Smart Consumer: Don't let a breakdown drive you round the bend -- demand a guarantee
Unless you've been living in media-free seclusion over the last couple of weeks, you can't have failed to hear about Toyota's recall of over 26,000 cars in Ireland.
In fairness, it is a pretty big recall, affecting cars across the Toyota range from the Yaris to the Prius. Honda played a supporting role in reports with their recall of 3,000 Jazz cars.
Car recalls happen throughout the year, although most are not heavily publicised, with consumers contacted directly by the manufacturer.
However, at least when it comes to a recall, a fault has been identified and it will be rectified free of cost to the car owner, so that you know the car will be safe to drive.
It is not always so easy to get such satisfaction when something goes wrong with your car.
Approximately 6,000 consumers contacted the National Consumer Agency (NCA) in 2009 with car complaints: 18pc of those complaints related to new cars that developed faults, and 63pc of the complaints were about second-hand cars.
There are complaints about customers being misled about the number of owners and mileage or that the car had been involved in a crash.
But many complaints related to second-hand cars, "that had later proved to be faulty or repeatedly broken down, and where consumers had difficulty in getting redress form the seller", according to the NCA.
Tom Monaghan purchased a two-year-old Mercedes in 2007 for €31,000 and it came with a 12-month warranty. One-and-a-half years later he reported shudder and noise to an authorised dealer who, he says, "was unable to replicate or trace it".
A couple of months later, a problem with the gearbox was identified and the cost to repair was also identified, at €3,000.
Tom says: "I have since discovered that this is an inherent fault in Mercedes E Class cars manufactured between 2000 -- 2003.
"I was not made aware of this at time of purchase and, under these circumstances, Mercedes and their main dealer or appointed agent should fix this problem."
Tom has a valid point in that if an incorrect description is given about a car or if it is faulty, then the seller has a legal obligation to provide a remedy.
That should be a repair, replacement or refund; the same as if you had a faulty table or TV, under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980.
But the burning question is whether there is an "inherent fault" with this car, and one that Tom should have been notified about?
Mercedes say there isn't. They say: "There are many wear-and-tear items in all transmissions and repairs would be normal during the lifetime of a vehicle. However, it must be emphasised that this model does not suffer from an inherent fault relating to its transmission".
They also point out that "the manufacturer's warranty expired over five years ago. In addition, the used-vehicle warranty under which it was sold also expired some considerable time ago."
Tom bought his car two-and-a-half years ago, which means that warranties aside, he is within the time-frame of six years to make a claim against the seller, under the statute of limitations. However, it's proving your claim that is difficult.
Brendan Hoare's son purchased a new Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI in 2007 but after 44,000km an engine warning light came on, and Brendan says "it was running very rough".
He says "it turns out that the timing chain has stretched and caused the valve timing to be out of synchronisation causing the rough running, but also has caused internal damage with compression down on one cylinder."
Brendan's issue is "that the engine cannot be fit for purpose if the timing chain has stretched and caused damage that requires the engine to replaced with so little mileage".
Although out of warranty, manufacturers often offer 'goodwill' beyond expiry, but Brendan said his dealer told him that this would only cover a timing chain and that further tests on the car would have to be carried out.
In relation to what may be covered under 'goodwill', Volkswagen responded that "this was not stated and is not the case, an examination of the vehicle is necessary before any assumptions are made and each and every Volkswagen dealer is trained in this regard".
Although Brendan had tests carried out by an independent garage, Volkswagen claims that "the fault is still unknown as it has not been verified through a Volkswagen Service Partner despite numerous offers to do so. We would have envisaged that following an inspection and if a manufacturing fault was identified, we would offer the maximum assistance possible to the customer despite being outside warranty in order to ensure customer satisfaction is achieved".
So, though we have the choice to use independent garages, dealers and manufacturers can only accept work carried out by authorised dealers when considering a remedy.
In Brendan's case, VW says "as this engine has been removed without our knowledge and outside the Volkswagen Service Network we could not now inspect the engine with regard to customer assistance", as "there has been third-party interference in the inspection procedure".
Last year, the European Consumer Centre received 90 queries about vehicles, and in 10 cases felt it necessary to intervene on the customer's behalf.
Aside from problems with invalid warranties, complaints related to post-purchase faults.
This is also the experience of the complaints service operated by the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI).
In 2009, of 294 complaints received, 55pc related to mechanical or electrical defects. More than one-third of all complaints were referred to the Retail Motor Industry Standards Tribunal where more than half received a refund, repair or compensation.