Should I Buy a Used Volkswagen Diesel?
With the Dieselgate scandal shrinking in the rear-view mirror and a fix announced for (almost) all generations of cheating Volkswagen TDIs, you may be interested in reaping the benefits of the excellent fuel economy and reasonable prices of VW’s diesels. Still, you’ll no doubt wonder if it’s a smart thing to buy. Let’s examine.
Of the many fears that used VW diesel shoppers have, the first and foremost is probably whether or not the “fix”— the technical modification that dealers install on TDIs to make them road legal — negatively affects performance. The majority of cars (all 2.0-liter TDIs apart from the 2012-2014 Passat) can now be fixed. Put simply, that pretty much means that all TDIs built after 2009 can now be modified to comply with emissions regulations. TDI owners can take their car to the local VW dealership and turn them into regular old diesels, instead of dirty diesels.
What does that fix involve? This handy video from VW mechanic and YouTube personality the Humble Mechanic runs through the Generation 1 fix in great detail. There’s a lot to digest in it, but effectively, it means that you can expect mileage for older TDIs (2009-2012, roughly speaking) to worsen by about two mpg. So, a car that was rated at 42 mpg by the EPA in 2010 will now instead be getting 40 mpg. That’s unfortunate, but it’s also reasonably small. If you’re a hypermiler, you may have to return to that aerodynamically improved Honda Insight. Otherwise, you probably won’t notice.
It’s still early days for the Generation 1 fix, so it’s hard to say for sure if there are big issues, but one that has been reported by a number of early “fixers” is that it made their car a little louder. After a week of driving, Reggie St. Claire, a 2013 Jetta SportWagen TDI-owner from California, says that if anything, he likes his car better.
“I almost enjoy the car more with the reprogramming they did to the transmission,” he said via email, referring to the changes made to the transmission programming. With a slightly higher shift point in regular drive mode and slightly lower shift points in the sporty “S” mode, he says it feels like the car is a little more responsive. St. Claire says that he’s still not sure how the mileage has changed. As a location scout for TV and film who does a lot of driving, his fuel economy matters and so far, he hasn’t noticed anything that causes him to question his decision to keep his TDI.
Back in June, meanwhile, Car and Driver tested a Generation3 (2015) Passat TDI with and without the emissions modification. This modification is a little different than the one for the Gen1 cars, in that it’s entirely restricted to a software update. According to Car and Driver, the zero-to-60, ¼ mile, zero-to-100 and more results were nearly identical. The zero-to-100 time for the modified Passat was a little slower than it had been on the unmodified car, but otherwise, the performance wasn’t hurt by the modification. That said, over the life of the car, fuel economy may suffer a little bit as a result of the need to clean the particulate filter more often (done by running the car with a rich, uneconomic mixture). These cycles are brief, though, so during normal driving, the mileage should be normal.
The fix isn’t quite perfect, but its imperfections are milder than a couple years of regular use. If you’re interested in buying a TDI, you won’t want to be the one doing the fixing — try to get one that’s already been fixed. So far, reports of the process have included dreaded terms like “bureaucracy” and “red tape.” It should hardly come as a surprise that an endeavor this large requires a lot of administration and a lot of effort, but the result is that getting the fix can be a headache.
Some TDI owners posting to Reddit and TDI forums report hours of phone calls and meetings with local dealers that ended in nothing but frustration. Others, meanwhile, report that other repairs they asked their dealers to complete couldn’t be taken care of until the diesel fix was done. Finally, the fix takes a couple of hours to complete, so even in the best case scenario, it’s an afternoon of your life dedicated to drinking bad coffee in a waiting room. The better solution is to get a car that has already been modified, which you can check by looking up the vehicle’s VIN at vwdiesellookup.com.
Frankly, it seems unlikely that many of the people who still have their TDIs at this point will be looking for a quick sale. Anyone who hasn’t already cashed in on the offer from VW (they have until September 1, 2018, to do so) probably won’t be willing to sell their TDI at a discount. A quick look through the classifieds shows that cheating diesels are as rare as hen’s teeth. And that’s the biggest problem with buying TDIs right now. It still makes more sense for owners to sell it back to VW because they can get more money for it, so you’re unlikely to find a reasonable TDI on Craigslist or VWVortex.
That’s where TDIs that were bought back by VW come into play, but unfortunately, they can’t be bought yet. The fate of the cars being held remains unclear because a fix hasn’t been approved for them yet. According to a VW spokesperson, other generations have taken a couple of months to go from private approval to “buyback” approval and the latest approval took place at the beginning of August, though, so a decision is imminent.
If they do come back onto the market, VW already has a plan in place. Henrich Woebcken, president of VW’s North American Region, went on record recently saying that dealers will have the first right of refusal on TDIs that were bought back. That means that VW is looking to sell them through its dealer network. Some cars, he admitted, are just too old or have too many miles to sell, but otherwise, you’ll be able to go to your local VW dealership to get a fixed TDI in the near future.
“There is, of course, a community of customers who would like to take a look at these cars, once they fulfill the regulations, and that’s why we are pretty optimistic that we will have a successful remarketing of those cars,” Woebcken told Automotive News in September. He added that the company has a plan to carefully release the cars back onto the market to avoid a depression or spike in their value. He didn’t go into detail about the plan, though. Presumably, the time it takes to fix the cars will act as its own form of volume control, too.
The fate of diesel as a fuel might also be a sticky wicket. With European cities moving to ban the fuel from their centers and with more and more manufacturers moving to electric power to help boost fuel economy, the future of diesel is at risk — and in no small part thanks to this scandal. That said, the short-term future of diesel is still reasonably secure. Market experts expect that getting diesel engines approved by the EPA will be too expensive to be worthwhile after 2020, at which point only trucks (pickup and otherwise) will be likely to use the fuel, and even they are probably on their way out. On the other hand, it’s an open secret that GM wanted to take on the diesel market void left by the Dieselgate scandal. So for the life of these cars, you’re unlikely to have to worry about finding a place to refuel.
Otherwise, TDIs are great cars to drive. Diesels have been accused of not driving as nicely as their gas-powered counterparts and of sounding agricultural, but VW put a lot of work into dispelling those stereotypes. The result was a quiet car with ample power that could drive for weeks without worrying about fuel. Frankly, there are many reasons to recommend them. But should you buy one?
Ultimately, it’s hard to say for sure if you should buy a TDI or not. As always, it comes down to your priorities, but right now is definitely not the time to do it. Apart from the current market uncertainty, though, there’s no real reason to treat a TDI differently than any other car if the emission modification for bought back TDIs is approved. Be careful, do your homework, be wary of cars whose service record is unclear, and it should be fine.
If prices are ridiculous, you might look at a hybrid. If not, it’s a perfectly good car with a torquey engine that inspires fierce loyalty and fuel economy to boast about (though you probably shouldn’t boast about it). If anyone claims that you’re supporting an evil empire that pumped poisons into the atmosphere, though, you can just retort that you’re doing your part to save the energy that would have been wasted if these cars had been scrapped.
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