VW Must Face Up to a Sooty Little Problem with its Diesel Engines

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

By Christopher Jensen
Plain Dealer Auto Editor
Sunday, March 21, 2004

Volkswagen has a big decision coming up that could have a huge effect on how favorably American consumers see the German automaker and diesels.

To its credit, Volkswagen has been offering diesels in the United States for years. That has allowed driving enthusiasts to enjoy its entertaining 1.9-liter TDI four-cylinder while getting as much as 38 miles per gallon in the city and 46 mpg on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency estimate.

But there is an emerging problem with the 1.9 TDI on the 1998-2003 model Golf, New Beetle and Jetta. A technical service bulletin sent to dealers describes it as "poor throttle response."

In the worst case the response is so poor that the engine does not work at all. If that happens, dealers are told to check excessive soot built up in the intake manifold and exhaust gas recirculation valve.

Volkswagen spokesman Tony Fouladpour said the problem is not "prevalent," but he acknowledges the automaker has received complaints about it.

He also said Volkswagen is working on a fix, which I would take as an indication that Volkswagen thinks the problem has the potential to get much worse.

There are several theories for why the soot accumulates. one is that the vehicle is driven a lot in traffic at relatively slow speeds, according to the automaker.

So, I reckon this means Volkswagen TDI owners should drive as quickly as possible at all times. If necessary, explain to the nice officer that Volkswagen of America made you do it and please write the ticket quickly so you can proceed at a much higher speed.

A strong possibility is "bad" diesel fuel, particularly if the problem occurs suddenly. But Volkswagen has no recommendations about the specific type of fuel that would prevent this sooty mishap. Just don’t use bad fuel.

The repair is not cheap. It requires either a cleaning or possibly replacement of the EGR valve and intake manifold. A colleague wound up paying about $300 to have it fixed on his 2002 Jetta, which has only 42,000 miles.

The odd thing is that Volkswagen’s Fouladpour acknowledged consumers are not causing their misfortune, but Volkswagen won’t guarantee a free fix for vehicles any longer under the warranty.

"We do have a goodwill program. That does not mean in every case we will cover the charges, but we will look at it," said Fouladpour. He encouraged owners to call Volkswagen at 1-800-822-8987.

However, when my colleague called, the news was not good. The customer service representative told him the repair was actually normal maintenance and Volkswagen would not be reimbursing him. It would be necessary to have the soot cleaned regularly. "It is a byproduct of the diesel fuel," he said.

Ah, yes. The old case-by-case evaluation.

As I mentioned, Volkswagen is working on something that will prevent the problem, Fouladpour said, although details were not available. This device will be installed at no charge on vehicles under warranty.

However, decisions about out- of-warranty vehicles will be made on the old "case-by-case" basis, Fouladpour said.

All in all, Volkswagen is making some bad decisions here. Just as it is getting ready to offer a new small diesel on its Passat and a gigantic diesel in its Touareg sport utility, the automaker is messing with owners of its current diesels, who didn’t do anything wrong.

It would be a smart corporate move for Volkswagen to reconsider, cover every repair and figure that’s a small price to pay to avoid, well, blackening the reputation of its diesels and corporation.

Otherwise, there are likely to be lots of Volkswagen owners considering other vehicles. on a case-by-case basis.