How Volkswagen Scandal Has Influenced America’s Car Buyers

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As the American public continues to internalize just how bad the Volkswagen diesel scandal is, some of the biggest auto sales firms in the country are releasing data on how big a tidal wave VW is facing. Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader came out with a press release last week reporting on the quantifiable damage to the brand that could set the stage for Volkswagen sales numbers for a year or more.

Researchers for the firms are finding that a lot of customers have ‘lost trust’ in the German automaker, and that many of them are either not buying a diesel vehicle, or trying to unload one that they own.

One simple survey was an Autotrader “quick poll” released October 5, where the company interviewed 914 respondents. The poll found about one-third of those surveyed indicated they’re less likely to buy a diesel than they were before the news broke that Volkswagen was using “cheating” devices to misreport emissions data.

A more complex study was done by Kelley Blue Book (KBB) over the last week of September and involves over 1,000 respondents. Here, Kelley found multiple indications that Volkswagen’s scandal has really done damage to how people feel about its vehicles.

First, Kelley asked respondents whether they were aware of any diesel emissions problem at all. Only 64% indicated that they were. Of those, 96% cited Volkswagen as the primary manufacturer.

In addition, Kelley asked respondents how they felt about Volkswagen’s response to the problem. Over half said they have either “complete” or “general” mistrust in the automaker, with nearly 60% not sure if Volkswagen is really addressing the issue properly. Some 63% of respondents also referenced “intentional deceit,” showing that, in some ways, we now feel roughly the same way about parts of the auto industry as we do about, say, Wall Street.

As for the issue of other diesel automakers, 72% of respondents said the issue could be bigger than just a Volkswagen problem, and 42% think other carmakers are also playing fast and loose with EPA emission rules. This idea is supported by evidence, which we reported on last week, that cars from various makers are not getting the efficiency that is commonly reported, according to various test criteria.

Source: Collin Woodard/The Cheat Sheet
Source: Collin Woodard/The Cheat Sheet

For a very different picture of how people feel about Volkswagen’s diesel cars, Kelley also provided some numbers on some of the company’s website metrics. What they found was an astounding rate of trade-in value lookups on the site for Volkswagen TDI (at 79%) compared to total Volkswagen trade-in value lookups of around 10%.

They also found total research on Volkswagen increasing 15% for new cars, but actually decreasing for used cars during the last week since news broke of the emissions crisis. Autotrader also saw sellers getting aggressive: The site also found Volkswagen private seller activities for diesel up 19%.

At the same time that KBB and Autotrader are releasing these numbers, American Public Radio is delving into what happened at VW that allowed this kind of cheating to happen. In an October 14 segment on “All Things Considered,” NPR’s Jon Ydstie talks to several respondents in Germany about the automaker’s problems. One of them, Uwe Jean Heuser at Die Zeit, paints a Faustian picture of a company striving for No. 1, only to be toppled by their own greed.

“There were a couple of dominating people at the top,” Heuser said, “And that created this deceitful endeavor.” Heuser also names names: Ferdinand Piech and Martin Winterkorn, Heuser said, were the movers behind the engineering teams that could have put a stop to VW’s machinations. But, Heuser adds, these engineers were “motivated by the applause” of Piech and Winterkorn, and tried to please their bosses.

Winterkorn has since resigned, but Heuser also points to a more recent move where VW elevated a financial manager to board chair. This, he says, doesn’t inspire the regained trust that the company needs.

In the end, Volkswagen’s story seems to be one of over-ambition; like Icarus, company leaders flew too high, and brought down the roof around their heads. Winning back customers, including U.S. shoppers, may well require a corrective dose of humility.

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