Friday, January 15, 2016

Dieselgate . . . A Different Perspective

Holy crap, it's been a while since I last posted!  Happy 2016, everyone!!!

As most of you know, I currently drive a 2003 Acura 3.2CL Type-S 6-Speed as my primary nice-weather car.  My winter car and musical-equipment-schlepper is a 2002 Volkswagen Passat GLX 5-Speed wagon.  I feel that both cars are unicorns of sorts (more on that in an upcoming post) and I absolutely love both of them.  Both cars have high mileage -- the Acura has 165K and the VW has 184K.  Both cars also are in very good running order.  While they are old and need the occasional fix, I still pay far less on average each month to keep these cars on the road than I would pay toward a loan on a new car.

In short, I have no need to replace either car, and I have no immediate plans to replace either car.  However, I consider myself an opportunist in that I always have an eye out for the best time to make key purchases.  I know that I want my Volkswagen's eventual replacement to be a wagon, I want it to have a manual transmission, I want it to be simultaneously fun to drive and economical, and I want it to be well-equipped like my current car (heated seats, automatic climate control, a KILLER stereo, etc.).  I won't settle for anything less, and I am aware that manual transmissions and wagons both aren't desired by more than a small single-digit percentage of the U.S. car buying public.

The ramification of this is that there are barely any new stick-shift wagons available in this country.  The Subaru Outback hasn't offered a manual transmission since 2014 (though inexplicably, the Canadian model offers one), and it hasn't offered one in combination with a leather interior since 2009.  Volvo hasn't offered a stick in their wagons since the late 2000s.  Neither has Audi.  BMW retired the stick-shift option from their wagons in the early 2010s.  Acura offered a wagon version of its Goldilocks-perfect TSX sedan from 2011 until 2015, yet inexplicably they didn't offer it with the sedan's buttery-smooth six-speed stick.  Had they offered the stick on the wagon, I would've bought one in a heartbeat.  Volkswagen has offered a manual transmission in its Jetta and Passat wagons pretty consistently, but packaging it with things like a premium stereo, leather or leatherette seating, automatic climate control, etc., has been pretty much impossible since about 2010.  I also know that, long-term, neither wagons nor manual transmissions are poised to make a resurgence in this market anytime soon, so when something comes along that fits the criteria, I need to give it some serious thought.

Such a car appeared at the NY Auto Show a couple years ago.  It was a wagon version of the just-released seventh generation of the Volkswagen Golf.  It has VW's TDI "clean diesel" motor that promised well over 40 mpg in real-world highway driving, it had a six-speed manual transmission (hereafter known as a 6MT), and it was brilliantly designed, comfortable, and well-built.  I knew that if they were to pair the diesel motor and the 6MT with the outstanding Fender sound system offered on the Golf hatchback, I'd buy one.

Sure enough, such a configuration was offered when the Golf Sportwagen came to market as a late 2015 model.  The Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen TDI SEL 6MT featured the diesel motor, the 6MT, the Fender stereo, automatic climate control, and a seemingly bottomless list of standard and available luxury items.  Critically, it was viewed by many as the "perfect" all-around car.  The entire VW Golf family won Motor Trend's prestigious Car of the Year award.  The TDI motor was well-known to EXCEED its rated fuel economy numbers, particularly when paired with the 6MT.  It was absolutely the car for me, and I found out there were two upgrades coming for 2016 that would make it an even better car for me.  One was the addition of a new, faster audio head unit that supported Apple CarPlay.  The other was the addition of an improved driver assistance package that newly included adaptive cruise control (cruise that maintains a preset following distance as well as a preset speed; it'd be amazing on the roads I take to work), automated parking (you control the pedals and the car steers; not something I need but something that could occasionally come in handy), and many other items.  I made plans in my head to take my 2002 Passat through this winter, and buy a loaded 2016 Golf Sportwagen TDI SEL 6MT in the spring, once prices had come down on the Golf.  The Golf Sportwagen, configured as described above, was almost too good to be true.

I noticed in September that, while several 2016 examples of the GAS-POWERED Golf Sportwagen were appearing on, none with the TDI motor were appearing.  Shortly thereafter, news of Dieselgate broke.  For those that don't know, Volkswagen was outed for installing "cheat devices" on its TDI motors.  These cheat devices would program the car to run in a "clean" mode when they detected an EPA emissions test cycle, and would defeat the "clean" programming in normal conditions.  This resulted in multiple times the legally allowed amount of pollutants being allowed to enter the environment.  A stop-sale was placed on the 2016 TDI models and stays in effect as VW furiously works with several agencies to create and implement an acceptable method to reduce emissions while maintaining the performance and efficiency for which the TDI motors are known.

So what happened to the 2016 TDIs waiting on dealer lots, unable to be sold?  Well, when I brought my Passat in for service in November, I was surprised to receive a TDI edition of the 2015 Passat as a loaner car.  I later put two and two together, and realized that the dealers were finding probably the only allowable use of something otherwise useless to them.  While my Passat loaner didn't have a 6MT (thank you, automatic-loving American car buyers), the TDI motor nevertheless was a torquey, snappy little monster that still returned 40+ mpg under my lead foot.  I can only imagine how amazingly it would perform in the lighter Golf Sportwagen, and I hope some day to find out on a daily basis.

You may ask why I don't buy the gas-powered version of the Golf Sportwagen SEL?  Here's why.  Volkswagen only offers a manual transmission on the entry level "S" model of the Sportwagen if the gas motor is selected.  In other words, if I want a stick shift, I can't get the Fender stereo, the leatherette seating, the automatic climate control, the drivers' assistance package, the heated seats, and most of the other luxuries that were partially responsible for my attraction to the Golf.  That, my friends, is a deal breaker, and not something I'm willing to compromise on.

If VW comes up with a fix for the TDI motor that brings its emissions in line with current legal requirements, without compromising the responsiveness and efficiency I love about that motor, I would still buy one.  This is for three reasons.  The first is that it'd still honestly be a damn fine car that meets my needs better than anything else currently for sale.  The second is that it's in a class of one; it has no direct competitors.  Finally, while VW cheated on regulations and was/is responsible for huge quantities of illegal pollution, it didn't do something even close to what General Motors did when it deliberately green-lighted subpar ignition switches on a series of small cars.  These ignition switches saved GM a few bucks at the direct expense of human life.  That the penalties being sought of Volkswagen are higher than those sought of GM is absurd to the highest degree.  

If VW does NOT fix and re-market the TDI Golf Sportwagen, I'll be hanging on to my Passat for quite a while, and if the Passat doesn't last, I'll have to take a hard look at one of the following cars.

1.  Volkswagen's own GTI hot-hatch version of the Golf.  Why they don't offer a GTI version of the Sportwagen is beyond me!

2.  Honda's upcoming Civic hatchback, provided they offer the fully-loaded trim with a manual transmission (unlikely, which is too bad, as the new Civic is an outstanding car with a terrific 1.5T four-banger).

3.  A fully loaded Mazda3 hatchback.  My cousin currently drives one and it's a fantastic little car.

None of these vehicles would have nearly the cargo capacity, nor the fuel efficiency, of the Golf Sportwagen TDI.

In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy my 2002 Passat.  In an upcoming post, I'll delve into its several attributes that make it so fantastic and such a unicorn in its competitive set and in the automotive landscape as a whole.  Until then, be well everyone!