Dieselgate

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This is a 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit L Diesel. This is a little awkward, isn’t it? Yes, I’m writing this without pants on, but that’s not quite the brand of awkwardness I mean. You may have heard that Volkswagen is in a spot of bother nowadays. “Spot of bother,” of course, in this context, meaning “$18 billion potential dollars worth of fire and brimstone raining down on Wolfsburg, Germany.” But why all the drama? What did VW do, exactly? Why does everyone try to suffix “-gate” into words that clearly have nothing to do with Watergate whenever there’s a scandal? All these questions and more answered. Well, maybe not answered, but at the very least addressed or glanced at in a sidelong manner.

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Okay, so before we dive too deeply into the Shonda Rhimes drama that is VW’s current PR situation, we should first talk a little bit about diesel engines. Diesel, of Fast and Furious and Riddick fame, is a type of fuel that is popular in Europe and, in many ways, very similar to normal gasoline. There is a key difference, however. In a gasoline engine, the fuel-air mixture is ignited by a spark (from the aptly-named spark plug). This causes combustion, from which energy is drawn. Diesel does the same thing, but the fuel is mixed in much later in the process, and therefore does not require a spark. In other words, combustion is achieved through compression alone. There are a number of benefits to this approach, but the big ones are increased fuel economy (which is why Europeans are such fans) and increased torque (which is why people with big trucks who use memes to make political statements are such fans).

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There’s another thing you should know before we move on. In 2008, the United States toughened their regulations on tailpipe emissions, which contribute to greenhouse gasses. This prompted many automakers who offer diesel engines to add a urea injection system. Urea, or in Volkswagenese, “AdBlue,” is a solution that helps to cut down on nitrogen oxide emissions. Urea really was not that big of a deal: just another fluid for owners of diesel cars to monitor. Here’s where things get shady, though. In 2009, VW rolled out a new, 2.0 liter diesel four cylinder. The engine was used in the VW Golf, Jetta, Beetle, the newer Passat, and the Audi A3. It did not feature a urea injection system. VW said that the engine was so efficient that it was able to pass regulation without the system installed, and for a time, all was wonderful in Wolfsburg. Then, in May of 2014, a “simple engineer from Michigan” presented Volkswagen with the results of an independent test showing that the engine could be producing air pollution in excess of 35 times the legal limit.

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35 times the legal limit. Some reports even say 40. For over 11 million cars. That’s insane. That’s Shia LeBeouf levels of insane. That’s like if, during his trip to the US, Pope Francis listened to nothing but Ska punk and got really into Fullmetal Alchemist. Now, you’re probably wondering how VW was able to get away with it for so long. The answer is by using some very clever technological trickery. Here’s an article that goes into a bit more detail, but the Sparknotes are that the cars in question were equipped with a “defeat device” that recognized when they were being tested for emissions. Sneaky, right? The EPA uses a dynamometer (or “dyno” (or “rolling road,” if you’re British)) to test for this kind of thing, which involves spinning only the front wheels of the car. The cheating VWs were able to recognize when only one axle was in motion, and turn on all their available pollution regulators for only that amount of time. VW was able to connive its way around the US government despite the fact that the company clearly had the technology to make their cars run cleanly.

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So where does all this leave Volkswagen? In short, up a certain creek. In addition to the ongoing federal investigation, and the potential for $18 billion in fines ($37,500 per vehicle), and the not-yet-recovered 29% hit to their stock price, and the “stop sale” order on all VW diesel cars (between 20% and 25% of the company’s total sales), and the fact that they’ll have to implement costly software, and in some cases mechanical, fixes on all the effected vehicles which might impact performance (that’s another $40 billion), and the fact that both their CEO and their North American Chief just quit, Volkswagen will have to deal with their image. Their new CEO, Matthias Mueller from Porsche, has already announced plans to decentralize the company so as to let all their subsidiaries act more independently, and to renew their focus on hybrid and electric vehicles. But they’re going to have to work harder to regain the trust of their customers. This American Life did a good piece this week on what VW could do from a marketing perspective, but if you ask me, it’s going to be the healing power of time more than anything. Which is a shame. Because Volkswagen really did make good cars.

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Which I suppose brings us, belatedly, to this little guy. A VW Rabbit. With a four cylinder diesel. Not the criminal 2.0 liter diesel, though. Nope, the Rabbit, also known as the Golf in Europe, was powered by a smaller, 1.6 liter four cylinder, developing 52 horsepower. Diesels are generally more torque-y than power-y (powerful?), remember? Plus, up to 57 miles per gallon, which is nothing to sneeze at. Anyway, the little power the Rabbit did have was routed through either a four speed manual or a three speed automatic, though some versions, such as the South Africa-only Citi R, did have a five speed manual. The fascinating thing about the Rabbit, however, is that it was one of the only recorded sequels that actually lived up to its predecessor. To set the scene, in 1975, VW had been producing its golden child, the Beetle, for 35 years, almost completely unchanged. And, well, people were starting to notice. So VW hurriedly started work on a radical replacement for the Bug, and with a little help from Audi, they came up with the Rabbit. And you know what? It worked. Like, really really well. The Rabbit wasn’t just a competent compact car. It was Godfather II.

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I think that’s why this whole Dieselgate fracas is such a big deal. We know VW knows what they’re doing. They’ve proven to us time and time again that they can do great- truly great- things. It’s not like the whole ignition switch recall at GM last year. We knew GM was bureaucratic and stodgy. Something like that was bound to happen eventually. But Volkswagen always seemed above that. Yes, they are a huge, multinational corporation and their influence runs deep everywhere they operate, but somehow, in spite of that, they seemed trustworthy. They seemed smart. And we felt smart driving a Volkswagen. They were the guys with the cheeky marketing scheme from the sixties, and the cars that never really drew attention to themselves in terms of styling. Maybe that’s why when things got bad at Volkswagen, they got really bad. It’s because, and I’m quoting Aaron Sorkin here, we weren’t burned. We were betrayed.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The VW Rabbit was actually made in New Stanton, Pennsylvania.
  • They also did a pickup truck version of the Rabbit, called the Caddy. It was very tiny, but very cool.
  • When sales of the Golf were dropping in the mid-2000s, VW actually decided to bring back the Rabbit name for 2006. It was replaced, again, by “Golf” in 2008.
  • This was kind of a downer post. Do you want to look at a fun VW ad? Okay, here’s one.
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One thought on “Dieselgate

  1. Pingback: Forgotten Places: 2016 New York International Auto Show (Part 1) | Forgotten metal

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