A "good car" is all dependent on what their criteria are. A car's problems will not show up on a 20,000-mile "Long Term Test" lasting a few months to a year.
Many manufacturers are now using plastic impeller water pumps to reduce engine load (to help comply with emissions) ; the Germans were first though. Watch out for them in the future on all cars. I routinely replace my water pumps and thermostats with the timing belt at 80K km/50K miles regardless, because water pumps and thermostats can fail between 5-10 years and alloy engines don't take well to that. Yes, yes, I know -- others have had water pumps that worked until 500K miles, well things are different these days.
Fact is, German cars these days are nowhere near as reliable as Japanese cars (those which are, are not sold in North America). But as you mentioned, they don't have the soda can build either. Pity you can't have both solidity and reliability at the same time, at least for now.
I have had my Passat for two years now. It started out as a reliable car. However, starting this past fall in October, things began to fail one right after another. And I must say, the recall for the ignition coils came a little too late.
One day my car wouldn't start. So I had it checked out and the codes popped for my spark plugs. All four decided to go out at once, and also my MAF (mass air flow) sensor was also causing a code. The plugs were cheap, but the MAF sensor cost about $300 to replace. I also had to get new brakes because mine were ground down to nothing, which ran up another $250, without labor as I had my dad put them on, which was an all day event.
Then as I was driving on the highway to make it better, my check engine light started flashing. My car was losing speed, and giving it gas didn't do much. I pulled over and had someone come get me. Turns out my ignition coils went out, and I was only running on three cylinders. We got my car home, but on my street the other two cylinders stopped working, so we had to push my car into the garage. I replaced enough coils to get my car to the dealer, where I was informed that the recall had JUST come in. Thanks guys.
There I also found out I needed a new timing belt (because of mileage, can't complain there) and Camshaft Adjuster Seals. The job ended up costing me $1,300 after they cut two hours of labor out since I was a returning customer. Love you guys <3.
An entire week later, check engine light was back on surprise surprise!! I went back in, and I was told that it was due to a leaking check valve and my thermostat. I had to get the valve done right then and there because it broke when they were checking it out. That cost $200. I went back in to get the thermostat and it ran up another $250.
It gets better; a week after I got the thermostat done, the light came back on. However, it shut off two days later. I was told it's because the new valve needed so many key cycles to sync with the catalytic converter and oxygen sensors, because they were popping codes as well, and it might come back on and shut off. So I'm hoping that it shut off because the valve is synced, not because the little light on my dash finally burnt out after being on for so long.
On a side note, I hit a pot hole on the wonderful streets of NJ during a rainstorm. Got a new rim and three new tires for $600. And someone stole my antenna, but seeing as how I've blown so much money recently, I listen to CDs.
So overall, I've spent about $3000 on this car recently. I love it and it's my baby, but German Engineering sure is expensive.