Consumer Reports Shines the Light on Secret Automaker Warranty Programs

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Consumers can save thousands of dollars on repair bills by taking advantage of unadvertised programs that provide free or discounted service work.

Consumer Reports

November 2014 issue of Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports found car owners can save a significant amount of money if their vehicle qualifies for what carmakers typically call service actions or customer service campaigns

In its latest look into the world of car maintenance, Consumer Reports found car owners can save a significant amount of money if their vehicle qualifies for what carmakers typically call service actions or customer service campaigns—effectively secret or hidden warranties are rarely announced to the public.

Two examples: Owners of 2006 to 2009 Honda Civics may qualify for a new engine block, or even a whole new engine, if their car has been leaking coolant from a crack in the block. Chrysler minivan owners may notice that the front wheel bearings on models from 2008 to 2010 are subject to premature wear, so dealers will replace them at no cost during a vehicle’s first five years or 90,000 miles.

Consumer Reports found these “secret warranties” usually originate when automakers discover that some component or system in a given model is failing at a greater rate than expected. They learn about the problems from numerous sources, including complaints to their customer-service departments and reports from dealers. Other tip-offs are an unusual number of warranty claims for a specific problem or a rapid decline in spare-parts inventories.

For more examples visit http://www.ConsumerReports.org, or check out the Consumer Reports Reliability Guide for Car Owners & Car Buyers. It highlights problem areas in cars from the 2004 through 2013 model years. Consumer Reports' auto analysts cross-referenced CR’s historical reliability data with public safety recalls and lesser-known manufacturer Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs), extended warranties, and service campaigns to determine the most common problems—and available fixes—for mainstream vehicles from 2004-13. Consumers that own a car or are considering buying a used car, the guide offers detailed information about potential problems to monitor.

Programs that offer subsidized or complimentary repairs are usually presented as a “warranty extension,” since they last for a specified time and mileage. Occasionally, they’re good for a limited number of years from the original purchase date but have no mileage limit.

Such programs are often enacted in the name of good customer service. Sometimes, though, a free repair program is instituted as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit.

At any given time, consumers can find out-of-warranty service actions from many manufacturers. Honda, however, and its upscale Acura division, stand out with a half-dozen or more. Because CR’s survey data shows that Honda and Acura vehicles, in general, are among the most reliable on the road, the company’s high number of service campaigns suggests it’s been unusually generous to customers.

Consumer Reports found that often, when an automaker initiates a service campaign, it sends a notification letter to all known owners. But second or third owners of that car may not receive it. Even among those who do, the letter may be mislaid or mistakenly thrown away. In other cases, though, there is no advance notice, and car owners find out about it only if a dealer tells them or they discover it on their own

All of the warranty extensions Consumer Reports found are included in technical service bulletins that automakers send to their dealers’ service departments. TSBs usually describe a common problem the automaker has learned about and provide detailed instructions on how the service technician should fix it. However, a small number of TSBs also contain information about special warranties related to the problem or other remedies the carmaker is offering to owners.

Toyota dealers have received TSBs regarding faulty brakes on the 2007 to 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and the automaker is notifying owners of free repairs and offering a fairly generous warranty extension on some brake components. But Consumer Reports thinks Toyota should have issued a recall, and it’s asking the government to take action on that if Toyota does not.

How to Look for TSBs and Secret Warranties:

For car owners that want to know about their vehicle, technical service bulletins can be hard to come by. They can search for complimentary summaries of them at safercar.gov, the government’s auto-safety website. Once there, enter your car’s make/model/year in the “Owners” section, and click on the “Service Bulletins” tab. But be warned, the summaries are often vague. Consumers can order the full TSB text (free up to 100 pages) by mail, though that may take four to six weeks. However, a dealer or repair shop may share them if you ask. You can also purchase current TSBs for your car from Alldatadiy.com ($26.95/year) or Mitchell 1 DIY at eautorepair.net ($25.99/year).

Besides service campaigns, most automakers set aside “goodwill money” to keep customers happy by paying for select out-of-warranty repairs. Consumer Reports advises that gaining access to goodwill money is not a sure thing. To qualify, your car’s problem should be well known to the manufacturer, and it helps if you have a good relationship with a dealer’s service department. Getting angry or making threats is not a great strategy. Document your problem, deal with the service manager directly, and be persistent. If you don’t get anywhere, take your case to the automaker’s customer-service department, which is listed in your owner’s manual and online

Also, go to ConsumerReports.org/carrecalls to check recalls on your car with plain-English interpretations prepared by certified mechanics.

The complete report on Consumer Reports look in to TSB and secret warranties is available http://www.ConsumerReports.org starting today or pick up a copy of the November issue of Consumer Reports on newsstands starting October 2nd.

Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

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NOVEMBER 2014

© 2014 Consumer Reports. The material above is intended for legitimate news entities only; it may not be used for advertising or promotional purposes. Consumer Reports® is an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. We accept no advertising and pay for all the products we test. We are not beholden to any commercial interest. Our income is derived from the sale of Consumer Reports®, ConsumerReports.org® and our other publications and information products, services, fees, and noncommercial contributions and grants. Our Ratings and reports are intended solely for the use of our readers. Neither the Ratings nor the reports may be used in advertising or for any other commercial purpose without our permission. Consumer Reports will take all steps open to it to prevent commercial use of its materials, its name, or the name of Consumer Reports®.

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C. Matt Fields
Consumer Reports
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Douglas P. Love
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