VW Group has sold an estimated 55,000 additional cars with a potentially lethal fault since being made aware of the problem six months ago – and there are major concerns with the carmaker’s handling of the issue, a new Which? investigation reveals.
In May it was discovered the rear-left seat belts in Volkswagen Polo, Seat Ibiza and Seat Arona models were at risk of coming undone. It can occur when both the middle and rear-left seats are occupied, and makes abrupt lane changes when the car is being driven at speed.
In response, Volkswagen Group continued to sell the cars but launched an ‘informal recall’. However, Which? has concerns that this has been a flawed process that has put the safety of drivers at risk – and the decision to continue selling them could mean that some 1,500 unsafe cars are on the road for years to come.
Under the informal recall an interim fix is being applied. This involves the faulty seat belt block being temporarily secured with a plastic cable tie. However, the cable tie only minimises the risk, and does not eliminate the chance of the seat belt coming undone.
Despite this, Which? has exclusively discovered that VW Group tried to put the interim cable tie solution forward as a permanent fix. The proposal was rejected by the DVSA. VW Group has not responded Which?’s requests for comment on this.
Which? has also learnt that information about the potentially lethal issue is not always being communicated promptly or effectively. As the risk is not eliminated, all owners should be told that they cannot use the middle-rear seat until a permanent solution can be installed, and the capacity of the car is reduced from five to four seats.
However Which? has heard from Volkswagen Polo customers who have said that they only found out about the problem four weeks after purchase, when they were notified by a letter from Volkswagen. Both had been using all three rear seats, inadvertently putting passengers at risk.
Which? has also been unable to find any clear warning to prospective customers about the fault on Volkswagen and Seat’s main websites, further raising concerns about the communication of the issue to prospective buyers. When Volkswagen was approached about what information it has, or had, published on its websites to notify potential customers, it provided no response.
However, there is a picture on the main Seat Ibiza page, which shows the two affected seats in use. Though it is obvious that the car is not in motion, both the middle rear and left-rear seats are being used.
Around 12,000 VW Polo cars were found to have the fault when the issue was discovered in May, as well as an undisclosed number of Seat Ibiza and Seat Arona models. The company’s decision to continue to sell the cars means around 75,000 owners are now affected in total.
The permanent fix is anticipated to be rolled out this month. This will replace the seat belt buckle entirely and means people can use the middle seat again. Once the official recall is rolled out, responsibility is essentially transferred from the carmaker to the consumer to take their car to a garage to get it fixed.
Which? has concerns that VW Group has not met expectations in their approach to the safety problem so far. The DVSA must now fully investigate the concerns that have been raised about how the issue has been managed.
Alex Neill, Which? Managing Director of Home Products and Services, said:
“VW’s handling of this potentially lethal safety issue has been completely unsatisfactory. It’s shocking that they proposed a permanent fix that doesn’t even properly solve the problem, and we’re concerned that customers might not always be getting the right information at the point of sale.
“The decision not to suspend sales when the problem was discovered has now put substantially more drivers, as well as their passengers, at risk. The DVSA must investigate VW’s handling of the whole situation.”
Tony took delivery of his new VW Polo on the 6 July 2018.
- Tony was not told there was an ongoing issue with the seat belt
- Was not told he couldn’t use the middle rear seat
- Does not recall signing a disclaimer – Which? challenged Volkswagen to supply evidence that he had signed a disclaimer, but received no comment.
- Nearly four weeks after taking delivery of his car from his local VW Dealership, he received a letter on the 2 August saying his car was affected.
- The letter also said that unless the car already had the interim fix – a plastic cable tie around the rear middle and left seat belt buckles – he needed to book an appointment to bring his car in.
- Tony didn’t know if his car had the interim fix or not, so he complained to the dealership for selling a car it knew to be unsafe, and asked for an explanation and reassurance that his car was safe.
- He had a reply from the dealership explaining the fix had been applied before delivery (which is true), but it did not answer Tony’s question over whether the car was ‘wholly safe’.
- Tony received his ‘interim fix’ sticker on the 15 September (the letter was dated 11 September) – over two months after taking delivery of his new Polo.
- This is when Tony realised he should not be using the rear middle seat. Tony complained to the head office of the dealership, pointing out among other things that he needed a five-seater car
- On the 29 October, Tony was asked to take his Polo back to the dealership to receive what he believed to be the second, permanent fix. But when he arrived, he was turned away with the explanation that the Service Department reports they have no seat belt modification kits – as they have all recalled by VW. VW put this down to an ‘administrative error’
Tony has been given another VW Golf as a courtesy car until his own Polo receives the second fix and is capable of carrying five passengers again.
Janice (real name withheld), bought a VW Polo in June and picked it up in July.
- Janice says she was never told about the potentially lethal seat belt fault.
- She drove the car for four weeks, using all three back seats during this time.
- Like Tony, Janice only became aware of the problem four weeks after she bought it. This was when she had a letter through from Volkswagen informing her of the recall.
- She complained to Volkswagen. It apologised twice in the course of correspondence that followed, for not informing her at the point of sale.
- Janice wrote to Volkswagen customer services expressing concern that she was not informed at any point during the transaction, adding that she feels badly let down by the dealer and that ‘I expect better’.
- Volkswagen apologised for not informing Janice about the recall. It also promised the dealership in question would also be in contact. It’s now been over seven weeks, but she hasn’t yet heard from the dealership.
Notes to eds
- Volkswagen has not acted unlawfully. Officially, the cars remain ‘legally homologated and safe to drive’, as both recalls have been allowed by the authorities that administer the recall and type approval system, allowing the manufacturer to keep on selling these cars in the UK and across Europe.
- Once the official recall is rolled out, responsibility is essentially transferred from VW to the consumer to take their car to a garage to get it fixed. While every owner should be contacted, the onus is then on the individual to bring their car in, as there is no legal obligation to respond to a recall notice.
- VW sticker warning owners not to use middle rear seat:
- VW acknowledgement that cable tie does not fix the fault:
- SEAT website image
- Of the 75,000 cars with the safety issue that VW Group has sold, 45,000 were VW Polos, and 30,000 Seat Ibizas and Seat Aronas combined.
- The average car recall success rate is currently 98%, according to the DVSA. This means that, even with the permanent solution, the number of cars unlikely to ever be fixed is around 1,500. If VW Group had suspended sales when the issue was first discovered, the figure would be significantly lower
- VW Group declined to respond to our requests for comment.
- Which? news story (to go live from 00:01 Saturday 24 November): https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/11/faulty-seat-belts-vw-the-cable-tie-and-why-consumers-are-now-responsible/