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Mumbai/New Delhi: Think Volkswagen (VW). Do you Think Blue? German engineering?

Or do you think emissions fraud? Recalls? Utter confusion?

On 1 April, Volkswagen India Pvt. Ltd said it is recalling 3,877 Vento cars with a 1.5-litre diesel engine and manual gearbox due to inconsistent carbon monoxide (CO) emissions that were observed to be at times exceeding the threshold limits during the Conformity of Production (COP) tests done by the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI).

VW has decided to temporarily stop sales of the manual gearbox version of the Vento with a 1.5-litre diesel engine.

According to people familiar with the development, in March 2016, ARAI conducted a surprise emission test on the Vento at the company’s plant at Chakan, near Pune—on shiny, squeaky clean vehicles, in line to be shipped to dealers across the country.

What did ARAI find? The CO emissions were far higher—not yet clear by how much—compared with the emission number claimed by VW India in its product approval document filed with ARAI.

According to a senior executive at a rival firm, CO levels are minimal in diesel cars and if ARAI has found variations then it is “a precarious situation".

The emission episode was handled by VW and other group firms were only informed a few days ago, a top executive at VW Group India said on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Apart from VW India, other VW Group firms in the country are Skoda Auto India Pvt. Ltd, Audi India and Porsche India.

“I don’t know how long it has been going on," the executive added.

In an e-mailed response to a set of questions from Mint, a VW spokesperson said: “The COP tests are not surprise tests. These are done periodically and in the latest tests, only in case of the manual transmission version of the Vento with 1.5-litre diesel engine, inconsistencies have been observed."

But this is not the first time that ARAI has pulled up VW.

In December 2015, Volkswagen recalled 323,000 vehicles in India, the largest such exercise in the country.

What happened then? A government-ordered probe found that about 323,000 cars of VW, Skoda and Audi (all VW brands) in India were running on EA 189 diesel engines. These engines (all variants—1.2-litre, 1.5-litre, 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre) had the so-called defeat device, or software that can detect when a car is being tested and manipulate performance to improve results. The defeat device allowed the cars to pass emission control tests by showing much lower levels of pollution than when they are in ordinary use. In what’s now well known as a global diesel emissions scandal, in the US, it was found that emission levels of VW diesel cars were 40 times above permissible levels.

VW contested ARAI’s findings. The company denied the presence of any defeat devices in its diesel cars. Except, as a goodwill gesture, the company said it would recall the cars and fix them—the software and some hardware.

In VW corporate speak: “To be in line with the latest technical updates on the EA 189 diesel engines announced by Volkswagen AG for the European markets, Volkswagen Group India had announced a voluntary recall of all cars with EA 189 engines in India too."

That recall is on.

Four months later comes the emission mess with the Vento. And the Skoda Rapid, one would assume. (There has been no announcement on this yet but a Rapid is just a Vento by another name.)

At this point, a few simple questions must be asked. What’s going on at VW India? What is the extent of the emissions problem? Is there an emissions problem in VW cars, over and above the defeat device issue? Why?

The irony of this situation is VW doesn’t seem to have all the answers. For the questions it does, they seem far from satisfactory. All the company has to say is that the Vento recall has nothing to do with the global defeat device issue. That VW is “analysing the issue and will propose technical measures to ARAI to solve this inconsistency at the earliest".

Right from the day the emissions issue came to light, there have been curious developments in India. “The whole company is a mess," said a former VW executive, who requested that he not be named because he has quit the company and doesn’t want to get into any trouble. “The senior officials did a townhall in batches of 80 or 100 people in October last year. This was around the defeat device issue. In a nutshell, they were completely clueless and had no idea if the cars were meeting Indian emission norms because of the defeat device. They said only Germany (VW headquarters) knows."

“But for Germany, India is not a priority. They have a bigger mess to take care of in other important markets like US and Europe. So there was a divergence in messaging."

Even as VW was looking for answers, the government of India stepped in. The top VW executive quoted earlier in the story was part of several meetings between several government bodies and VW. It will be fair to say that he isn’t satisfied, even in the least bit, about how the issue was handled.

“There was a meeting on 1 December 2015 in DHI (department of heavy industry) when the baton was passed on from DHI to MoRTH (ministry of road transport and highways)," he said. “DHI was designated as a nodal body to the industry. But its role is limited only till putting the facts forward. They probably did not even realize what they were getting into. Then when they realized it is very deep, they transferred it to MoRTH. ARAI’s role was just getting data from us. They just said that we have sent you the letter. And you come back to us. The Germans came to the conclusion that ARAI was shooting in the air. The issue was also meant to go to the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) panel. But it never went."

In the end, a peaceful settlement was engineered. Recall: yes. Presence of defeat devices in cars: no way.

“We were specifically told to take a back seat and follow what VW says," added the executive. “Some people were vocal about things. Their view was simple: that if you have a defeat device then you can’t be obnoxious. You’ve got to take a more transparent approach. Thanks for your opinion but we don’t want it, they were told."

The company later denied having used defeat devices in its cars in India.

“It is a black box. Nobody knows what’s happening. The global direction was: this is an issue that is created and handled by VW," the executive said.

Now, with the Vento recall, things have gotten a little murkier.

At VW, nobody really seems to have any clue as to how or why the Vento failed the ARAI emission test. There are a whole host of questions which need greater clarity.

The Vento 1.5-litre diesel engine is a year-old engine, developed so that the Polo hatchback could qualify for the sub-4 metre and under-1,500cc excise duty benefit. It was developed in-house. Why does it have an emission problem?

Volkswagen India is currently analysing the root cause for the inconsistency in CO emissions from the manual gearbox version of the Vento with the localized 1.5-litre diesel engine.

The Polo hatchback uses the same 1.5-litre diesel engine. Why is it that the Polo is kosher and the Vento is not?

The COP test impacts only the manual gearbox version of the Vento with the 1.5-litre diesel engine which could be due to its different operation load, arising out of the higher weight of the car.

The same 1.5-litre diesel engine is used in the Skoda Rapid. It is actually the same car. What happens to the Rapid?

The production of Skoda Rapid with 1.5-litre diesel engine and manual gearbox has also been stopped temporarily.

Why only manual and not the DSG transmission variant of the Vento?

The DSG gearbox has different operation points as compared to a manual gearbox, leading to different emission results.

According to a senior executive from a rival firm, in the DSG gearbox, the basic gear ratios are different compared with the manual gearbox. “As a result, the ratios of the engine speed to final wheel speed differ. These ratios are different in both these models. That impacts emissions," the executive said.

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