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When Life Gives You a Lemon. . .Keep Records

September 15, 1996|KATHY M. KRISTOF

There was a strange sound coming from the transmission of Robert and Bonnie Bow's brand-new $26,000 Plymouth Voyager van from the moment they picked it up. But the dealer said it was just a new car with a new sound--something to get used to, not to worry about.

Less than 6,000 miles later, bad things started to happen.

Bonnie was driving home one night on the freeway when the car suddenly shifted into first gear, practically landing her in a drainage ditch.

Later, the door panels popped off.

A horrible mildewy smell began to pour from the air conditioning vents.

The signals wouldn't work.

The horn stopped beeping.

The back windshield wiper would turn on and off sporadically.

The seat back broke.

And the whole car began to rattle.

"It was like this van was possessed," says Bonnie, a soft-spoken mother of three from Madera, Calif. "I didn't know whether to call a mechanic or an exorcist."

Her dealer, who serviced the car 13 times in its first year of use, delivered the bad news: The Bows bought a lemon.

Now, more than a year later, Bonnie is still trying to get Chrysler to take the car back under the terms of California's lemon law. Her story underscores just how tough it can be to return your vehicle if you happen to be one of the unfortunate few who buy a defective car.

Every year, literally millions of new cars are sold. A small percentage are vehicles that have such severe mechanical defects that they simply can't be fixed in a reasonable number of attempts. Dealers, auto manufacturers, consumers and states term these cars lemons. And every state in the nation has a law requiring manufacturers to take them back.

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of lemons have been repurchased by manufacturers, consumer experts say.

More than 50,000 lemons are repurchased each year, compared to roughly 5,000 annually 20 years ago, according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based consumers' group.

That's not because there are more lemons. Manufacturers and consumer advocates agree that car quality has markedly improved over this period.

The difference is that now the number of lemons bought back has vastly increased, Ditlow says.

Why? Lemon laws are relatively new--a product of the past 15 years. California passed one of the first such laws, which went into effect in 1983. Additionally, today's consumers are simply better informed than they used to be, says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability in Sacramento.

Oddly enough, one of the things that has helped boost consumer awareness of lemon laws is a crime--"lemon laundering."

For years, lemons repurchased by manufacturers have resurfaced in automobile auctions and on used- car lots, with no notice indicating the car's history.

The National Assn. of Attorneys General became so distressed by the practice that it adopted a resolution in 1991 encouraging state attorneys general everywhere to push for legislation requiring disclosure and warranties on resold lemons. Most states now require this disclosure, although experts maintain nondisclosure of "material facts" would be a violation of federal fair trade practice statutes anyway.

Nonetheless, lemon laundering continues. Indeed, just last month Chrysler Corp. officials were summoned to Sacramento to appear at a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing regarding alleged violations of California's lemon disclosure requirements. California officials said Chrysler repeatedly sold defective vehicles without providing consumer disclosures as required under California law.

At the hearing, Ditlow said the Chrysler problem was a national rather than regional issue. He gave several examples, including one involving a Dodge Caravan that leaked so badly that the first owner, a Virginia man named Dan Garcia, carried towels with him just in case it rained. He sued Chrysler, the parent of both Plymouth and Dodge, to force a repurchase. After a three-year battle, he won.

The car later resurfaced in Minnesota, where Karen Melvin bought it--still leaking.

Melvin investigated the vehicle's history, found out it was a repurchased lemon and demanded a refund. After she hired an attorney, Chrysler refunded her money. Owner No. 3, Wade Wilson, continues to experience water leak problems, Ditlow says.

Chrysler won't comment on specific examples from the hearing, but says it has not violated the state's lemon law and will appeal any penalty coming out of the Sacramento hearing.

What exactly is a lemon? A car that has a defect that "substantially impairs the use, value or safety" of the vehicle and can't be repaired, says Philip Nowicki, president of P.R. Nowicki & Co., a national automotive research and consulting firm headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla.

To presume a car is not repairable, some states say you must have three unsuccessful repair attempts; other states, including California, set that number at four or after a certain number--often 30--of days out of service.

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