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YOUR WHEELS

THE GOODS : Learn to Play the Warranty Game

August 25, 1995|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Question: The transmission on our 1988 Taurus failed after 20,000 miles in 1989. A few weeks ago, the car died on the way to Las Vegas. The car was towed to a small garage in Las Vegas, which charged us $2,200 for a rebuilt transmission. We have a 60,000-mile extended warranty, so we called Ford, but they would not cover anything. If you consider that the rebuilt transmission had only 45,000 miles on it, don't you agree that Ford should be responsible?--E.G.

Answer: In general, I think warranties are a big game, which results in a lot of car owners getting shafted. But if you play the game right, you can protect your interests fairly well.

In your case, I really can't fault Ford. Although you bought your extended warranty at the Ford dealer, almost certainly Ford had nothing to do with it. The warranty is really an insurance policy on mechanical problems, issued by an underwriter that is laying down a bet that he can keep more of your money than you can legitimately claim on warranted repairs.

Consumer groups and state regulators have found plenty of scams in these policies, particularly in the practice of these underwriters disappearing a few years after writing policies like your own.

The second problem with the extended warranties is that the underwriter couldn't care less about customer loyalty or bad publicity, whereas Ford probably does care about those issues to some degree.

Whether you have an extended warranty or a basic warranty by the manufacturer, you should be particularly careful as the car nears the expiration of the warranty's mileage or time limit.

It always makes sense to have a mechanic go over the car with a fine-tooth comb just before the expiration of the warranty. You want to avoid at all costs discovering a big problem just before the warranty expires.

Chances are that your transmission was already showing symptoms of problems at 59,900 miles. If so, you could have demanded a repair or at least established a record that the condition existed prior to the expiration of the warranty.

In many cases, a manufacturer will cover a repair if you can prove the problem existed and a repair was unsuccessfully attempted prior to the expiration of the warranty. It takes a lot of tenacity and you need a dealer that is on your side in cases like this.

Many dealers are only too happy to look over your car for repairs before a warranty expires. While they don't want to defraud the manufacturer by making unneeded repairs, they are generally more than happy to run up a huge bill fixing any real problem.

The final point you need to keep in mind involves technical service bulletins and customer satisfaction programs. These are often euphemisms for extended warranties, which manufacturers deny having.

I can't over-emphasize the importance of having a good dealer who knows how to search the manufacturer's data base for service bulletins, which is necessary to find out whether a repair can be made under warranty after the warranty is expired.

A huge number of repairs are covered under such goodwill programs and the timid consumer almost never gets the benefit.

Q: I am only 4 feet, 10 inches tall and am having a terrible time finding a car that I can fit into. The steering wheels are too high and the controls too far away. Any advice? T.N.

A: Auto makers use government survey data to size their cars, attempting to make sure that about 95% of the population fits, according to Buick human factors group head Ronald Roe.

Based on the most recent survey (now 20 years old), 95% of all women are 4 feet, 11 inches tall or taller. Based on your experience, you might have already surmised this was the case.

Roe suggests you try the Geo Prism, which has a steering wheel positioned far enough forward so that with the seat up you should be able to reach the dashboard controls.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006.

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