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I’ve got two Volkswagen diesels. Will the emissions fix hurt performance and fuel economy?

A measuring hose for emissions inspections in diesel engines sticks in the exhaust tube of a Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TDI diesel car at a garage in Frankfurt an der Oder, eastern Germany, on October 1, 2015.

PATRICK PLEUL/AFP/Getty Images

We have two Golf TDI wagons, a 2013 and a 2011. Both were affected by the Volkswagen emissions scandal, and if I elect to have the "fix" installed and the result is not up to my expectations (bad gas mileage, sluggish performance), what recourse do I have? If I forgo the fix and continue to drive it as it is, am I liable for passing emission tests? And did we get as good a deal as the Americans? I cannot imagine what could be unique to the combustion chambers of VW TDI to produce nitrogen oxide – which, supposedly, does not happen in all the other diesel engines in the world. – Gordon, Claremont, Ont.

If you get the emissions fix for your Golf TDIs, they'll pollute less – but your fuel economy will get worse. That's partly why Volkswagen turned off the emissions controls in the first place.

"They're emitting lots of NOx [nitrogen oxide] because VW shut off the emission controls in the real world – it's very blatant," said John German, senior fellow with the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), who discovered the cheat in tests in 2013 and 2014. "We're not talking minor – these guys are emitting 2.5 times more than a Mack truck."

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Understanding the problem they're trying to fix might help you decide whether you want it. Along with other pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides are produced when your engine burns gasoline, diesel and even ethanol. They're bad, mainly because they lead to smog and acid rain.

"There are some direct health impacts from NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and that's primarily a proximity thing – if you're bicycling in a bike lane and you're three feet from a VW diesel, you're inhaling it," German said. "But NOx and NO2 contribute to the formation of ozone, and ozone is one of the larger air health problems in the U.S."

Simply exhausting

Any car with a tailpipe has emission controls. For diesel engines, there are two different ways – the lean NOx trap (LNT) and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) – to limit the amount of nitrogen oxides in the exhaust by turning them into other gases.

The bulk of the more than 11 million affected Volkswagen diesels had LNT, which stores NOx in a catalyst in a trap in the exhaust.

"You don't have much storage," German said. "About once a minute, you have to remove that stored NOx and reduce it."

The LNT system does this by injecting extra fuel into the exhaust, where it reacts with the oxygen in the NOx and converts it to nitrogen, German said.

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"So the penalty is additional fuel consumption, and it doesn't work as well as the SCR systems and it deteriorates faster," German said. "So they shut it off."

SCR uses ammonia in urea – which is found in smaller concentrations in urine, but urine won't work – as a catalyst to convert the NOx into nitrogen, water and traces of carbon dioxide.

"This is your AdBlue additive that you see a lot in heavy-duty trucks," German said. "Its downside is that the customer has to refuel the urea tank and that's a hassle. So if you shut it off, the customer doesn't have to refill the urea tank as often."

Cheaters never win?

VW used the defeat device for both systems in Volkswagens, Porsches and Audis. It also used cheaper, less durable parts in the emissions-control systems because it knew they would be off most of the time, German said.

With the cheat software, cars with both systems passed government tests on a dynamometer or treadmill that didn't measure pollution in real-world conditions.

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It was only detected when German's team hooked up sensors to actual vehicles and found emissions were up to 35 times the legal limit.

Other companies, including Fiat Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, have faced charges of using defeat devices to tamper with their emissions controls in some real-world situations, German said.

"But Volkswagen did two things no one else has ever done," German said. "They shut the emissions controls off all the time and they flat-out lied to the agencies for 18 months."

United States got better deal?

In April, Quebec and Ontario courts approved a $2.1-billion settlement for about 105,000 cars with 2.0-litre TDI engines after a class-action lawsuit.

Each owner got a payment between $5,100 and $8,000. Many had the choice to either sell their car back to Volkswagen or get an emissions modification approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) said Canadians fared better than Europeans on the deal, but American customers got 10 to 20 per cent more than Canadian customer when VW bought cars back, even without the difference in the exchange rate. That's because the Canadian deal based the resale value on the medium-low range of the book value.

The governments of Canada and Ontario have been "mostly passive," said APA president George Iny. "It's the Canadian law firms acting for the class and VW likely working internally that arrived at an agreement that is a relatively close copy of the U.S. deal."

Separate from the settlement and a $15-million penalty under the Competition Act, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has been investigating Volkswagen for two years but has yet to lay charges.

Beyond that, there are still class proceedings under way for 20,000 3.0-litre V-6 TDIs in Canada.

The fix is in?

Both the federal and Ontario environment ministries recommend the emissions fix if you're keeping your cars. The provinces regulate which vehicles stay on the road, and for now, the fix – which includes a software update and installation of more durable emissions components – isn't required.

If you decide to get it, there shouldn't be a noticeable change to performance as long as it's calibrated properly, German said. If it's not, the engine could "hesitate," he said.

"But fuel economy will take a 5 to 10 per cent hit on the [LNT] and 2 to 5 per cent hit on the [SCR]," he said.

We asked Volkswagen Canada if there was recourse if you're unhappy with the fix, and it pointed us to a letter to owners, which explains the fix, possible performance issues and the warranty extension covering emissions-related components.

"Customers should not notice any adverse changes in vehicle reliability, durability, or performance (for example, 0-100 km/h time, top speed, etc.)," it said. "Your vehicle's fuel consumption will increase by up to 0.4 litres/100 km."

Can you get the fix reversed if you're not happy? Not likely. Iny said the APA believes the settlement is final once accepted.

"There have been very few complaints related to performance after the engine modifications," Iny said. "Performance of the engine after the modification could be affected by the poor condition of the engine before the fix."

Volkswagen won't be testing the performance of every modified vehicle, and there is no tailpipe check, Iny said.

Owners have also complained that Volkswagen won't do the fix until unrelated repairs have been done – at the owner's expense.

"The later model diesel is unreliable with [an] expensive fuel injector and high-pressure diesel fuel pump repairs [being] fairly common." Iny said. "A situation aggravated by the fact that owners deferred maintenance and repairs after the cheating was revealed in September 2015; now some of them are facing large bills."

Affected cars already pass Drive Clean

Ontario is the only province with an emissions test. All light-duty vehicles – cars, trucks, SUVs – in Southern Ontario must pass the $30 Drive Clean test every two years once they're seven years old.

Drive Clean doesn't test tailpipe emissions on cars built after 1998; instead, it checks engine codes.

That means that unless there's been some other problem unrelated to the cheating, VW TDIs with the cheat have always passed the test.

And they should continue to pass, with or without the fix, German said.

"The reason they'll pass is because the on-board diagnostic system is set up to find malfunctions – where emissions have increased compared to how they were designed," he said. "On the vehicles without the fix, the emission controls work; they just haven't turned them on."

Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) said vehicles without the fix should pass Drive Clean – again, unless there's some other problem.

And cars with the fix? In the letter to owners, Volkswagen said it doesn't expect vehicles with the fix to have problems passing provincial emissions tests.

Asked if that was the case, MOECC said, "VW has not submitted 'their fix' to [us] for evaluation."

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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