high mileage, which increases the likelihood of problems.

As a general rule, the DQ200 dry-clutch DSG tends to be the most problematic and is best avoided.

What are common DSG problems?

All kinds of vehicle transmission can experience problems, but there are some faults that can be prevalent in DSG transmissions.

Clutch issues

The twin clutch arrangement that is common to all kinds of DSG transmissions can result in excessive wear, which causes the gearbox to be hesitant or fail completely. Owner's experiences have shown that this is more common in the dry-clutch DQ200 gearbox, although it can still be a problem in other wet-clutch variants if the oil service schedule has not been followed. Clutch actuator failure can also cause harsh gearshifts or an inability to select certain gears.

If problems are diagnosed early, replacement parts and gearbox refurbishment can return the vehicle to full health, but replacing worn clutches can cost in excess of £1000.

Mechatronic issues

The Mechatronic unit which controls the gear selection can also fail, which will cause issues with changing gears, a loss of power, the vehicle stalling at low speeds or the vehicle entering limp mode.

Various components within the Mechatronic unit can fail or the entire unit can be damaged and require replacement. A repair can cost upwards of £800 depending on the component that has failed, while an exchange unit is around £2000.

Bearing wear

Worn bearings with the DSG transmission can result in unwanted noises such as grinding, whining or rumbling. These bearings can be replaced, but due to the amount of labour required this can cost around £1000.

Selector issues

A fault particular to the DQ200 DSG unit is selector issues, where the selector fork fails resulting in reverse gear and/or sixth gear being difficult or impossible to select. Volkswagen offered an uprated part that eliminated the problem, but replacement of this part can cost around £1000 depending on the vehicle specification.

Which DSG gearboxes are reliable?

Broadly speaking, wet-clutch variants of the DSG unit are the most reliable, which includes everything from the DQ250 up to and including the DL variants found in vehicles with transversely-mounted engines.

Another factor to include is the age of the vehicle and therefore the age of the DSG unit. Volkswagen changed the specification of the oil used in the transmission in 2012, so vehicles produced after this date are likely to have used the improved mineral oil since new and should be in a better state of health as a result.

Volkswagen also issued a recall in some markets for faults with the Mechatronic unit produced between 2008 and 2014, another reason for looking at as new a vehicle as your budget will allow.

Should you buy a used car with a DSG gearbox?

If you are considering buying a new car equipped with a DSG transmission you should have fewer concerns about reliability, as a number of improvements have been made to the technology since it was first introduced and you have the protection of a vehicle warranty should you experience any problems.

As for used vehicles, the same advice applies when considering any used car in that service history and condition is crucial. A post-2012 vehicle equipped with a wet clutch DSG transmission and a full service history should prove to be reliable if the maintenance is continued, but you should think twice about cars with a patchy history or high mileage.

Can you drive a DSG like an automatic?

For the vast majority of the time a DSG-equipped vehicle can be driven in the exact same manner as a conventional automatic. With the transmission in position D there is no need to shift manually, and you can drive just using the accelerator and brake pedals as you would in any kind of automatic.

Some DSG vehicles are equipped with launch control, which allows a fast standing start by holding the car on the footbrake and pressing the accelerator with the transmission in gear, but you should not do this if your car does not have this feature.

There are certain driving characteristics that a conventional automatic offers such as a degree of 'creep' when the car is in gear but neither the brake or accelerator are being pressed, which can be useful in low-speed manoeuvres or when performing a hill start.

DSG gearboxes generally do not offer this functionality, so it is important to either hold the car on the brake or accelerate properly, as holding the car on a hill using gentle acceleration can cause premature wear on the clutches.

If using a manual shift function when driving a DSG you should also avoid changing up while braking or changing down when accelerating, as the software is designed 

Is DSG better than automatic?

DSG transmissions are better than conventional automatic gearboxes in some aspects, but perform less well in others, so it is a matter of what kind of car you are considering and what driving characteristics you are looking for.

DSG transmissions offer fast and very smooth gearchanges, which is a positive from a comfort perspective as well as a welcome benefit in performance cars. They also typically offer benefits in terms of fuel consumption compared to conventional torque converter automatics.

On the downsides, DSG transmissions generally require more maintenance than conventional automatics, and components such as the clutch packs have a more limited lifespan compared to automatics with torque converters.

Is a DSG transmission good?

In terms of the driving experience, DSG transmissions are excellent. The smoothness and speed of gearshifts are highly impressive, and can make older torque converter automatics feel quite pedestrian. If you have not experienced one before, it is worth taking a test drive to feel the benefits for yourself.

As an ownership experience, cars equipped with DSG transmissions are somewhat less impressive, although this does depend greatly on the kind of car you are looking to buy, your driving style and your budget.

If you're buying a new or nearly-new car with a DSG transmission you can experience the benefits of the driving experience with few concerns over reliability or maintenance, but when buying an older car it is crucial to do your homework, examine the history of the vehicle carefully and consider whether an alternative transmission would be a more sensible choice.