I have happy memories of the day we bought Marlene Dietrich, our “nuanced brown” 2013 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. Now, of course, that day is tainted with regret and shame, but July 4, 2013 was a significantly happier day.
My previous car, the white economy car of my early 20s, had reached that point when door handles fell off at a touch and the A/C unit blew only hot air. I had been researching cars for a while, hoping to find a fuel-efficient model large enough to carry two Rottweilers and camping gear. We were thinking about starting a family, so room for an infant seat and other gear, and eventually, carpooling, were factors.
We visited Volkswagen of Alamo Heights, and fell in love with Marlene Dietrich. We had test-driven a Prius V, but I loved the solid German feel of the Jetta SportWagen. Ultimately, the TDI’s claims of clean diesel technology with mpg in the 30s sold us on a safe, substantial family car.
Marlene was my first brand new car, with only 11 miles on her odometer when we drove off the lot. The sales person working told stories of cars coming in for routine service with 300,000 miles on them. In spite of the corporate lies, I still believe those tales of longevity. All the VW drivers I’ve known have been satisfied with their cars, with the exception of a few Bug owners who had novelty paint jobs they later regretted.
We paid more than we had planned, but it would take me 30 years to drive 300,000 miles. Plus, we feel good about paying a premium for environmentally and socially responsible options. (Only now do I suspect that this sensibility is exactly what Volkswagen was counting on. In their eyes, we must be naive chumps.)
The Volkswagen brand and the claims made about their TDI's performance convinced me that Marlene was worth the $28,700 we paid for her. (Like I said, chumps.)
Soon after we drove her home, we found out we would be putting an infant seat in the back sooner than expected. We brought our little girl home from the hospital in our VW in March. We’ve loaded up the whole family, Rottweilers included, for multiple road trips and camping excursions over the ensuing two years.
Though we’re not “car people,” we did become Volkswagen people. The service at Volkswagen of Alamo Heights was exemplary. The car proved reliable and comfortable. It felt like Volkswagen had our back.
Until the day we realized we’d been played for fools.
Do you remember that feeling in elementary school when the principal calls you to her office and the whole class whispers and stares half in pity and half in voyeuristic delight as you blush and slink out into the hall? Whether or not you did anything wrong, it’s miserable.
That’s how I felt sitting in my VW listening to NPR as the story broke about the software designed to defeat emissions tests, about how VW’s TDI emissions were actually 40 times the official level, about how the vehicle's actual mileage rating plummeted when emissions were reduced, about how the key features that led us to buy Marlene had been a scam.
I could feel the stares and snickers as I parked my car at the Lincoln Heights H-E-B and stared at the radio in disbelief for a brief second. I killed the engine off as fast as I could when I heard how my parking lot idle was creating a personal carbon cloud above my head. Still, I could hear the judging snickers of oversize SUV drivers around me. “Who’s the jerk now?” they sneered. (These are imaginary voices. The good people of Alamo Heights would be more discreet, I’m sure.)
My shock and embarrassment soon turned to panic. The value of the car vanished in an instant. I couldn’t keep driving Marlene “Dirty Engine” Dietrich. But I couldn’t trade her in, either. I need a new car, but all I can afford is what I can get selling Marlene for parts. Who would buy her?
Unless, of course, Volkswagen decides to make this right. We did get a letter from Volkswagen, apologizing and asking for our patience until at least 2016.
“I am writing you today to offer a personal and profound apology. Volkswagen violated your trust. I understand your anger and frustration. I would like you to know that we take full responsibility and are cooperating with all responsible agencies. I can also assure you that we are committed to making this right for you — and taking steps to prevent something like this from ever happening again,” stated Volkswagen Group of America president and CEO Michael Horn in the letter.
It’s a nice letter, as such letters go, but I have to say, Mr. Horn, I’m feeling a little cynical. Why should the perpetrator get to decide what it means to “make things right?” Does anyone really believe this mess is the fault of a few rogue programmers?
Think about it. If your parents had given you a sum of money to mow the yard, and then found out that you had, instead, burned the back yard down, how long do you think you would get to keep the money? Would you get to say, “How about if, when the yard grows back, I mow it for real? I’ll even do it for free. There, justice is served.”
No. Volkswagen lied and lost our trust. So why should we trust company apologists and crisis managers now when they tell us how they are going to fix things? The current idea includes 10 hours of shop maintenance replacing software and hardware to bring the emissions into compliance. What about the gas mileage? What about the value of the car? Are we to expect that our cars, after this complete overhaul, will run as smoothly as before? That they won’t find some loophole, some cracked hose or leaky valve that will exempt our car from the program?
The engine fix is going to be as much of a nightmare for Volkswagen as it will be for consumers. Some of the affected engines date to 2009. It’s like when grandparent goes into surgery: they never come out the same. Owners are going to blame every one of their aging vehicle's maintenance issues on the engine fix.
Along with my Volkswagen apology letter, I’ve also gotten a letter from a law firm looking to file a class action law suit. I suspect this will be the first of many. I’m not the litigious type, so I’m inclined to toss the letter. But as long as we’re sitting patiently until 2016, I might keep it on hand. Volkswagen has left its consumers without options. They can’t be surprised when people start looking for options of their own.
Even with all of this, I don’t think Volkswagen’s situation is hopeless. If that trip to the principal’s office, or the lost faith of our parents taught us anything, it’s that trust can be rebuilt.
How can Volkswagen regain our trust?
If the company were willing to buy back the car at the price we paid, or even the Sep. 17, 2015 Kelley Blue Book value of the car, I would feel personally recompensed. I may even use that money to buy another Volkswagen, because I really love driving Marlene. At the very least I would not be opposed to one day owning another VW, once we know the latest models are legit.
I’d even consider a trade-in, as long as the new car matched the (phony) performance claims of our current car. Again, we love our car and we want things to work out. I don’t want to rule out Volkswagen for the rest of my driving life. But if we end up cheated out of $28,700, that’s exactly what will happen.
The EPA should impose some sort of penalty for the damage done, but they know better than I do what that should be. I can only speak to what it would take to make me consider Volkswagen the next time I’m on the market for a new car.
The whole scandal has been far more emotional than I would have expected. It will be tricky for Volkswagen to overcome the company's stigma in the public eye. Then again, that’s a bed they made for themselves. Car companies capitalize on emotional connections to sell their product. The car as a member of the family, the way to freedom, the manifestation of personal prestige. All of these marketing narratives are used to sell cars. With that much at stake, Volkswagen has found itself in a world far more complicated than German engineering. Betrayal. Trust. Shame. Fools. Those are not technical terms.
VW's approach to the fix can’t be technical absolution. It has to soothe our collective outrage, wash away our shared embarrassment if the company wants to salvage its business, and eliminate the inevitable feelings of schadenfreude that will result from its inevitable downfall in the United States if it leaves us loyal customers waiting and waiting.
*Top image: The shamed McNeel family car, a 2013 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI. Photo by Bekah McNeel.