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Why the Volkswagen scandal could be good news for MPG

Published 23 September 2015

When news about a car manufacturer becomes top story on the BBC News website, you know it’s not about slightly improved efficiency from the latest German city car…

…Hang on a second!

Yep, Volkswagen has been cheating its emissions tests in America. And we don’t even have to use the word ‘allegedly’ in that statement. The big boss, CEO Martin Winterkorn, has admitted it and everything. Here’s our original story if you want more detail.

From a company that’s currently making big noises in America about the environmental credentials of its diesel engines – a market that wholeheartedly favours ‘gas’, remember – the whole thing is like the CEO of Coca Cola admitting that the “part of an active lifestyle” stuff is nonsense. Then wheeling out a fat kid in a Coke t-shirt, pointing at him and laughing.

It’s not just that Volkswagen is making, say, a 110g/km CO2 car perform at, say, 99g/km – it’s that the company is preventing its diesels from spewing 40 times America’s legally permitted levels of nitrogen oxides into the air during the US emissions test.

Once back out on the road, it’s been found, the cars merrily return to choking all elderly people and cute kittens in their wake. Not literally.

The cheat could include up to 11 million diesel cars globally, although a mere 500,000 are being recalled in the US as of now. Volkswagen has set aside almost £5bn to cover the costs.


                  Martin Winterkorn (right) with a mystery friend. Imagine your own caption...

Those costs include cover for every American that will inevitably sue the pants off Volkswagen for lying – including those who’ve never owned nor even been near a Volkswagen – and the fine that American's Environmental Protection Agency (you may remember them as the baddies in The Simpsons Movie) can administer. It could be up to £25,000 per recalled car. Yep, that’s per car. You do the mathematics.

And there’s every chance that as new investigations open worldwide we’ll find recalls happening in Europe, and from other manufacturers. Ford, BMW and Nissan have already denied the practice, it’s worth noting.

It’s early days and over the next few months the facts and allegations will ebb and flow like an errant particulate in an exhaust system, but in a nutshell, the car industry has many billions of problems. And that’s before a possible US criminal action from on high. (That’s Washington, not God, although they tend to be the same thing over the pond.)

The UK Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has moved quickly to allay the logical concerns of UK buyers on the wake of the scandal, releasing a statement yesterday (22 September) that said: "consumers should be reassured that cars sold in the UK must comply with strict European laws. All cars must complete a standard emissions test, which, unlike in the US, is independently witnessed by a government-appointed independent agency."

But the truth is, whether your car has ‘cheated’ the EU test or not makes no difference whatsoever. And even if it has, this whole thing could, ultimately, be good news for all drivers. Even Volkswagen owners.

Why? Your car’s MPG rating has very little to do with the economy return you actually get. It never has done. Everybody knows this.

Even if every manufacturer told us they cheat the test as a matter of course, we all know that the EU economy test has never been in any sense a reflection of real life. Unless your reality is parking your car in your front room with a treadmill beneath each wheel and keeping it at a steady 1800rpm during Corrie.

This is exactly why we set up Real MPG at Through your submissions we have data to prove that the EU test is ingloriously antiquated and in desperate need of change.

The SMMT has been prompted to admit it, saying in the same statement that it "accepts the current test method for cars is out of date and is seeking agreement from the European Commission for a new emissions test that embraces new testing technologies and which is more representative of on-road conditions."

Excellent news. So as a result of all this brouhaha we might actually end up with an MPG test that tells us what we can actually expect to get from our cars – what they’ll actually cost in fuel, in real life, where we all live, with our lead boots and our air conditioning. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

And while we’re at it, it would be nice to have it expressed in a manner that means something. Miles per litre, for example, or even litres per 100 miles.

“One litre of fuel in this car should be enough to get me to Flamingo Land and back, for £1.16.”

Assuming all the flamingos have survived the nitrogen apocalypse, wouldn’t it be really lovely to be able to say that? Thanks, Volkswagen.

Read all the latest news on the emissions scandal


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