George was the proud owner of a new luxury sedan. After just three weeks, however, he noticed a problem: As the car reached 2,500 rpm, in any gear, it would lose power. Penny had her new compact pickup for only a day when she began to hear rattles and squeaks coming from within the dashboard. Both were brand-new vehicles, and both developed problems shortly after leaving the dealership. Unacceptable? Yes. Lemons? Not necessarily.

In Penny's case, although the sound was annoying, she could still drive the truck, and in one visit to the dealership to notify them of the noise, they were able to fix it. For George, the loss in power was a significant mechanical problem and turned into multiple visits to the dealer's service department.After the fourth repair attempt, George was told it was simply a "computer adjustment" and would be fixed when the car was due for service. Not happy with that answer, he demanded that the dealership continue to work on it-which they did, on and off for 18 months. With the problem still not solved, the dealership shipped the car to its factory test center, where they worked on it for another five weeks, then returned it with a letter from the manufacturer claiming the the so-called problem was a design characteristic of the car. Frustrated that manufacturer would not admit there was a problem and let him turn the car back in, George contacted a lemon-law attorney.

"He shouldn't have put up with such a serious issue for so long," says Jim Lewis, owner of Valley Automotive Consulting, in Ambler, Pennsylvania, who works with law firms, dealers, and private citizens regarding dealer fraud and lemon laws. "George handled it correctly. The manufacturer blew it off." Is this typical? Lewis told us no, manufacturers do not normally ignore such serious and repetitive vehicle issues. Why? Lemon laws.

Seeking lemon aid
"No matter at what point the customer believes they have a lemon-for whatever reason-we want them to go to the dealer. They are the experts; they have the expertise, the training, the tools, and the parts to repair the customer's vehicle," says Scott Lawson, General Director for Customer and Relationship Services at General Motors. The instant you discover a problem, your first step should be to take it to the dealer-end of story. This ensures the problem is recorded in the system, and besides, the dealership is equipped with the latest procedures, technical bulletins, and repair experience.

"You as a consumer have but three real responsibilities under the lemon law: You must maintain the vehicle according the manufacturer's guidelines, you must immediately report any problems you have with the vehicle, and you must make the vehicle available for repair," says Lewis. If it isn't fixed the first time, take it back and report it again. The Magnusson-Moss Warranty Improvement Act of 1975 protects consumers under law from defective products while under the manufacturer's original warranty, including vehicles, and it "piggybacks on many state lemon laws and provides protection for consumers in most cases where a vehicle may not meet the state's lemon law criteria on time and mileage," explains Lewis. The dealership is required by "Mag-Moss" to honor a warranty.Still not fixed? Return a third time, but this time speak with the dealership's service manager, sales manager, or general manager, who will more than likely want more diagnostic time or will bring in a manufacturer's warranty representative to assist in the evaluation. Although you may be frustrated, do not seek out a third-party mechanic if your vehicle is still under warranty. What if the problem continues after this? Lewis advises having the service manager contact the district or regional manufacturer's representative: "Have a meeting, express your concerns, all the while remember that you need 'significant' issues [with the vehicle] to pursue this further. In many cases, the problem can be resolved with some technical guidance, or a vehicle buy-back or trade assistance rebate may be a possibility. Many cases are resolved at this point."

If you're not satisfied at the dealership level, contact the vehicle's manufacturer; a toll-free phone number for the automaker's customer-assistance center should be printed in the vehicle owner's manual. You'll also find a listing of manufacturer numbers in the sidebar at the end of this story. GM's Lawson suggests that when you contact the center you have available the Vehicle Identification Number, the mileage, a summary of what has happened to date, and, most importantly, what you are seeking, such as repairs, repurchase, money back, or an extended service contract. Also let them know the preferred way to correspond with you, such as by phone or e-mail.

If you're still having issues following contact with the service center, it may be time for a third-party dispute-resolution assistance, such as the Better Business Bureau's Auto Line Program (800-955-5100). The BBB operates under a federal regulation that requires the participating manufacturers in the program to pay all costs; not all manufacturers participate in an informal dispute-resolution program, but some states require it as a part of being able to sell cars. When you contact the BBB or other dispute resolution program, you should ask about the lemon laws in your state.

"Many lemon laws require the consumer to send a formal notice to the manufacturer to trigger their lemon-law rights," says Alan Cohen, the Deputy General Counsel for the Council of Better Business Bureaus. And the law may specify that this be done via certified mail, which the program can alert you to. "When they get to us, we try to help the parties reach a mutually agreeable resolution." According to Cohen, often during these negotiations manufacturers will often voluntarily agree to buy back or replace the vehicle, something that was very rare just 10 years ago.

"The majority of cases that go through our program are resolved with some kind of settlement between the parties," says Cohen. "There are, of course, a range of cases in which the parties don't agree as to whether there is a problem. Take wind noise; the manufacturer may say it's normal, but the consumer believes it is abnormal. Those are kind of hard to mediate and are likely to be arbitrated." Federal regulation requires the BBB to finish cases within 40 days after the complaint has been filed.

You can also go directly from the dealership to contacting a lemon-law/breach-of-warranty lawyer, who can file a suit and represent you through arbitration with the automaker. If you hire an attorney, typically you would provide all paperwork, including sale and service information, and the attorney would then subpoena the dealership that did the work for its repair orders, technicians' notes, and warranty claims. (Lewis says, "I've proven consumer fraud on several occasions when the technician wrote 'No problem found' or 'Could not duplicate,' because I could show that no diagnostic time was charged, the vehicle wasn't driven [for driveability issues], and there wasn't baseline or equipment-derived test data.") Then a lawsuit would likely be filed against the manufacturer and a court date set, and if the case could not settled in the interim, an arbitration or trial would be held.

According to Lewis, "If the manufacturer is going to 'step up,' [the action] usually happens pretty quickly. They want to get you out of the problematic vehicle and into another one so you'll be happy." By this stage, many people at the dealership and higher have been involved with the dispute, and the automaker would likely want to resolve the problem and attempt to retain the customer. With more than 3,000 components sourced from hundreds of suppliers, automobiles are stunningly complex, designed to operate in diverse, harsh conditions. No other high-volume consumer product has to perform in heat and cold, at highway speed, and during harsh braking. An occasional small issue is statistically probable, and extreme cases of unresovable problems a mathematic certainty. Problems, big and small, are best settled at the dealership, where technicians have the tools, resources, and expertise to diagnose and correct the issue. When a problem isn't resolved to your satisfaction, follow the course of action outlined in this story to move systematically up the ladder, ensuring a fair resolution to your issues.

Customer-Service Contact Numbers
Acura: (800) 382-2238
AM General: (866) 486-6376
Audi: (800) 822-2834
BMW: (800) 831-1117
Buick: (800) 521-7300
Cadillac: (800) 458-8006
Chevrolet: (800) 222-1020
Chrysler: (800) 992-1997
Daewoo: (877) 362-1234
Dodge: (800) 992-1997
Eagle: (800) 992-1997
Ford: (800) 392-3673
Geo: (800) 222-1020
GMC: (800) 462-8782
Honda: (800) 999-1009
Hyundai: (800) 633-5151
Infiniti: (800) 662-6200
Isuzu: (800) 255-6727
Jaguar: (800) 4-JAGUAR
Jeep: (800) 992-1997
Kia: (800) 333-4542
Land Rover: (800) 637-6837
Lexus: (800) 255-3987
Lincoln: (800) 392-3673
Mazda: (800) 222-5500
Mercedes-Benz: (800) 222-0100
Mercury: (800) 392-3673
Mini: (866) ASK-MINI
Mitsubishi: (888) 648-7820
Nissan: (800) 647-7261
Oldsmobile: (800) 442-6537
Plymouth: (800) 992-1997
Pontiac: (800) 762-2737
Porsche: (800) 545-8039
Saab: (800) 955-9007
Saturn: (800) 553-6000
Scion: (800) 331-4331
Subaru: (800) 782-2783
Suzuki: (800) 934-0934
Toyota: (800) 331-4331
Volkswagen: (800) 822-8987
Volvo: (800) 458-1552

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