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'Clean diesel' VW owners driven by disappointment in German carmaker

UPDATE: Judge 'strongly inclined' to approve $10 billion settlement; decision expected Oct. 25

TRIBUNE PHOTO: KEVIN HARDEN - Cassandra Ulven, public information officer for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, loves her 2010 Audi A3 diesel sportback. So she was disappointed when the car's 'clean' emissions system turned out to be the result of a defeat device. She and her husband are not sure what they are going to do with their two diesel vehicles.Dr. Brian Battalia loves his 2009 Volkswagen Jetta “clean diesel” sedan.

Battalia, chief medical officer for North Portland’s SphereMD, says he planned to drive the Jetta for more than 300,000 miles, and then think about getting a new car. “I love the dang thing,” he says.

So does his brother, David Battaglia of Northeast Portland, who says he is “passionate” about his 2010 Jetta “clean diesel” sedan. “I absolutely love this car,” he says. “I love everything about it.”

The brothers aren’t alone. They’re among nearly 13,000 Oregonians who own the VW turbo diesel vehicles at the center of an international emissions cheating scandal. About 475,000 of the VW and Audi vehicles were sold in the United States for six years.

Many of the Oregon buyers say fuel efficiency and a sense that they were doing something good for the environment spurred their purchases of VW and Audi TDI models. Portland-area owners contacted during the past few weeks say that as much as they love their VWs and Audis, they’re now disappointed in Volkswagen’s attempt to cheat emissions tests, and now many — some reluctantly — just want to be rid of the cars.

“We’re going to turn ours in and get the money,” says Brenda Johnson of Sherwood, whose family owns a 2009 Jetta “clean diesel” sedan. “And I’m not buying another VW.”

COURTESY PHOTO: VW OF AMERICA - VW officials have agreed to a preliminary legal settlement that will cost the company about $10 billion. The German automaker is in the middle of a federal Department of Justice investigation because of the emissions cheating scandal.

Being responsible with the cars

More than a year after researchers at West Virginia University working with the International Council on Clean Transportation discovered a software device that allowed VW “clean diesel” vehicles to defeat emissions tests, federal Judge Charles R. Breyer said Tuesday morning in San Francisco’s federal courthouse that he was “strongly inclined” to approve a proposed settlement that could cost the German carmaker more than $10 billion.

After Tuesday's hearing, Breyer agreed to consider objections and issue his final order on Tuesday, Oct. 25.

Elizabeth CabraserSan Francisco attorney Elizabeth Cabraser, lead counsel for hundreds of VW and Audi owners suing Volkswagen Group of America, told the court that there was “resounding support for this consumer class settlement and the substantial benefits it provides.”

Once approved, the settlement gives owners of the “clean diesel” cars the option to either sell them back at near top-end Kelly Blue Book value or have the diesel engines adjusted to meet emissions standards, which could affect performance and fuel efficiency. VW engineers have not released information about the engine adjustment.

Vehicles affected by the “clean diesel” defeat device include turbo diesel 2.0-liter model Beetles, Golfs, Jettas, Passats and Audi A3s sold between 2009 and 2015. A software trick in the engines allowed VW “clean diesel” vehicles to defeat emissions tests by clicking on during tests, and turning off after the tests. That means the vehicles spew higher levels of nitrogen oxide into the air than allowed under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules.

VW and Audi owners have until Sept. 1, 2018, to register for either the buyback or the emission system repair. They have until Dec. 30, 2018, to take action. About 340,000 vehicle owners have registered with Volkswagen Group of America.

Many of Oregon’s VW and Audi TDI owners might be able to drive their vehicles nearly as long as they want, even renewing their license plate tags by passing state emissions tests in the Portland area and Medford.

Kevin Downing, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality planner working on the VW “clean diesel” issue, says a legal settlement with three dozen states prevents Oregon from denying Volkswagen owners new license plate tags just because of the emissions defeat device. The vehicles might still not pass DEQ inspection if some other part of the emissions system is faulty, he says.

“DEQ won’t be any tougher on those vehicles than any other vehicles,” Downing says.

Could people drive the VWs and Audis well past 2018 even with higher nitrogen oxide emissions? Yes, Downing says, but he’s hoping Oregonians will do the right thing. “People bought these cars because they were being very environmentally responsible,” Downing says. “And I honestly expect Oregonians to be responsible about what they do with these cars.”

COURTESY PHOTO - Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum spoke during a late June press conference outlining the state's part in a national settlement with Volkswagen of America in the emission-cheating scandal.

State settlement funds

Thirty people are cleared to speak in court Tuesday morning on the case. Hundreds of VW owners across the nation have sued the company since the September 2015 revelations, including about four dozen Oregonians who have filed complaints in state and federal court or joined class-action lawsuits. Most of the lawsuits have been consolidated into the federal case in Northern California.

Oregon’s plaintiffs, like those from 38 other states, want VW to pay them the full amount for their “clean diesel” vehicles, plus punitive damages.

In June, VW and state attorneys general announced a separate legal settlement requiring Volkswagen to pay more than $68.2 million into a trust to support diesel-emission reduction programs in Oregon and to make cash payments of $5,100 each to more than 13,000 Oregonians who purchased the VW and Audi diesel TDI vehicles.

Volkswagen agreed to pay $570 million for violating state laws prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices. Oregon will get $17 million of that payment.

Oregon was among six states that led an investigation into the company’s deceptive trade practices, in part because Oregon has the highest per-capita ownership of the affected VW vehicles in the nation.

In mid-September 2015, EPA issued a notice of violation to VW. On Jan. 4, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Volkswagen for using the defeat device.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: KEVIN HARDEN - About 13,000 Oregonians purchased the VW and Audi 2.0-liter turbo diesel models between 2009 and 2015. Nationally, about 475,000 of the emission-cheating verhicles were sold.

Environmentally friendly?

Cassandra Ulven, public information officer for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, whose Canby family owns both a 2014 VW “clean diesel” Passat and a 2010 Audi A3 diesel sportback, is unhappy with Volkswagen and Audi because of the scandal. She loves her Audi, and hopes to keep it. Ulven and her husband still haven’t decided what they’ll do with the Passat.

“We’re really disappointed,” Ulven says. “I’ve only owned two other vehicles in my entire life. I saved up for a long time to buy the Audi A3 because it was a ‘clean diesel.’ Then we find out that all this is just a shell game. It’s made me disappointed in the choice we made to make an environmental decision.”

Bill McLean of Northeast Portland is also still mulling his options for his 2013 Passat TDI. McLean and his wife are empty nesters who plan to sell their house and move into new a co-housing project closer to the Lloyd District. When that happens, they won’t need the Passat, he says, and could sell it back to VW.

“Oh, yes, I’m disappointed in Volkswagen,” says McLean, who has owned Volkswagens on and off for years and got the Passat from his son, a “VW nut.”

“At this point, we probably won’t buy another VW.”

Gavin Ferguson of Beaverton is in an odd position. He owns a 2015 Audi Q5 with a 3.0 liter V6 turbo diesel engine, which is also part of the emissions settlement. So far, however, Ferguson and other Audi V6 owners are still waiting for word on what to do about their vehicles.

“Right now I’m in limbo,” Ferguson says. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. I’d prefer not to sell the car because to me it’s fantastic. It’s a rocketship. I guess I’m just going to have to wait and see.”

Dr. Battalia says he’s probably going to go with his “gut,” and that might mean getting the diesel engine fixed and driving it even with reduced power or fuel efficiency.

“I’ve owned a lot of cars, and this is a great car,” says Battalia, whose company provides medical services to ship crews in ports around the nation. “I’m disappointed that something has to change.”

Sherwood’s Brenda Johnson is just as upset because she and her husband bought their VW TDI “clean diesel” thinking they were doing something good for the environment. They also liked the fuel efficiency and longevity of the diesel engine, she says.

“It’s like anything that you buy, and you hope it will be a positive impact in the world of cars. We wanted to save fuel and be more environmentally friendly. And, of course, it didn’t turn out that way.”

Kevin L. Harden is digital media editor for Pamplin Media Group. 503-546-5167. email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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