UK cars affected in new emissions row

Some of the world's largest car makers - including Audi, Vauxhall and Volkswagen - are voluntarily recalling their models in Germany because of emissions issues, but cars in the UK are also affected

Words ByDarren Moss

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Cars in the UK are affected by a new emissions row which originated in Germany.

Earlier this week, five major car makers, including Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen Vauxhall and Mercedes-Benz announced they would voluntarily recall more than 630,000 cars in Germany after officials discovered irregularities with their emissions systems. However, it has since been confirmed that cars in UK are also affected.

In the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which engulfed the motor industry last year, car makers worldwide have come under scrutiny regarding the Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emission of their vehicles.

It’s important to note that all of the cars tested are technically legal, as they still fall within acceptable EU limits, but the results of the investigations are nonetheless worrying.

What Car? has prepared this guide to what’s going on, and how this latest diesel scandal could affect you.

What’s happened?

German car makers Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Opel (known as Vauxhall in this country), Porsche and Volkswagen are recalling more than 630,000 diesel cars in their home market of Germany. It has since been confirmed that cars in the UK are affected as well.

The voluntary recall is taking place because a German government investigation found that during testing, several cars produced by those manufacturers emitted far more NOx than had previously been recorded during laboratory testing.

The discretion between the laboratory figures and the data collected in real-world testing is said to be down to the temperature at which emissions reduction systems are operating, but more on that later.

The full list of cars deemed by the German government to have excessive NOx emissions includes the following diesel models:

Does this affect the UK?

So far, only Vauxhall and Suzuki have confirmed that cars in the UK are affected.

The news also follows a similar investigation by the UK government, which found that cars in this country were emitting up to six times the legal limit of NOx.

Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin has said he will be seeking β€œurgent clarification” from the manufacturers named above on whether they will be voluntarily recalling cars in the UK.

I own one of the affected cars – what do I need to do?

At the moment, you don’t need to do anything. If it turns out that your car does need to be recalled, expect to be contacted by your dealer and asked to book an appointment.

What are the car makers doing about it?

What Car? contacted all the manufacturers named above, and below is a summary of their responses.

  • Audi and Opel/Vauxhall have so far committed to offering voluntary software updates to every affected car in Europe, including the UK.
  • Jaguar Land Rover and Hyundai have both said that their cars fully comply with current EU legislation.
  • Alfa Romeo, Jeep, Fiat, Renault, Dacia and Volkswagen said they were unable to comment at the moment on whether UK cars are affected.
  • Suzuki says it will carry out a voluntary service action for customers in the UK, whereby owners of the diesel Vitara and S-Cross will be able to have a software update to improve emissions performance under real-world driving conditions.
  • Nissan says it currently has no plans to recall cars mentioned in the report.
  • Ford's C-Max was also included on the German government's list, but Ford says that because its emissions control systems do not shut down until the outside temperature reaches -10deg C, it does not consider itself to be involved.
  • Mercedes-Benz says it will also be offering a voluntary recall scheme for UK customers, but has yet to say which cars will be offered the upgrade, or how many cars are affected in this country.
  • Porsche has yet to comment.

Why are these cars emitting so much NOx?

Both the German and UK investigations have come to the same conclusion: that the discrepancy between how much NOx is being emitted under real-world driving conditions and in laboratory testing is down to ambient temperature.

Most engines feature measures to control and lower emissions, but these measures are only active between certain ambient temperatures. If the temperature outside is too hot or cold, the measures are shut down to protect the engine. In Mercedes-Benz models, for example, emissions controls were found to turn off below 10deg C, while in Opel/Vauxhall cars the controls are shut at 17deg C.

In most European countries, including the UK, that means the emissions systems will not be effective for much of the year, even though they may appear effective in the laboratory.

It is important to note, however, that so far no car maker has done anything illegal, as their cars still perform to within the limits of the current EU laboratory emissions tests.

Does this have anything to do with the Volkswagen emissions scandal?

This latest development is not directly related to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, but it is related to the issue of emissions. The scandal has put a large spotlight onto the motor industry, and especially on car makers who, until now, have been unwilling to release data on their cars’ emissions performance in the real world.

Have diesel emissions got better over time?

Yes, massively so. Cars in Europe must comply with what’s called a Euro standard – that’s the level of NOx they can emit to be legal. Over the years, the different stages of Euro legislation has significantly reduced the amount of NOx being emitted by diesel cars.

The previous Euro 5 standard, which came into force in 2009, allows diesel cars to emit 0.18g/km of NOx. The current Euro 6 standard allows diesels to emit just 0.08g/km.

Should I buy a diesel car?

This is really a personal decision. Diesel cars generally return better fuel economy than their petrol equivalents, but in recent years that gap has narrowed as petrol engines have become more efficient.

Diesel cars do emit more NOx than petrol cars, though, and NOx is a gas that can cause health problems for people who breathe it in. NOx also contributes to air pollution in big cities, including London.

It’s also worth thinking about your car tax. At the moment, drivers in the UK aren’t taxed more for driving a diesel car, but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen in the future. Councils and the UK government are under pressure to reduce emissions in our cities, and β€˜outlawing’ older diesel cars has been suggested before.

In 2017, the current car tax system is due an overhaul, and while those changes won’t penalise diesel drivers outright, they are likely to make it less financially beneficial to own a diesel car.

Buying a diesel car only makes sense if you do a lot of miles. If you don’t, then it’s worth looking at petrol alternatives, or even considering a hybrid or electric vehicle. Try What Car?'s petrol versus diesel calculator here.