VW Diesel Owners: Here's What We Know

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 28, 2015

The irony is that—on paper at least—they’re such great, eco-friendly cars. Volkswagen made a new Guinness World Record for fuel economy when it drove a 2015 Golf TDI diesel through 48 states with an average mpg of 81.17—just 101 gallons were used, costing $294.98.

This Golf TDI set a record 81 mpg pace across the country, but it was probably spewing NOx the whole way. (VW photo)
This Golf TDI set a record 81 mpg pace across the country, but it was probably spewing NOx the whole way. (VW photo)

Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst at Navigant Research, says his Jetta TDI wagon has used 1,618 gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel to cover 55,000 miles. Compared to a similar car with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder gas engine, he estimates he saved $1,541 (that car would have guzzled 2,200 gallons). And he also avoided more than three tons of carbon dioxide emissions. No wonder Americans bought into great TDI promise: Incredible fuel economy, low emissions, great range.

But VW screwed up mightily with its smaller TDI diesels, and owners are being hung up to dry. Abuelsamid, who loves his TDI experience, is mad as hell. “I’m pissed that VW would do something so colossally stupid,” he said. “Ultimately VW will probably have to compensate owners for lost resale value but in all likelihood the opportunistic lawyers will take the bulk of the money and owners will probably not be compensated for anywhere near what they are likely to use.

Sam Abuelsamid was very happy with the performance of his Jetta TDI wagon--until he found out about the "colossally stupid" NOx problem. (VW photo)
Sam Abuelsamid was very happy with the performance of his Jetta TDI wagon--until he found out about the "colossally stupid" NOx problem. (VW photo)

Approximately 500,000 of the cars in the U.S. (and up to 11 million worldwide) are driving around, illegally spewing out up to 40 times the EPA-allowable amount of nitrogen oxide (NOx). In California, all the TDIs sold there are now regarded as “non-compliant” on emissions—which means they can’t be resold. Sales of 2.0-liter TDIs—a quarter of VW’s U.S. sales—are now on hold. Read some detail about how this mess came to light here.

On September 29., VW said it would "refit" those millions of cars and trucks at its dealerships, a move expected to cost at least $6.5 billion. And that's before any owners have actually been made whole with the value of their cars.(Just compensating U.S. owners for the lost value of their TDIs will cost $7.3 billion, the New York Times estimated.

Keep in mind that only the smaller VW TDIs are affected; the larger ones (in cars like the Passat and Touareg) use urea injection from an onboard tank that effectively controls NOx. Installing urea systems on all VW diesels would have avoided this problem, but the tanks add cost to the car, and consumers don’t much like dealing with them. The Jetta and Golf TDIs sold like hotcakes because they achieved great emissions and fuel economy—and without urea (they use a lean NOx trap instead).

It’s early yet, but I don’t see VW handling this scandal well so far. The company has set up a website here, and offers a hotline at 800-822-8987. Here are some questions that TDI owners might have:

What models are affected?

  • VW Jetta TDI (2009-2015)
  • VW Jetta SportWagen TDI (2009-2014)
  • VW Golf TDI (Model Years 2010-2015)
  • VW Golf SportWagen TDI (2015)
  • VW Beetle TDI and VW Beetle Convertible TDI (2012-2015)
  • VW Passat TDI (2012-2015)
  • Audi A3 diesel (2009-2015)

What’s VW got to say?

The company is really, really sorry, and admits total culpability. U.S. CEO Michael Horn, who survived the fallout (unlike group head Martin Winterkorn), tells us in a video that the “vehicles remain safe and legal to drive, and owners do not need to take any steps at this time.”

Of course, that wasn’t the question owners are asking. They want to be made whole. Asked, “How am I going to be compensated for this?” the company has a pretty vague answer. “We cannot offer a firm date now because we need to work on the remedy and review it with the government. We are proceeding as quickly as possible.”

That’s pretty vague.

Can burned owners just turn their cars in?

“We are cooperating closely with the regulatory authorities to develop a remedy as quickly as possible,” VW says. “We ask for your patience as we work to get this done right.”

Have you ever been “thanked for your patience,” say, when you’re on interminable hold? It’s infuriating, right? VW owners want answers now.

Starre Vartan and partner Simon in happier days, with what they thought was an eco-champ VW TDI Jetta. (courtesy of Starre Vartan)
Starre Vartan and partner Simon in happier days, with what they thought was an eco-champ VW TDI Jetta. (courtesy of Starre Vartan)

As a greenie, do I have a right to be really angry about this?

You bet. Oregon-based Starre Vartan, a blogger at MNN.com and author of The Eco Chick Guide to Life, says she convinced her partner to buy a 2011 Jetta Diesel. “It seemed like a win-win,” she said. “I bought into the idea of a car with great diesel fuel economy, and also low emissions that didn’t contribute to air quality problems here in Oregon. I’m very emotional about this, with horrible guilt because of the emissions. I’m trying to drive it as little as possible.”

And here's Car Talk's own Doug Mayer taking his TDI purchase personally. He's an asthmatic, and he also bought the idea that his car had green credentials. "I’d like to see a class-action suit by everyone with lung diseases," Mayer writes.

What’s likely to happen to my car’s resale value?

Nothing good. The bad publicity has sent VW’s stock plunging, and the TDI cars will be big question marks—at least until the company works out some kind of fix with EPA. Whatever the company does to get in emissions compliance is likely to affect fuel economy, performance or both.

Has VW done this kind of thing before?

Yep, but it’s hardly alone. In 1973, Volkswagen was fined $120,000 after the company was found to have installed equipment (called “defeat devices”) to turn off pollution controls. And in 1974, Chrysler did the same thing, installing devices on the radiators of 800,000 cars. In 1972, Ford was fined $7 million for emissions trickery.

In 1998, big trucking companies, including Caterpillar and Mack, paid $1 billion for installing defeat devices—in both pickups and big rigs. It’s a shameful history, industry wide.

Are other German diesel makers involved?

It doesn't look that way, since other automakers are using effective urea injection for their diesels. BMW, also a big diesel producer, says it is meeting all testing requirements. “In other words, our exhaust treatment systems are active whether rolling on the test bench or driving on the road,” the company said.

BMW said that the exhaust performance of its X5 diesel was studied by the same International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) that revealed the VW deception, and didn’t uncover any discrepancies. Mercedes-Benz, also a big diesel producer, so far remains above the fray.
"We categorically deny the accusation of manipulating emission tests regarding our vehicles," Daimler said.

Finally, just how bad are the NOx emissions from my cheating TDI?

It's bad, definitely. But according to Abuelsamid, "A TDI emits far more NOx than allowed, although it’s still lower than the emissions that were permitted just 20 years ago." Michael Coates, frequently a spokesman for diesel causes, also wants to keep it relative. "Because the standard for NOx in particular is so stringent in the U.S., the relative amount of pollution (while certainly concerning) is not the issue in my opinion. It's not good, but it's not what I would consider a major environmental setback."

I doubt Americans are taking the long view at this point, though. They're pissed, and rightly so. Meanwhile, its mea culpas all around from VW. Here's U.S. CEO Michael Horn, apologizing on video:


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