Dieselgate From the Driver’s Seat – Series Finale

It’s over. I’ve un-dieseled. But the road to get there had a lot more bumps and a lot of unplanned long stretches between milestones. Think of detours on the way to a moving destination. I was starting to get the impression that this would never be over. In fact, I have three fuel receipts with “Last tank!” written on them.

But let’s go back a few months and see how we got there. On December 19, 2016, the courts finally gave preliminary approval to the terms of the Canadian TDI settlement. On March 31, after a nerve-wracking few weeks to answer the Ontario judge’s questions on the fairness of the settlement, final approval was granted to the deal by the courts. It’s a go!

VW’s settlement website promised that the claim portal would go live in April. The claim process is being handled by Ricepoint, the same firm that handled 400,000-plus claims in the US TDI settlement. You would think that handling a similar Canadian deal, with a fourth of the volume, would be a piece of cake for them. It wasn’t. And isn’t.

Murphy’s Code

28 days into April, you’re technically still in April, right? That’s the date the claim portal went live. Ricepoint also made us wait until 1:30 pm. When you have thousands of frustrated and impatient customers waiting in front of their screen to punch in their claim, why not open the portal in the middle of the day when everybody will try to access at once? The portal crashed, utterly. I’m usually the type to wait a bit behind and let the crowds roam through the doors, then walk in once the rush is over. But, as the Blues Brothers would say, I’m on a mission from God here.

I have to teach my autoTRADER.ca community how to go through the claim process without a hitch. So I ran through the open portal with the mob at 1:30 pm sharp, with the firm intent of grabbing the very first appointment at my chosen dealership.

After filling in a few screens of basic personal information, the portal went in error mode. Just like an old gas lawnmower, it would catch again for a few clicks, then die on you again. After a few rounds of this, Ricepoint closed the portal.

TDI pages on Facebook went nuts with frustrated claimants. Later in the evening, the portal finally came back online, so I started my claim, even though I now felt like the guy who’s getting a full transaxle swap during the 24 Hours of Le Mans – yes, I’m still in the running, but any podium dreams are over. I was, however, able to complete my claim and upload all the required files on April 28th. And the endurance race analogy – I crossed the finish line on July 4th.

40,000 of us TDI owners had already filed a claim on the portal by May 10th. Judging by what I could read on social media, it seems diesel owners fit in two camps: those that have new cars lined up and want to go through the claim process in a hurry, and those who intend to drive their TDI until the September 1, 2018 deadline. For those of you who are either in the claim process or have yet to start it up, here’s a step-by-step guide to saying bye-bye to your TDI.

Step 1: Decide on your claim option

There are myriad TDI ownership profiles; some are leasing, some bought their cars outright. Some have active loans, others have paid off their cars, busted their mileage allowances, or have had insurance repairs.

We can’t cover everything here, so let’s concentrate on the three basic choices you have to make:

  • sell the car back to VW/Audi (buyback)
  • trade it in on a new VW/Audi product or any used vehicle on a VW/Audi dealer’s lot
  • if applicable, have the car repaired free of charge by VW/Audi

This last option is available for all TDIs from model year 2015, plus VW Passat TDI vehicles from model years 2012–2014, but only for units with automatic transmissions.

As an owner of a 2015 Volkswagen Golf TDI, I had all three options to pick from and went with the trade-in. Having no control over the settlement timeline makes the trade-in a tricky option to manage. To further complicate things, I set my sights on getting a 2017 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, a rather rare plug-in hybrid of which only 81 copies were slated for Quebec for the whole model year. To get one in the basic trim I wanted, I made hypotheses on how the claim would proceed and placed a deposit on a unit that was still in Germany. By my calculations, I would be able to take delivery of the car within the usual 30-day window that dealers tolerate. The car got here on time, but neither me nor the dealer had anticipated that the very first TDI appointment in our region would be scheduled nearly two months after the claim portal opened.

Lesson learned: if going the trade-in route, make sure your VW/Audi dealer is ready to hold your new car beyond the usual 30-day window. Seeing no signs of protest from my own dealer for the three-month hold of my car, I suspect inventory compensations were part of the settlement details dealership could not legally share with customers.

Step 2: Get ready to park your TDI

Spoiler alert: Ricepoint can’t follow the infamous 20-day period mentioned in the settlement documents. But boy will they hold you to your word. Before you undergo the claim process online, do consider what current mileage you will enter for your vehicle, and be ready to limit yourself to the allowed 2,000 km between filing the claim and your TDI appointment. Even if Ricepoint takes four months instead of 20 days to complete your claim, that delay will have no effect on your kilometre allowance. I phoned the assistance line many times to fully understand how the 20 day/2,000 km allowance is actually applied, and I got the same erroneous information confirmed three times.

When a Ricepoint employee calls you to verify your current mileage and confirm your appointment, don’t believe their claim that the 2,000 km starts at the time of the phone call. I learned on appointment day that the countdown began when I filed my claim. Even though I phoned the assistance line to double-check before driving over the claim-plus-2,000 km odometer reading, I ended up losing trade-in value despite all my efforts to get a clear answer, and it nearly voided my second appointment. Ricepoint is giving wrong information, but it’s the customer who pays.

My advice here: plan ahead, and get ready to live with the 2,000 km allowance for a few months, even if it means parking the car.

Step 3: Get your docs ready

The claim portal will require you to upload images of your driver’s licence, vehicle registration (both sides), and proof of ownership as of September 18, 2015. If you don’t have access to a scanner, you can either take clear digital pictures of the documents, or send copies by mail. No matter which option you choose, prepare your documents in advance. The proof of ownership has caught many claimants off guard. Initially, only the original sales contract with all signatures was accepted.

For a guy that keeps papers forever, I had the bad surprise of finding only a final sales quote, not a signed contract, in my files. I uploaded that anyway on April 28, and on May 1 the portal showed the document was not accepted.

At that point, I called the dealership where I bought the Golf two years ago and they sent me a scanned copy of the signed contract, which I uploaded to the portal on May 2. For many claimants, original sales contracts were not available for a multitude of reasons (remember: the settlement applies to vehicles sold up to nine years ago). Ricepoint added the option of supplying vehicle registration documents that cover the September 18, 2015 date – best of luck finding it through your province’s vehicle registration bureau. Before starting your claim, I strongly suggest you have all scanned documents ready on a folder in your computer.

Step 4: Watch for brand-switch pitfalls

Because the Canadian settlement innovated with a trade-in option not available in the US, VW/Audi were kind enough to allow us to move between the two brands. This broke the mould Ricepoint followed in the US, and not all cross-brand features were ready for primetime when the claim portal opened.

Most notable: when picking the dealership where your transaction will take place, cross-brand options were not present (if you own a VW, you were only shown VW dealerships, and vice-versa). Social media scans revealed many of us V-dub owners were moving to Audi, so many questions remained unanswered. If this is still the case when you make your claim, just pick the dealership that’s most convenient for you at this time – you will be able to change it come booking time. (And that is where you’ll need to avoid the longest reptile on the snake and ladder board of the claim process… See Step 6.)

Step 5: Claim process – Leg 1, Long wait ahead

Your plan is set, your docs are scanned, let’s file that claim! The first leg of the claim consists of steps 1 through 15 of the portal’s claim process. First you’ll need to register as with any other website. Make sure you have your vehicle’s VIN number handy, as you’ll need it right away. Based on the VIN, the portal will confirm what car model and configuration you currently own – make sure it’s a match. Next, set a nickname for the car – it’s easier than staying with the VIN.

Ricepoint will then ask you if the vehicle is titled to a business or company, and if you’re filing on behalf of somebody else (in which case you’ll need a signed Power of Attorney letter – be ready). Know which dealership you want your appointment to take place at, as this is the following step. There, the profile is complete!

The following questions cover ownership or lease of the vehicle, loan status, if the vehicle is operable or not, and the very binding, most important thing you’ll enter for the whole claim: your current odometer reading (see Step 2). After a couple of questions on the state of your vehicle, you will be shown preliminary offers for all three scenarios, as well as a tentative return date that doesn’t mean anything, really (I picked May 13, and the earliest appointment turned out to be June 19). In my case, total settlement benefits were $30,390, with a “Fair Market Value Credit” of $20,400 that turned out to be a cloud of smoke, even if I had held close to the 2,000 km allowance.

At this time, you do not have to choose an option if you’re still hesitating, but your claim will be paused at this step if you don’t. Once you submit your choice and confirm the basic vehicle data, you will be treated to even more questions on the state of the vehicle and its ownership, such as any existing liens or flood damage. In my case, in the interest of reporting the process ASAP, I cleared my loan in the spring and started my claim from a clean slate, hoping to breeze through the whole thing. Depending on your situation, extra steps may appear in the process. Once all vehicle data is entered and a choice made, it’s time to upload the documents from Step 3 and you will be entering a long waiting period during which Ricepoint verifies your documents and processes you claim.

It took 18 days for my claim to reach Step 6 below. In the meantime, logging in to the claim portal will show you the status of your documents. A blue eye means they’re reviewing the document, a green checkmark means it has been approved. You will receive automatic emails at every status change during your claim.

Step 6: Claim process – Leg 2, Booking time and more snakes

Now we’re getting somewhere! Once Ricepoint has approved all your documents, you will eventually receive an email for “Offer and Acceptance”. In my case, this came 17 days after uploading my final document, on May 19. Log on to the portal, and it will open on step 16, presenting a link to download the PDF of your offer letter. Please note that this is a very “legal” document that needs to be signed by the claimant and a witness. An easy read it’s not. Once signed, upload the document to the portal and enter another waiting game while Ricepoint reviews your acceptance. This is the point where you’re biting your fingernails and turn all OCD on your inbox.

On May 23, I received the email confirming their acceptance of my offer letter (never mind the fact that it’s their letter with my signature and initials). The email will ask you to log on to the website to book your appointment. The white flag has been waved, final lap! And then I entered the Twilight Zone. I could not log on to the portal. I took me a few minutes to realise that Ricepoint’s cookie-cutter approach to the Canadian TDI settlement left a few American crumbs – the hotlinks in their emails link to the American portal – oops. Never, ever use the hotlinks in Ricepoint emails – treat them like little snakes.

After a manual login, it’s time to climb a ladder to step 17 and book that appointment! Here you will be able to change your dealership of choice for the appointment, and – finally – Audi stores were listed. This is also your second-most critical entry after the odometer reading. Make sure your scheduled appointment matches your schedule, and the dealership’s if you selected the trade-in option. This is where I hit a little snake, followed by a big one. First, this moment for me was May 23 and the first available appointment at my Audi dealership was June 19, 9 am. It turns out that was the very first VW/Audi slot in the whole area. I did not expect a full month delay between offer and appointment, and that put a dent in my allocated 2,000 km.

And here’s the big snake, and my strongest advice for future claimants: never, ever trust the Ricepoint helpline with an appointment change. Blinded by my effort to report on the process as early as possible, and grab the new Audi that’s waiting for me, I picked the very first appointment available, June 19 at 9 am. Then reality set in and on June 6 I needed to clear that time slot for a work meeting. I called the Ricepoint helpline, had them check to see if there were any openings in the same week, and sure enough, they had some. So while I’m talking with the guy, a see an email appear on my phone’s splash screen: “Appointment cancelled”. Normal, but a (justified) bad feeling set in.

The guy then confirms the new date, and I see another email pop up confirming the new date… only it’s at a VW facility. As often happens in urban centers, the same dealer will have a VW and Audi franchise. The Ricepoint customer service rep booked me by mistake at the VW facility, and could not see how to undo this. So I’m put on hold while he talks to a manager. Long story short: it turns out Ricepoint is not able to book or switch appointments between the two brands. He cancels my new appointment, says he’s sorry, and tells me to go back to the portal as he can’t do anything to help me.

At this point, I’m livid, but time is precious. I log on to the portal, rush to the appointment calendar to see if my “June 19” is still open… and the calendar starts the week of July 4th. Not only can I not go back to my earlier slot, nobody else can do so either. Having dealt with 400,000-plus claims in the US, one would think the kinks in the process would have been ironed out. They aren’t.

Further proof of this: two weeks prior to the first appointment date, Ricepoint called me to confirm the appointment and verify the car’s current odometer reading. It was now at Claim Date + 1,000 km. I’m told that my 2,000 km is starting now. That turned out to be incorrect, but as a claimant I had no way of knowing this. Ricepoint never called me prior to the new appointment, and never re-checked my odometer reading.

Step 7: Start treating your TDI like a rental car

No, don’t trash your TDI. But do remove all personal belongings and comb through the vehicle before handing it over because just like that Jeep Wrangler you rented in Hawaii, you’ll never see it again. Dealerships are not handling the returned TDIs, Ricepoint is. The cars will be trucked off to an undisclosed location. Make sure documents, SD cards, and such are removed from the car. Don’t forget, even though the compensation is designed to cover it, you’re free to remove any dealer-installed accessory such as all-season carpets, luggage racks, and the like.

Don’t start removing body panels as some American claimants did – Ricepoint is now wise to that. Here’s a definite ladder though: you get to pick what tires you leave on the car.

I kept my summer alloys and tires in the garage, and returned my car, as others are doing, on its snow tires. My 15-inch setup was not compatible with the new Audi, but the OEM 16s are. Bye-bye, Blizzaks.

After the appointment blunder, I also timed my fuel use to return the TDI on a near-empty tank – the claimant’s last revenge. The fuel light was on, and I hypermiled my last tank to a 5.5 L/100 km average in urban commuting. Dirty, but frugal ’til the end, that TDI.

Step 8: Appointment Day

It turns out Ricepoint was not done throwing snakes at me. If you’re going with the trade-in option, plan ahead for a three-hour window for your appointments.

Seriously.

First, Ricepoint staff is using temporary offices with leased computers, so glitches will happen. The haphazard stacks of cardboard boxes with claimant files did not inspire confidence in the process I was about to go through, in what looked more like a back office deposit than an actual place to conduct business with a customer.

Once computers were set up and working (it’s 4 pm, so I’m not even the first claimant today), I’m presented with a new copy of the “Offer and Acceptance” document, but this time the Fair Market Value has been lowered by nearly $1,000, with no prior warning. I had a bank draft written the day before based on the prior amount, to pay for the post-trade balance on the new car.

Plus, the local Ricepoint staff saw my odometer reading, and now thinks that since I’m 700 km over the 2,000 km allowance, they have to cancel the appointment and I have to start the process again through the portal. After trying to sort the mess out with a regional supervisor on the phone, said supervisor reluctantly talked directly with me and we agreed to disagree on a paragraph of the Offer that relates to the passage of time and odometer readings.

In the end, the odometer point was moot as my documents (trade offer and cheque for the balance) were emitted and valid. But I was not at fault for the passage of time as this was entirely Ricepoint’s doing. I’ve been ready at my end since I sent in my signed offer in May. Back to livid mode. Yes, I will take that glass of cold water, thank you.

Fair Market Value has no effect on the overall compensation, only on the amount of taxes paid on the replacement vehicle. In my case, I’m cheated out of $150 by delays I had no control of. The Audi dealership simply billed the excess balance on my credit card, instead of sending me to the bank for a new draft (being a points junkie, I was already using up their max allowed credit card amount on the new car). The Ricepoint employee will walk to the car with you, and will make you start it – he has to hear the engine working. And so did I, for the very last time. With that, I handed over the two set of keys, and my dealings with Ricepoint were over. I’ve un-dieseled.

Step 9: Say final goodbyes to your TDI

Dear Golf,

Don’t take this personally. You were the best car I’ve ever had, frugal ’til the final minute. Refined, roomy, comfortable, and fast, you really were a perfect commuter. Of course, you changed radio stations by yourself and you stopped sending warm air to my feet, but hey, you’re a Mexican-made German car, it comes with the territory. Yes, I left you at a fancy-pants, free-espresso-and-pastries dealership dirty, with an empty tank, and on snow tires – that’s directed at Ricepoint, not you. Being a Gen 3 TDI, you can easily be fixed, but I’m a sucker for a good deal, as you know – that’s how we hooked up in 2015, after all. So you will be trucked somewhere, and you will get a new brain and new emission components, so you won’t remember me. You will be sold to a proud new owner who will put a lot more pavement under your wheels than the mere 1,000 km per month I could muster. You deserve the open road. Hopefully, you won’t be mad at me because I left you for your upscale, flashier and squeaky clean cousin.

Goodbye little friend.

Final words

The full settlement details are available at www.vwcanadasettlement.ca, along with access to the claims portal and other information on how to make your claim.

Hopefully, your game of snakes and ladders with Ricepoint will be smoother than mine, and may my own experience make your claim process as smooth as it can be.

Godspeed, fellow claimants.

Bye bye, TDI.