For Minnesota VW diesel drivers, watching -- and waiting -- after emissions scandal

Kent Peterson and his diesel VW Golf
Kent Peterson, 60, of Minneapolis, sits behind the wheel of his 2015 diesel Volkswagen Golf.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Volkswagen is facing a mountain of litigation and possible criminal penalties after the company admitted its engineers programmed 11 million diesel cars sold worldwide to cheat on emissions tests. In the U.S., that affects 482,000 VW owners, including many in Minnesota.

Kent Peterson, 60, of Minneapolis, bought a 2015 VW Golf less than a year ago. Wanting to do his part for the environment, he said the fuel economy of 45 miles to the gallon and extremely low advertised emissions won him over at a time when he was considering an electric vehicle.

"I was convinced that I was driving a green car," he said. "Now I find out that there's nitrous oxide and other really kind of heavy pollutants."

This is Peterson's third VW Golf in as many decades and his first diesel. Peterson said the car's performance is phenomenal, and it's hard to believe it burns a fuel long associated with foul-smelling, smoke-belching trucks and buses.

"It takes nothing at all ... and suddenly the turbo kicks in, and you realize we're doing 80 miles an hour. And it's just this smooth quiet ride," he said. "It's a fun car to drive. I like this thing. It's frustrating."

While he clearly loves driving the Golf, Peterson said he feels Volkswagen betrayed him after 30 years as a loyal customer by lying about the car's environmental benefits.

Many of the other 482,000 Americans who own late-model VW diesels no doubt feel the same way. But here in Minnesota at least, they're not showing up at dealerships wielding torches made of diesel-soaked rags.

Steve Hendricks, general manager of Luther Westside VW in St. Louis Park, said the 20 percent of his customers who have bought diesel Jettas, Beetles, Golfs and Passats in recent years have called with questions about how they can get their cars fixed.

Hendricks says he doesn't have an answer yet; he's still waiting to hear from VW headquarters in Germany. But Hendricks suspects turbodiesel owners will just have to come in for a quick update to the car's computer system. "It's really just going to be an updated software for most of the cars, I would say," Hendricks said. "It's just a matter of getting the right software in from Volkswagen, which they're working on right now. And we should have that hopefully in the not too distant future."

A software patch would keep the cars' pollution controls on whenever the engine is running, not just during tailpipe tests in the jurisdictions that require them. Minnesota doesn't require emissions tests.

But Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the automotive news website DetroitBureau.com, said the fix may not be that simple. Eisenstein said he thinks a software update could reduce performance and fuel economy. But he said VW may also have to fix the cars' hardware pollution controls.

"This software may have to go for the maximum emissions controls," Eisenstein said. "They may wind up simply cutting performance and mileage. And if they can't do it with software, then the question becomes: what else do they have to put on the cars?"

Eisenstein said that with repairs, lawsuits, possible customer refunds and fines from multiple countries, the recall will cost Volkswagen billions. The company has reportedly set aside $7.2 billion already. But it may need a lot more than that. In the U.S. alone, the Clean Air Act allows for fines of $37,500 per vehicle sold in the country. Do the math, and that's more than $18 billion.

As for Kent Peterson, the Minneapolis Golf owner, he said he really ought to get his money back, but he remains conflicted about whether to keep driving VWs.

"Buy it back. No questions asked, minus depreciation, I get it," he said. "And, what do you have on the lot for a hybrid? I know there's a hybrid gas-electric that VW makes. Would I look at that? You know, I kind of like these Volkswagens."

Peterson said he'd consider keeping his Golf if any eventual software fix to reduce emissions doesn't cut his performance or fuel economy. But since VW lied about his car's environmental bona fides once, Peterson said he's not sure he'll trust the company even after they've made amends.

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