Volkswagen Illegally Sold Pre-Production Test Cars Instead of Crushing Them

The cars—riddled with defects big and small—were never certified for road use.

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Developing a new car takes time, money, and a whole fleet of pre-production test models, all of which are usually crushed in the end. After all, they're full of tiny flaws and minute differences compared to the finished product, and they're not certified for road use. But according to a new report in Der Spiegel, that didn't stop Volkswagen from illegally selling at least 6,700 test models to unsuspecting buyers in Europe and North America over the past decade.

Volkswagen Group is still reeling from the fumes of Dieselgate, the sprawling emissions scandal that continues to haunt the world's largest automaker with billions in fines and criminal charges for executives three years after it emerged. This latest news isn't connected to that folly, but its details—now confirmed by the company—might be just as damaging to VW's tenuous grip on the public's trust. We've reached out to Volkswagen for more, and we'll update if we hear back.

According to Der Spiegel, starting in 2006 the automaker began secretly selling off its pre-production Volkswagen cars as both new and used models, depending on the mileage. Other brands in the empire reportedly weren't affected. There is a process for doing this legally, even if manufacturers typically want to avoid giving people an up-close look at a new car's messy development—VW would have to document exactly how these cars differed from the final production version and inform both industry regulators and its own dealers about their true provenance. But that was never done.

Instead, Volkswagen simply shipped the test cars off to unsuspecting dealers and buyers and collected the cash. As Handelsblatt points out, the 6,700 cars in question pale in comparison to the estimated 11 million diesel models swept up in the emissions scandal worldwide, though the magazine also claims to have seen internal documents suggesting the real number of cars with "unclear construction status" could be as high as 17,000. In a follow-up report, Der Spiegel also confirmed a much higher number. 

Either way, it's another self-inflicted wound for Volkswagen, who's announced a recall in Europe and yet another buyback plan to take the cars in question off the road. Critically, Der Spiegel claims that CEO Herbert Diess knew about the situation back in 2016—yet it remained a secret for another two years until the company came clean to Germany's Motor Transport Authority in September. 

The real risk here is that Volkswagen appears to have no documentation on what exactly is wrong with these cars. A company spokesman told Handelsblatt that some of the models just need a software update to become compliant with the production version, while others are so riddled with differences and flaws that they should be scrapped immediately. Volkswagen says it's not aware of any crashes, injuries, or deaths related to the test cars, and it "deeply regret[s]" the deceit.

But the company's legal troubles are far from over. Apologies don't count for much in the court of law, and Der Spiegel reports German authorities are now examining whether or not to impose more heavy fines on Volkswagen. The automaker could also face a fresh round of lawsuits from aggrieved customers and dealers. As one German auto industry representative told Handelsblatt, "It's a gigantic mistake."

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