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23 Dec 2019

VW and Seat seat belt recall: thousands of cars still to be fixed, plus we've found potentially dangerous cars being sold online

Over a year and a half after the VW Group decided to keep selling cars with a known seat belt fault, we find affected cars, with outstanding recalls, for sale online

Just over a year on from when VW Group issued a recall for a potentially lethal seat belt fault, Which? has discovered that 6,612* VW Polos, Seat Ibizas and Seat Aronas still haven't been fixed. If VW hadn't continued to sell cars with this known fault, this figure would be much lower.

We've also found some cars originally affected by the seat belt issue for sale online; and the DVSA registration checker says they have outstanding recalls. Which means known potential fault(s) have not been fixed.

The VW Group made the decision in May 2018 to keep selling cars with a known seat belt fault, albeit with a temporary measure (a plastic cable tie) in place to reduce, not eliminate, the risk of a seat belt coming undone. It wasn't until the end of November 2018 that a recall was issued to remove the temporary measure and fix the issue permanently.

At the time we were critical of VW, as we pointed out that the fix would become the responsibility of owners, rather than VW, and that more cars would be left unfixed as a result of the decision to keep selling them.

  • Decision to keep selling cars with seat belt faults in early 2018 means there are thousands of unfixed cars on our roads today.

  • When bought new, some owners were not told - as VW said they should have been - that they should not use the middle rear seat.

  • Some affected cars with outstanding recalls are on sale today via online marketplaces.

  • Private sellers are under no obligation to say if there are outstanding recalls.

  • New owners are not automatically notified if they buy a car with outstanding recalls.

Keep reading to find out more, including what you can do to make sure you don't end up buying a potentially dangerous used car.

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More than 76,000 faulty cars because the VW Group continued to sell

The fault was first discovered in May 2018 by Finnish magazine Tekniikan Maailma. It found that if the middle and rear-left seats of the VW Polo, and the related Seat Ibiza and Seat Arona, were occupied. And if the car was driven at speed, a sudden change of direction could cause the rear-left seat belt to come undone.

  • At this point, 12,000 VW Polos and (approximately) 8,000 Seat Ibiza and Arona models had been sold.
  • VW sold an additional 55,000 cars (approximately), with a temporary fix in place. This was a plastic cable tie that reduced, but not eliminate, the risk.
  • It also recalled the first 20,000 cars that were sold to add the plastic cable tie.
  • The total number of vehicles with a seat belt fix to be recalled rose to the confirmed figure of 76,484.

The VW Group would also be aware that almost no recall usually reaches 100% completion. Therefore, by continuing to sell cars, it was almost inevitable that some would be left unfixed. We criticised VW's decision to continue to sell cars with the seat belt fault at the time.

The Volkswagen Polo was the sixth most-sold car in the UK during 2018 (figures from Society of Motoring Manufacturers & Traders).


Some owners would not have known about the fault

The VW Group told us that all customers who bought their car from May 2018 would have been informed at the point of sale that they couldn't use all the rear seats, and were made to sign a disclaimer.

But we found there were people who had bought an affected car and were not told, and had been using all the rear seats for a number of weeks or months, putting their family and friends at risk.

After running this story last year, we were contacted by more people who said they were also not told at the point of sale.

Before the second recall happened in November 2018, the VW Group also sent stickers (shown below) to owners that showed people not use the middle rear seat. Some owners we spoke to didn't receive their sticker until August/September, months after buying their car.

At the time we reported, we found there was no public-facing information that we could find on Volkswagen or Seat websites.

Cars with known faults for sale online

You might expect it to be a legal requirement for a private seller to fix all recalls before selling the car, but that's not true.

Part of the problem of having so many cars sold with a known fault is that private owners can sell the car without fixing the recalls, listing them in the advert or mentioning them in the point of sale. The new owner will likely be unaware they're buying a car with outstanding recalls.

Plus, we've discovered that if a car with outstanding recalls changes ownership, the new owner won't automatically be notified they have bought a car with a recall.

Instead, the new owner will have to wait for the manufacturer to request details again from the DVSA and send out a letter to the new owner. This should happen periodically, with greater urgency placed on recalls where the completion rate is low or a large number of cars are affected.

We've found cars that will have been affected by this seat belt issue for sale via online marketplaces, such as Facebook Marketplace. By using the DVSA registration checker, we can see that some models have outstanding recalls.

We can't be 100% sure it's the seat belt issue, as the recalls themselves are undisclosed. The DVSA website simply states there are recalls to be dealt with and names the relevant manufacturer to be contacted to organise a fix (this will be free).

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What VW Group says

A spokesperson for VW told us: 'Affected cars are relatively new and within warranty period. Therefore, customers will bring these cars into official Volkswagen/Seat Retailers for a service (it would be highly unusual for them not to).

'We make every effort to encourage customers to have a recall carried out at their earliest convenience. Furthermore, any cars that are serviced or sold in our network are checked and if necessary rectified for any outstanding recalls or technical updates.'

VW also told us that if incorrect details are registered at the DVLA, then the notification letter will not be delivered. That the completion rate will continue to rise to closer to the DVSA's average completion rate over the coming months, and that some customers may be waiting for their next service to get the fix, rather than bring in their car especially - for example, if they don't use the rear seats.

VW Group also confirmed there have been no recorded incidents in relation to this fault, either in the UK or globally.

What can you do?

Whenever you buy a used car, you need to check whether there are outstanding recalls on it.

  • If you're buying from a dealership, all recalls should be fixed prior to taking ownership of the vehicle.
  • If buying from a private seller, it's not required.

The easiest thing to do is use the DVSA recall checking tool. Simply enter the registration and it will tell you if the car has outstanding recalls on it.

However, there may be other recalls, possibly non-safety issues, that should also be fixed. These are known as 'informal recalls' and will not exist on the DVSA database. Instead, you need to contact the manufacturer and check with them directly.

The recall to add the plastic cable tie to cars sold prior to the faulty seat belt was discovered was an informalrecall. So if any of the affected 20,000 owners were in doubt and had used the DVSA's online recall tool, they would have been told there were no recalls outstanding on their car.

What we think

Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:

'VW's handling of the potentially dangerous seatbelt fault was appalling and the decision not to suspend sales put substantially more people at risk.

'While most of the affected cars have since been successfully recalled, there are still thousands of vehicles on the road with a potentially dangerous fault that need to be fixed. Worryingly, these could be resold to new owners with no declaration that the car has been recalled for a safety issue.

'When buying a used car, we'd always advise customers to use the DVSA recall tool to check whether it has any outstanding recalls - and don't hand over any money until it's been fixed.'

What do we want?

  • We want all recalls to be overseen by the DVSA, so there is publicly available information about every recall.
  • If a car has a known fault, it should not be allowed to be sold, whether it has a temporary measure in place or not.
  • It should be removed from sale, and not reinstated until a permanent fix has been implemented.
  • Private sellers should have to deal with recalls before selling a car.
  • If a car changes ownership and has outstanding recalls, a letter should automatically be sent to the new owner to alert them.

*Figure correct as of 17 December 2019.