Your rights when new cars go wrong

Your rights when new cars go wrong

LAST time I bought a new car all was going well until I found I had to rely on the manufacturer’s warranty. Then things went downhill, fast. Lucky for me, the issue I was having had nothing to do with the brakes.

It seems that I am far from the only consumer who has had this sort of problem, namely, how to get a car manufacturer to honour its new-car warranty or even, in some cases, just acknowledge that there is a problem with a car that has been bought. The situation has apparently reached plague proportions and the Australian consumer watchdog, just before Christmas, published a 194-page review into this and other issues that consumers regularly run into. 

“Weighty” would be the term to describe the tome, although as a PDF downloaded from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) website, it is, of course, weightless.

The most annoying thing about the ACCC report is that we, as consumers, have actually been right all along: car manufacturers and dealers often give us a really poor deal. Australian competition law is pretty solid and it generally bestows upon us quite clear and enforceable rights and mechanisms for redress if we buy anything that is found to have major problems, defects or failures, or which was in fact not fit for purpose in the first place. But if you’ve ever brought to the attention of a dealer a problem with the car you drove away in a just a few months earlier then you’ll know how hard it can be to get anything done about it.

Cars are getting more and more complex, in the way they are designed, the components that they are made from, and how they are put together. It can be very hard to prove a fault or a defect; it can be especially annoying if the fault is intermittent and can’t immediately or easily be replicated by the dealer.

Even so, if I’m handing over several hundred thousand dollars for a piece of automotive excellence, that’s what I expect to get. I also expect to have the dealer’s support in making sure it is excellent when I take delivery and remains in excellent working condition not only for the life of its so-called warranty but for its full life, full-stop. 

Can I just say here that some dealers truly will bend over backwards to keep customers happy. I have a friend who has had her car replaced - yes, replaced - rather than “repaired”. Rather than upset the goodwill my friend harbours towards this particular marque, the dealer, in full co-operation with the importer, replaced the car. (You wouldn’t even have known - the replacement was the same model and colour.) Admittedly, it was a pretty major problem. We’re not talking about brake lights going out, which I have observed is a fault that seems to blight an unfeasibly large proportion of European imports. These were faults that actually prevented the car from being driven.

The question of how these defects occurred in the first place in a brand whose name you will recognise instantly might be a column for another day, but they knew that if my friend started badmouthing the manufacturer within our circle of friends, or if we even found out she was being given the runaround, the results could be unpleasant. She’s essentially this brand’s greatest sales asset. She’s not a formal “ambassador” (as some manufacturers like to call them) because she’s never opened a restaurant or won a major sailing race or worked as a clotheshorse or hosted a TV show. (Is it just me or is it actually irritating that those who can most afford to actually buy cars are most likely to be given one for nothing?) But goodness knows how many other cars the manufacturer has sold based on my friend’s experience with and love for the brand. I have bought on the strength of her recommendation alone.

One particular paragraph in the ACCC report caught my eye: “There is a dominant ‘culture of repair’ underpinning manufacturers’ systems and policies for dealing with car defects and failures, even where cars have known and systemic mechanical failures which would entitle a consumer to a replacement or refund under the consumer guarantees.”

The ACCC report contains a vast wealth of insights and ideas that all new-car buyers would be well-advised to familiarise themselves with, whether they’re buying a child’s first car or upgrading to the upcoming McLaren Senna. A manufacturer’s warranty exists in addition to, not in place of, your general rights and remedies under Australian consumer law. Remember that, next time your dealer is tempted to fob you off or deny responsibility for fixing a defect. 

I’ll keep ploughing through the ACCC publication, and I’ll report back form time to time with new findings. It has some interesting things to say, as well, about published fuel consumption figures, and about the problems that crop up if you choose to take your beloved vehicle to your favourite mechanic for servicing, instead of returning to the dealer each time - a hobby-horse of mine.

Meanwhile, I would love to hear about your own experiences, both good and bad, in having defects with your own cars addressed. No need to name the manufacturer. I am not looking to shame anyone here, unless it becomes absolutely necessary, of course. It’s your experiences and your opinion of how you were treated that matter most. Get in touch.