Should VW sell grounded Jettas? That is the question.
Marc Stern's picture

VW Cleared To Sell Some Turbodiesels, Should It? The Answer is Probably Not

Volkswagen has been cleared by the EPA to fix and resell some 2015 Jetta TDIs that were grounded by the Dieselgate emissions scandal. The key question is should they sell them? And the answer likely is no.

Last week, Volkswagen was given the okay to sell its 2015 turbodiesel models, the ones grounded by the Dieselgate scandal two years ago. The grounding came as soon as the automaker admitted it cheated by using a software “defeat switch” to make it appear that their turbodiesels were passing emissions tests when, in fact, they were failing badly.

As soon as the carmaker admitted cheating, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) halted or grounded sales of any new turbodiesel models. The models affected included VW Beetle TDIs, VW Golf TDIs, VW Jetta TDIs, VW Passat TDIs and Toureg TDIs. Porsche SUVs and Audi crossovers and SUVs were also affected.

Crux Of The Situation

Here’s the crux of the situation; it goes back to the day when VW engineers made the decision to change the EA189 engine -- the 2.0-liter four that is at the heart of the diesel emissions scandal (now the largest corporate scandal in history).

From 2004 to 2006, VW was developing a new engine to serve as the primary powerplant in a new generation of turbodiesel vehicles. The turbodiesel motors were, according to press reports at that time, to become the backbone of a VW’s push to increase its share of the U.S. market.

All of that was well and good, but, there was a problem no one in engineering was talking about, the new engines couldn’t quickly meet future emissions standards for 2008 without using BlueTec, a urea formaldehyde doping system, patented by Mercedes-Benz and licensed to other automakers. Urea formaldehyde traps certain key emissions and holds them in suspension until they can be flushed to a separate catalyst and cleaned up.

Each turbodiesel was supposed to have been built with a BlueTec tank and storage. And, while the rudiments of that system were engineered into the bodies, the automaker never implemented the system. Because Volkswagen’s “not-invented-here” culture worked against any solution that wasn’t VW-made, the automaker made little progress while the manager running the EA189 development operation was still with the company. He was the person who authorized the BlueTec solution. However, he went on his way well before the project was complete.

Program Changes Follow Shakeup

When VW’s engineering management team took over complete management of the program, they dumped the Tec solution and went back to an old familiar solution, exhaust gas trapping, and high-temperature reburn. The reburn solution, the engineers also knew, didn’t work very well. To work, the engines had to be leaned out, almost to the point of failure. In turn, performance was choked off, though emissions, were cut. In a paradox, though emissions went down, fuel economy tanked. It is a solution that would not have been good for sales, so the engineering staff had to make decisions.

They tried to make it work, but it didn’t. They found they could clean up exhaust emissions to safe levels, but the cost was horrendous. To achieve acceptable levels of performance and economy, the EA189 engine had to run rich all of the time. In that configuration, the engine was extremely dirty. Emission levels with the bare EA189 four-cylinder turbodiesel were up to 40 times the limits established by the nitrous oxide (NOx) emission standards of 2008.

The engineering team determined, after emails and meetings with senior managers, that there was only one way to go, cheat. They already had a piece of software – the so-called “defeat switch” -- to merge into the emissions system computer code. That code was developed in 1999 and put away in a desk drawer, so to speak. The code watched sensors, the drivetrain, steering, and transmission. If the “switch” determined the vehicle was going into test mode, it put the emission system into “pass mode,” turning up the emissions system so the car would pass. On test completion, the emissions controls were relaxed and the turbodiesel into “standard mode,” where performance was dialed way up, as was fuel economy.

The automaker was able to scam regulators, the automotive press, consumers and others into believing the automaker had found the Holy Grail of diesel performance and clean emissions. The so-called “clean diesel” myth was born. The myth was to last for six years until a group of researchers from the University of West Virginia began looking into VW’s impressive “clean diesel” record. Almost immediately, the research crew started finding problems with over-the-road test results that varied widely from VW’s results. When the researchers went over to a dynamo, similar to those used by state inspection stations, the results were the same. The research team notified VW, which tried and failed to find a fix for the problem early on. The team then told EPA in late 2014, and the die was cast.

A little more than a year later EPA slapped the automaker with an inquiry notice, charging that VW had violated clean air rules with its EA189 turbodiesel powerplant. With the notice, the Dieselgate emissions scandal was born.

Coming Full Circle

I know that’s a long way to go to explain things, but trust me, we’re back to the current date. As part of the major settlements that have so far cost VW a total of nearly $25 billion, VW was given an option, either repurchase the 2.0-liter fours and 3.0-liter V-6s involved or repair them. At the time of the initial repurchases in November, no fix had been approved for either engine line, though the automaker was trying to find an approvable repair. EPA and the California Air Resources Board – CARB – the regulators immediately involved with emissions issues only recently approved a fix for 2.0-liter turbodiesels. No U.S. fix for the 3.0-V-6 line has been announced yet.

That hasn’t been the case in Europe where VW’s software fix was approved by the German Transport Ministry late last year. The agency cleared the repairs and VW began taking care of its repair business. And, now that the program has been ongoing in Europe for more than four months, results are starting to come in. The returns, frankly, are not good for VW’s fix.

The first fix is software only. It is an update to the emissions control package. Though I have seen neither the code nor have I heard or read any more than you may have heard or read, I assume the changes to the emissions package involve removing the “defeat switch” code and smoothing things out for performance and fuel economy.

Here is where I believe the problem lies. Since early in its development days, the EA189 engine has exhibited startlingly poor performance and fuel economy to match in standard trim. Now, if VW had opted for the TEC solutions and software adjustment, it is likely that: 1. There would still be turbodiesels on sale and 2. There would have been no Dieselgate. But, VW didn’t opt for TEC, and the result is that any turbodiesel that is repaired recently will likely perform poorly with matching fuel economy.

That appears to be the case. Press reports in recent weeks -- European Automotive News, Automotive News, MSN Autos and Yahoo Autos, among others – show that VW turbodiesel owners are as upset as swarms of angry bees because their vehicles are no longer the sprightly cars, crossovers, and SUV that they were before they wee “fixed.” Instead, they are slugs on the performance side; on the economy side, the numbers are also less than stellar.

And, now that EPA has approved the first fix and has authorized the sale of the grounded Jettas there could be problems looming for the automaker. Indeed, this is probably the surest way for the automaker to harm itself as it slowly pulls out of the quagmire that was Dieselgate. The scandal injured VW’s reputation that the carmaker is only now beginning to recover. Equally as important is what it might mean for the 650 dealers in the U.S. when the grounded VWs go back on sale. The overriding question for the dealers and VW is should they be sold at all? Because we already know that despite their best efforts it is more than likely that performance and economy from the repaired vehicles will be less-than-stellar, you have to ask is the potential gain worth the pain?

Don’t Do It

That is quite a question, isn’t it? The most obvious answer is this: emphatically no. We have gone over any number of reasons why VW should just call dealers and tell them to ship the vehicles back to various ports where they can be returned to the manufacturer. It makes lots of sense for the automaker which, like as not, doesn’t want complaints of lousy performance and mileage following it, just as it is recovering. Dealers don’t need that headache either. And, consumers, most of all don’t need such problems, either.

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