Living

Driving for coverage

Are you missing out on a free repair? Hidden warranties cover a wide range of automaker foul-ups-but first you have to find them

In a perfect world, automakers would readily admit to any design flaws and gladly fix them for free. But as Takis and Andrea Demetriou of Richmond Hill, Ont., know, consumers can end up paying for repairs they should get at no cost.

When the Demetrious’ 1993 Oldsmobile Achieva started leaking coolant at 94,000 kilometres, a General Motors dealer told them the car had a cracked cylinder head that would cost more than $2,000 to repair. The couple opted to fix the car at a non-GM garage for $1,300. They later learned, through another GM dealer, that the problem was a design flaw GM would cover. But the second dealer wouldn’t give them a copy of GM’s special policy or go to bat for them.

So they turned to the media for help. Armed with a copy of the policy, I contacted GM and the Demetrious got a $1,300 refund. (As the Toronto Sun’s Action Line columnist, I get to do these things; your local consumer advocate may be able to use similar muscle.) GM spokesman Stew Low said Takis Demetriou was sent a notice in 1995 advising him of the free repair, but Demetriou insists he never got it. The dealer that quoted him more than $2,000 for the repair attributed the slipup to “human error.”

Hidden warranties aren’t new or unique to GM. “In Canada, we’ve been fighting secret warranties since 1972,” notes Lemon-Aid guide author Phil Edmonston, who estimates that at any given time there are about 300 hidden warranties in effect. Four U.S. states have laws banning them. But in Canada and most of the United States, consumers are at the mercy of carmakers.

As the name implies, hidden warranties aren’t well publicized. Automakers call them “special policies,” “service campaigns” or “goodwill adjustments.” Unlike a recall, which covers a serious defect that could cause injury or death, hidden warranties cover problems that could cost an owner lots of money, but not his or her life. These problems include peeling paint, faulty automatic transmissions and failure-prone engines.

Notices may only be sent to dealers’ original customers, so owners who move, lease or buy used vehicles may not be notified of problems-a good reason to keep your automaker up-to-date on changes in ownership or address, even if the factory warranty has expired. Even then, as the Demetrious discovered, you can still fall through the cracks.

So if you can’t always count on your automaker or dealer to tell you about a hidden warranty, how do consumers find out about them? A good place to start is Lemon-Aid Used Cars 1998 ($20), which lists hidden warranties and summaries of technical service bulletins (TSBs) for different vehicles. Automakers issue TSBs to help dealers diagnose and fix tricky problems. For consumers, they’re useful ammunition; they show that an automaker is aware of a common problem, which may or may not be covered by a hidden warranty. As a last resort, TSBs can be a powerful weapon in small-claims court.

For $15, Edmonston will fax motorists a summary of all TSBs for a specific vehicle, and copies of individual bulletins (including hidden warranties) for $5 each. Check the back of any current Lemon-Aid guide for mail-order details or fax an inquiry to his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office: 954/563-2448 or E-mail: lemonaid@earthlink.net.

Other online sources of TSB summaries include the California-based Alldata (www.alldata.tsb.com) and the site for the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.dot.gov).

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.