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Volkswagen Faces Uphill Battle In Repairing Tarnished Reputation


Volkswagen now faces two enormously difficult repair jobs. First, fixing millions of polluting VW diesel vehicles, and second, fixing Volkswagen's reputation after the company was found cheating on emissions tests. Car companies have patched their battered brands before, but, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, the scandal at Volkswagen is different.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Some practices on Capitol Hill get repeated so often, they become rituals. Every year or so a car CEO gets taken to the woodshed by Congress. It's kind of like an annual rite - the shaming of the car executives.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't see here in GM they're just whistleblowers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You would also be insane if the top executives from the three automakers came here on private jets.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You just can't say now, now, and forget the past because people died.

GLINTON: Those were from car hearings past - General Motors' ignition switch, the auto bailout, Takata air bags, et cetera. And I don't have to play you a montage to give you a sense of how Congress feels about Volkswagen this week - this bit of tape from Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky does the trick.


JAN SCHAKOWSKY: The company's word isn't worth a dime. The only thing I want to hear today is exactly how will Volkswagen make this right by consumers.

REBECCA LINDLAND: It's just another black mark against an industry that, to some extent, people love to hate.

GLINTON: Rebecca Lindland is senior auto analyst with KBB.com. She says the backlash against Volkswagen is different. Beyond the inherent deception, Lindland says the cheat feels personal to people in the U.S. who specifically sought out VW, especially Gen Xers, who are most loyal to the brand.

LINDLAND: We went out on a limb. You know, we didn't go with the obvious choices of a Chevrolet or a Honda. We went with a Volkswagen, and that's a statement.

GLINTON: Lindland says fixing that relationship will take years, and so will fixing the actual cars.

LINDLAND: The reason that the fix is going to take so long over time is that there's a number of different generations that are involved and there's a number of different fixes. So not all vehicles can be fixed through a software upgrade.

GLINTON: Lindland and others say as bad as it may seem for Volkswagen, the company could actually improve its relationship with customers by handling the fix quickly and well. Jack Fitzgerald has been a car dealer since 1966, and he's had two VW dealerships since the '90s. He says when it comes to the VW fix, speed matters.

JACK FITZGERALD: Well, the most important thing they can do is to get the matter resolved quickly, get whatever the fix is going to be, and get it installed. And the sooner they do that the sooner the interest in the media will calm down.

GLINTON: Fitzgerald says the anger people feel about Volkswagen is anger he's felt many times before about other big car companies.

FITZGERALD: Is it cheating to knowingly put out a car with a defective emissions switch that you could fix for a buck or less? How about air bags that you were told by your own employees, it's going to blow up. But you do it anyway. Isn't that cheating?

GLINTON: Fitzgerald says customers have a right to be angry, but he's not surprised.

FITZGERALD: These manufacturers do so many things like this so I suspect that we will periodically run into things like this forever.

GLINTON: Fitzgerald says the real fix would be if consumers paid more attention to recalls, and regulators found the problems and caught the cheaters sooner. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton
Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.