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Washington — The Federal Trade Commission is suing Volkswagen over its advertising for diesel cars that were rigged to circumvent federal air quality standards.

The lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleges Volkswagen misled U.S. drivers for years about the fuel efficiency of its vehicles that were marketed as “clean diesel” cars.

The suit charges that from late 2008 to late 2015, Volkswagen advertised and sold more than 550,000 diesel vehicles in the U.S. that had pollution-control “defeat devices.”

The suit says VW represented that the cars “had low emissions, complied with government emissions standards, were environmentally friendly and retained a high resale value. During this time, Volkswagen USA became the largest seller of light-duty diesel vehicles in the United States.”

VW has admitted selling diesel models of its cars that had software installed that activated required air pollution protections only during emissions tests, in violation of the federal Clean Air Act. It programmed the vehicles to trick emissions testers into believing its diesel cars released far less pollution into the air than they actually do. Regulators have said in normal driving, the vehicles emitted up to 4,000 percent more nitrogen oxide than the legal limit allows.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has accused the German automaker last year of installing the defeat devices on more than 550,000 diesel vehicles, including its Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche brands.

The FTC said Tuesday that Volkswagen sold its so-called ‘clean diesel’ cars for an average price of $28,000. The agency said it “seeks compensation for the consumers who bought affected cars based on Volkswagen’s deceptive and unfair practices.”

“For years Volkswagen’s ads touted the company’s ‘clean diesel’ cars even though it now appears Volkswagen rigged the cars with devices designed to defeat emissions tests,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement announcing the filing of the suit.

A Volkswagen spokeswoman said the company “has received the complaint and continues to cooperate with all relevant U.S. regulators, including the Federal Trade Commission.

“Our most important priority is to find a solution to the diesel emissions matter and earn back the trust of our customers and dealers as we build a better company,” Volkswagen spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said in a email.

The company has offered a “sincere apology” to drivers, but the public mea culpa has not satisfied federal regulators.

The FTC lawsuit alleges that the German automaker “promoted its supposedly ‘clean’ cars through a high-profile marketing campaign that included Super Bowl ads, online social media campaigns and print advertising, often targeting ‘environmentally-conscious’ consumers.”

The agency’s complaint also alleges that Volkswagen “also claimed that ‘clean diesel’ vehicles met ‘stringent emission requirements,’ were ‘50-state compliant,’ and would maintain a high resale value.

“Yet, according to the FTC’s complaint, these claims were also false because without the illegally installed software, the ‘clean diesel’ vehicles would not have passed federal emissions standards and the hidden defeat devices will significantly reduce the vehicles’ resale value,” the agency said in its lawsuit.

One lawmaker who has been critical of VW praised the FTC.

“This was one of the most egregious examples of a company deceiving the public,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said in a statement. “Hopefully, the court will provide adequate redress to consumers and send a strong message that this type of corporate behavior won’t be tolerated.”

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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