Water-in-diesel shock: Couple's new $140,000 car needs $28,000 repairs
The couple spent more than $140,000 on a new Volkswagen Touran TDI 1.6, which they collected on Sept 21.
Three months on, Mr Cheah Khuan Yew, 37, and his wife Jessica, 41, have found themselves saddled with a $28,000 bill.
The engine and fuel system of their car have been ruined as a result of water tainting the diesel in the fuel tank, and has to be replaced.
The couple, who are in the banking industry, are baffled with what could have introduced water into the diesel.
"We were told it's premature ageing. Basically, it's like a three-year-old car with a 10-year-old engine," said Mr Cheah, drawing his own analogy to show the extent of damage.
"It's been almost three months. As a consumer, I buy a car to drive. I'm not buying a risky puzzle,'' he added.
They told The New Paper last Friday that they first noticed the problem just days after they bought the diesel-powered car.
It was meant to replace their seven-year-old second-hand Honda Civic, which they use mostly only on weekends or to take their three children to school.
But after Mr Cheah pumped diesel into the four-day-old car at an Esso service station, things started going awry.
When Mrs Cheah drove the car the next day, she noticed that it "felt funny".
The engine was stuttering, which meant the tachometer would fluctuate even when the engine was left idling.
"I thought it was just a one-off thing. A woman is not so sensitive to car-related things," she said.
But when her husband also noticed the problem, they realised that something was not right.
On Oct 3, the couple sent their seven-seater to the Volkswagen Centre at MacPherson Road, as advised by the staff member manning the Volkswagen Roadside Assistance hotline.
They were told that the car had been damaged, probably due to tainted diesel.
"They said it was not covered (under the warranty). I couldn't believe it. It's a brand new car," Mrs Cheah said, recalling her exchange with the Volkswagen service staff.
An analysis of a sample of the diesel as part of a preliminary test found the water content to be higher than what is allowed in the Euro V standard for diesel.
The car was then sent to the Volkswagen Centre at Alexandra Road for further inspection.
In the interim, Volkswagen loaned the Cheahs a courtesy car.
On four occasions in October and November, Volkswagen hired LKK Auto Consultants to assess the damage to the car.
A Volkswagen Group Singapore spokesman confirmed this.
"We have since carried out an investigation on this case and a third party surveyor discovered there was water content in the fuel tank," he said.
In a detailed report, LKK Auto Consultants found that the engine stuttering was due to its low compression of air.
When that happens in a diesel engine, the fuel cannot be ignited and the car stalls.
According to the report, the low compression was a result of damaged parts in the car's engine, likely due to the presence of excess water in the diesel.
"The water content that was contained in the diesel of the motor car was likely due to external factor(s) and unlikely to be a result of manufacturer defect(s)," the report said.`
The recommendation was to replace the entire engine and fuel system of the car.
But the couple continue to be baffled with the report's conclusion, especially after meeting ExxonMobil representatives last Thursday.
During the meeting, the couple were presented with reports analysing the fuel quality and how equipment monitoring the fuel is set up.
"ExxonMobil showed us various reports. They presented a very clear, watertight case that it's not a fuel problem," said Mrs Cheah.
In addition, 261 other customers had gone to the same Esso station that day, but none reported a problem similar to the Cheahs.
Said Mr Cheah: "I think we're satisfied that there's no problem on ExxonMobil's side. We've checked the only external factor - pumping tainted diesel into the car - and there's proof that it is not contaminated. So then the question is: Where is it coming from?"
The couple also considered the possibility of someone pouring water into the fuel tank out of mischief.
"But the fuel tank cover can only be opened by a button inside the car, and we found no signs of tampering or scratches on the fuel cover," Mr Cheah said.
The couple feel helpless as consumers.
There is the lemon law, but it is only enforceable if the retailer obliges, Mr Cheah said.
"We're both working professionals who are conversant enough to write letters. What if it's someone who's not so well-educated, can you imagine the struggle he has to go through?
"At the end of the day, as a consumer I just expect a car that works," he said.
Agreeing, Mrs Cheah said: "We shouldn't be burdened with this, right?"
But time is not on their side, as the couple have been notified by Volkswagen to decide on whether to go ahead with the repairs by Friday.
It will cost about $19,000 to replace the engine, and another $9,000 to replace the fuel system, including labour costs.
This amount is not covered by the car's five-year warranty or the yearly-renewed insurance as the former does not cover anything due to external factors, and the latter only covers accidents.
The couple are undecided on what to do next.
The water content that was contained in the diesel of the motor car was likely due to external factor(s) and unlikely to be a result of manufacturer defect(s).
- LKK Auto Consultants, which was hired by Volkwagen to assess the extent of damage to the car.
We've checked the only external factor - pumping tainted diesel into the car - and there's proof that it is not contaminated. So then the question is: where is it coming from?
- Mr Cheah Khuan Yew
No issues with fuel: ExxonMobil
After the Cheahs were told that their Volkswagen Touran's engine was damaged due to water-tainted diesel, they approached ExxonMobil to enquire about the diesel quality at Tampines Esso service station.
It was where Mr Cheah Khuan Yew, 37, filled up the diesel tank for the first time.
In response to The New Paper's queries, a spokesman for ExxonMobil confirmed that it has been in contact with the Cheahs over the issue.
"We wish to highlight that their feedback was the only one we received from among the 262 customers who pumped diesel at our Tampines Avenue 7 service station that day," he said.
ExxonMobil investigated the matter and found no issues with the fuel.
"We take product quality seriously and we have processes in place to ensure the integrity of the fuel we sell," the spokesman added.
At the service stations, there are monitoring systems in the underground storage tank to prevent free water, if any, from being dispensed, he added.
Free water refers to water found in diesel fuel that is not a dissolved component.
The ExxonMobil spokesman said that checks are also carried out regularly to ensure the integrity of the fuels.
These include daily sensor readings of the storage tanks and monthly manual tank dips to check for the presence of free water.
"All our products also go through stringent checks prior to their delivery to the underground storage tank at our service stations," he said.
Experts offer 3 reasons
Motoring experts TNP spoke to offered some possibilities on how the diesel in the Cheahs' car could have been tainted with water.
1. Contamination from the source
The diesel could have been contaminated at the source - the petrol kiosk - when pumped into the car, said Mr Joey Lim, who manages Harmony Motor.
This could be due to a leak in the underground storage tank, allowing water to seep in, he said.
An Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS) spokesman said the viability of diesel fuel stored for an extended period cannot be guaranteed.
"Water in stored diesel fuel may be a result of condensation over a period of time. Contamination in the fuel storage system may cause impurities in the fuel tank, which in turn promote further contamination," he explained.
Investigations by ExxonMobil, however, showed otherwise.
2. Foul play
Someone could have poured water into the fuel tank intentionally, introducing water into the diesel, said Mr Lim, who is also the past president of the Singapore Motor Workshop Association
The Cheahs dismissed this possibility as they found no signs of tampering of their car's fuel tank cover.
The AAS spokesman said water could have entered the engine if the vehicle was driven across a flooded area, where the water level had surpassed the air intake, with the engine continuing to be active.
"Once this happens, the engine or cylinders may suck in water and the engine could hydrolock," he said.
Hydrolock, short for hydrostatic lock, means the car engine breathes in water rather than air.
"Unlike air, water does not compress and the fluid could cause severe damage that might result in engine replacement or rebuilding," the AAS spokesman said.
The Cheahs, however, do not recall driving through any floods.
"In fact, it hardly rained during that period," Mr Cheah said.