It essentially boils down to the fact that VW ran afoul of the wrong government agency. The EPA has a huge amount of power compared to the NHTSA.
Now you may disagree on the hows and whys these agencies have their powers, but that’s truly inconsequential. The fact is that the EPA has more power to levy larger fines and enforce regulations.
I’m just tired of the rationale that just because the NHTSA was limited in its punitive powers (a fact most people lament) that the EPA would somehow be wrong in penalizing VW an appropriate amount. If the EPA only fined VW $35 million for this you know that every automotive engineering department from Detroit to Stuttgart would be redesigning ALL of their engines to maximize the much more marketable horsepower and fuel economy at the possible expense of emissions. The fines and penalties have to hurt more than cheating the test could help. Every manufacturer should read the penalties on Jalopnik, and think, “Fuck that noise. That’s not worth it.” Wanting VW to receive a harsh penalty for this is in no way equating VW’s “mistake” with GM’s. GM should have been penalized much more harshly than they were, but the fact is that they legally couldn’t. That probably has nothing to do with decades of influence of domestic automakers on the laws and agencies that regulate them.
Clean (ish) air is an important resource and it should be protected. A slight slap on the wrist like GM received would lead to bad air (and health problems) for EVERYONE, not just the sad sap stuck in a Chevrolet Cobalt.