SECRET WARRANTY describes inherent
problems that vehicle manufacturers don't make public. These problems
develop when less-than-adequate components are installed in cars, light
trucks, vans, and utility vehicles or when there is a deficiency in the
An inherent car problem is acknowledged
by a manufacturer in an advisory—usually in the form of a technical
service bulletin (TSB)— issued to dealer service departments describing
how to make the repair. Advisories can also take the form of private letters.
This method, however, is rarely used anymore because it's frowned on by
government agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) and by states that have passed or are threatening passage of anti-secret
Unfortunately, inherent problems often are not discovered until new vehicle
warranties have expired. Therefore, car owners may not have a clue that
the problems they are experiencing are caused by manufacturing flaws.
Car owners can be left holding the bag for the cost of repairs.
Repairing inherent defects normally involves installing newly designed
components or making adjustments. Most repairs average about one hour
to perform, and the cost is usually less than $200. However, some inherent
defects can be repaired only by overhauling an engine, rebuilding a transmission
or differential, replacing expensive parts of a steering or braldng system,
or repainting a vehicle. Then the cost can run into the thousands.
ROLE OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
Federal law requires that service bulletins acknowledging deficiencies
in the manufacture of vehicles be sent to the NHTSA, which is an agency
of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Butunder federal law, no one
else has to be notified, not even the car
owners or independent or franchised repair shops. As much as the law allows,
service bulletins are kept secret from everyone except dealers selling
vehicles from a particular manufacturer.
This section deals with getting
your hands on a secret warranty to prove that the problem you're having
with your vehicle is the fault of the manufacturer, so that you can have
the trouble fixed free, especially if your new car warranty has expired.
START OF SECRET
The service bulletin system was started somewhere around 1915 by Henry
Ford. It was established to support the first nationwide dealership program
that Ford set up to sell and service the Model T, which was the first
mass-produced car in the United States.
At the time. Ford decided that some method was needed to keep mechanics
in his dealerships apprised of the most up-to-date troubleshooting and
repair information. The service bulletin program he started was so successful
that it was adopted by all man-
ufacturers and prevails to this day.
From the beginning,
service bulletins have been kept secret. Before a federal law was passed
requiring manufacturers to send bulletins to NHTSA, no one other than
car dealers received them, except for selected individuals such as some
members of the media.
Therefore today, when trouble develops
with a car, light truck, van, or utility vehicle because of an inherent
defect after expiration of the warranty, odds are that the owner will
pay to have it fixed. Over the years, limited distribution of service
bulletins has caused another headache for vehicle owners. Since repairs
devised by manufacturers are known only to dealership mechanics, getting
a proper repair from an independent or franchised mechanic has
been a hit-or-miss proposition. One reason for not giving these repair
shops the latest repair information is to pressure car owners to patronize
service departments of new car dealers.
THE HIGH NUMBER OF INHERENT
Manufacturers usually send TSBs to dealers once a week OF once every two
weeks. The number of problems that are acknowledged as being inherent
by these documents is amazing. In 1993 alone, Ford, General Motors, and
Chrysler issued an average of 300 ser-
vice bulletins each—Honda/Acura, Nissan, and Toyota a lesser number.
Most bulletins describe how to repair inherent problems, but not all.
Others tell dealership mechanics how to service newly developed components
or relate information important only to
dealer service departments, such as time/labor allowances. For most TSBs,
defects that are acknowledged as inherent apply to a limited number of
vehicles, usually only several thousand. Therefore, be prepared to hear
a service manager say that a given
bulletin you know about doesn't apply to your vehicle. However, that bulletin
may reveal a repair that you've been looking to make since the car was
purchased. On the other hand, the number of cars, light trucks, vans,
and utility vehicles covered by a bulletin can include most of, if not
the entire, production run for one or more model years.
Most service bulletins deal with vehicles manufactured two or three years
before a current model year. For instance, most service bulletins issued
in 1993 deal with 1990, 1991, and 1992 models. Interestingly, service
bulletins are still being issued that apply to
models manufactured as long as ten years ago. The repair of one of these
may be done for free, or for a shared cost, by the manufacturer
if an owner finds out that a bulletin exists.
BREAKING DOWN THE SECRECY BARRIER
Some states are attempting to make it mandatory for auto manufacturers
to inform owners directly of inherent defects and repairs. Currently,
California, Connecticut, Virginia, and Wisconsin have adopted measures
to do just that. Connecticut Public Act No.
90-52 is typical in its wording of the legislation enacted by Virginia,
Wisconsin, and California: "A [vehicle] manufacturer shall establish
a procedure in this state whereby a consumer (1) shall be informed of
any adjustment program applicable to his motor ve-
hicle and (2) shall be entitled to receive a copy of any service bulletin
or index thereof upon request."
Some key parts of the Connecticut law, which are duplicated by Virginia,
Wisconsin, and California, leave little room for maneuvering by manufacturers
to maintain secrecy. For example, the law states that a new car dealer
service department would have to
disclose the principal terms and conditions of the manufacturer's adjustment
(i.e., payment) program to the consumer seeking repairs for a particular
condition, "if the dealer has received a service bulletin concerning
such adjustment program or otherwise has
knowledge of it."
Furthermore, legislation requires that, within 90 days of adoption of
an adjustment program, a manufacturer notify (by first-class mail) all
consumers eligible under such a program "of the
condition of the motor vehicle that is covered."
The Connecticut, Virginia, Wisconsin, and California laws also protect
owners who paid to have their cars fixed because their warranties expired
before service advisories were issued. If a service advisory is issued
after a repair has been paid for by the owner,
reimbursement will be made if the owner presents documentation showing
that the repair was done. This documentation should state the make, year,
model, and identification number of the car; date the repair was made;
mileage on the vehicle when the repair was made; description and cost
of the repair; and customer's name and address. A claim has to be made
in writing to the manufacturer within two years from the date of the repair.
Other states will undoubtedly pass similar measures. Therefore, if you
have a problem with a car you bought new, call or write one of your representatives
in the state legislature to find out if your state has enacted an anti-secret
warranty measure. If so, get a copy of the bill and follow through on
WHAT MOST OF US HAVE TO
Since most states still don't have anti-secret warranty laws, how can
you find out if a problem you're having with your vehicle has been recognized
as an inherent defect in a manufacturer's service advisory? For starters,
scan the lists in this part of the book. It covers a limited number of
service advisories issued by Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge,
Eagle, Ford, Honda, Jeep, Lincoln, Mercury, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Plymouth,
If you find one or more applicable secret warranties on the list that
addresses your problem, bring the vehicle to a dealer, present the service
manager with the TSB number(s), and ask him to check on the provisions
to determine if a repair applies to your vehicle.
If he confirms that it does, ask him to call the technical or warranty
assessment department of the manufacturer to get authorization to fix
the problem free under the provisions of the manufacturer's goodwill policy,
assuming that new car warranties have expired.
Obviously, if basic, bumper-to-bumper power train, body, or emissions
system warranties are still in effect, or if you purchased an extended
warranty (see Part IV), there should be no opposition on the part of the
dealer or manufacturer to making the free repair.
Don't take the dealer's word that you aren't covered by a warranty or
goodwill policy if a warranty has expired. The dealer doesn't have the
right to make this determination, since the
dealer doesn't pay for the repair; the manufacturer does. If the dealer
balks, tell him you want to meet with the manufacturer's field representative.
Or contact the manufacturer customer service department yourself. Auto
manufacturer addresses and phone numbers are listed in the appendix in
the back of this book. If you have to, be a pest. It usually pays.
THAT GOODWILL POLICY
Every car manufacturer has a so-called goodwill policy that provides for
free or partially free repairs to correct inherent problems after new
vehicle warranties have expired. Although information about this policy
is kept under wraps, most times a manufacturer
lives up to its provisions when a customer presents proof (i.e., knowledge
of a service bulletin) that confirms an inherent problem exists for which
a repair has been devised.
If you and your car's manufacturer disagree whether a particular problem
falls under the intent of a goodwill policy, you can bring the matter
before an arbitration panel (see Part IV). As a last resort, you can sue.
IMPORTANCE OF CAREFUL RECORD
If you complain about a problem to the service department where you bought
your vehicle, while new car warranties are in effect, but are told there
isn't a free repair for it (no TSB), ask for documentation. It should
show the date you made the complaint, mileage of the car at the time,
description of the vehicle (including its identification number), nature
of the problem, and a statement to the effect that the vehicle couldn't
be repaired. The document
should be signed by someone in authority from the dealer service department.
With this documentation, you should be able to have the dealer make the
repair for free when and if a service bulletin
is issued, even if warranties have expired.
GETTING COPIES OF THOSE
Suppose you can't find a description of the problem you're having in the
list presented in this part of the book. Or suppose you own a vehicle
made by a manufacturer other than the ones mentioned, or an older vehicle.
Or maybe you want a copy of an applicable service bulletin to prove that
a secret warranty exists. You may be able to get help from the Technical
Reference Division (TRD), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
400 Seventh St., SW, Washington, DC 20590. TRD's files are complete, up-to-date,
and computerized as to year, make, and model of the vehicle in question,
including specific problems for which service advisories have been issued.
In fact, you can order a complete set of secret warranties (TSBs)-on microfiche—applicable
to your vehicle. TRD charges a fee for this service.
This part lists problems in the following categories:
(1) engine problems, (2) braking problems, (3) transmission and differential
problems, and (4) steering problems.
Where a problem applies to vehicles
having certain characteristics, such as a particular size engine, that
characteristic is given. If your car doesn't fit the description—for
example, if it has a manual transmission rather than the automatic transmission
listed—the service bulletin doesn't apply. When no characteristic
is indicated, the problem and repair apply across the board to all vehicles
of that particular model, no matter what equipment it
With General Motors vehicles, engine designations 3.3 and 3300 or 3.8
and 3800 should be regarded as the same engine. For example, if a designation
on the list indicates that a TSB applies to a 3.3 engine but you have
been told that your engine is a 3300, ask a dealership service manager
to check the TSB anyway. The repair may apply to your car, since the 3.3
and 3300 engines are essentially, although not exactly, the same.
Included in the category of transmission and differential problems are
malfunctions affecting four-wheel as well as two-wheel drive systems.
Included in the category of steering problems are conditions that show
up as abnormal tire wear.
You will find the following abbreviations used throughout the tables in
A/C = air conditioning
ABS = antilock braking
A/T = automatic transmission
EGR = exhaust gas recirculation
MAP = manifold absolute pressure
M/T = manual transmission
PCV = positive crankcase ventilation
Although only one repair is usually listed per TSB number, the
actual secret warranty may offer a number of different repairs
leading to the final repair—an engine overhaul, for example. In
most cases, only the final repair is mentioned. That doesn't mean
this repair has to be performed on your vehicle. Your problem may
be corrected by having one of the lesser repairs made. When an
advisory contains the statement "analyze and repair according to
this service advisory," it means that there are a number of alter-
natives to be considered by the mechanic in troubleshooting the