About three months ago, Cody Bishop, his wife Katie and their infant son went shopping for a new car, or rather a used car that was new to them. Like everyone, they had a multitude of choices. They narrowed them to a plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and a shiny, black 2011 Volkswagen Jetta diesel TDI.
“Man,” he says, “I kind of wish I would have got the Volt.”
Almost half a million other VW diesel owners likely are feeling the same buyer’s remorse right now. Two weeks ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered Volkswagen to fix about 482,000 VW and Audi diesel vehicles sold in the United States since model year 2009, all of which had software designed to fool smog tests. VW has acknowledged installing the software on about 11 million Jettas, Golfs, Beetles, Passats and Audi A3s worldwide.
Like many unwitting owners who assumed they had purchased a “clean diesel” car, Bishop feels like he’s been double-crossed. “It’s just really frustrating.”
The “defeat” mechanism installed on the cars made the engines run cleaner while it’s being tested by EPA equipment, before returning to dirtier emissions on the road. Under these real-world conditions, the cars get better gas mileage, and have more torque. But this mode made them emit up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide (NOX), a toxic compound that harms health.
Bishop, who’s 31 and lives in Atlanta, didn’t even buy the car primarily for its supposed “green” qualities. He was impressed by the gas mileage (about 30 city, 42 highway), which comes in handy on the long drives he must make for his job. He’s a field sales representative for a garden-tool company, and he routinely visits Home Depots all over the Southwest. This week he’s driving to Nashville. He also appreciated the spacious back seat — more room for his 7-month-old son Bennett’s car seat — and shared other diesel owners’ fondness for the powerful four-cylinder engine.
“The sensible thing would have been to get like a Prius, but I just … I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I’m not a Prius guy. It’s a very boring, kind of Point A to Point B car. So the Jetta kind of covers all the bases, because it gets good gas mileage, but it also has a ton of torque, so it’s fun to drive.”
It’s unclear at this point just what Volkswagen will do. Any fix that reduces pollution might reduce mpg or power, which were two big selling points for the cars in the first place. WIRED magazine has a post that shows the options for owners, all of which seem unfavorable and/or expensive. Dozens of lawsuits already have been filed by angry vehicle owners.
“Diesels typically hold their value much more than other cars,” Bishop said. “So I was like, ‘Well, if I get it, the thing with my job, if I get promoted and I don’t have to drive so much, I could sell it, and get something else, but still get a decent amount of my money back. But if they do this fix where it decreases the power and the miles per gallon, then I would assume the resale value is probably going to go with that.”
Bishop says he paid about $14,000 for the car, which had about 45,000 miles on it at purchase. He’d prefer that VW simply buy back the vehicle, although he doubts that will be in the offing. “Either way, they’ve got to do something, to kind of win back customers.”
Bishop thinks his next car might be some kind of hybrid — probably not a VW. But he won’t be getting rid of his Jetta anytime soon, even if it means spewing toxic pollutants on every trip.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a choice,” he says.
Car owners who do have a choice, and who are in the market for a new or used vehicle, should consider buying a flex-fuel vehicle: Cars, trucks and SUVs that run on E85 produce less NOX and other emissions. The fuel also costs less than gasoline and is available at nearly 2,700 stations in the country.