BUYING A LEMON
Your brand-new car giving you issues? Get clued up on your rights
When people complain to me about new cars that have gone horribly wrong, they never refer to them as “new”. They’re always “brand-new” or “out of the box” or, in some cases, they refer to their problematic wheels as “brand-new, out of the box” for extra emphasis. And no wonder; a new car is a huge investment. For some, it’s their most expensive asset. And most acquire their first new car after at least one secondhand one. So, to be a car’s first owner is a big deal and the word “new” on its own doesn’t begin to do the investment – both financial and emotional – justice.
When such a prize possession breaks down in some way, the frustration and anger is understandably immense because the assumption is that problems are what you get with second-hand cars, not new ones. The reality is that some new cars are not a good reflection of their brand. At all. They go wrong in all sorts of annoying and catastrophic ways. And often, to the new-car owner’s frustration, the dealerships and manufacturers don’t find that startling at all.
When the power steering of a R1,5-million premium SUV failed within six weeks of purchase, its owner, a Durban businessman, insisted that the vehicle be replaced. “This is a high-
powered vehicle and I am not happy with that part being replaced, for safety reasons,” he told the dealership.
The regional sales manager’s response was: “Vehicles are man-made objects and are subject to the same frailties as man.
“If this was not so, it would not have been necessary to sell vehicles with a warranty and/or maintenance contact.
“Regarding the replacement of the vehicle, we reserve the right to repair your vehicle as part of the sales agreement…”
And anyone else who has a new car fail on them can expect a similar “don’t get beyond yourself” response if they ask for a replacement.
Many assume that, thanks to the Consumer Protection Act, if the problem arises within six months of purchase, they can exercise their right to choose one of three recourses: repair, replacement or refund. That’s how it works when your cellphone or microwave breaks. But it’s not that simple when it comes to cars.
A few years ago, Motor Industry Ombudsman, Johan van Vreden, told me that when it comes to cars, consumers aren’t automatically entitled to demand a replacement car or a refund. He referred me to the Act’s definition of defect:
“A defect means any material imperfection in the manufacture of the goods or components … that renders the goods less acceptable than persons generally would be reasonably entitled to expect in the circumstances…”
Van Vreden went on to say that meant that “in the event that a component becomes defective, the component becomes the product”.
Of course, based on that interpretation, no supplier would ever have to replace or refund an entire product, just the faulty bit. In other words, they’d all be entitled to choose to do a repair, which flies in the face of the intention of the Act.
But that’s the way it is when it comes to problematic cars.
The thing is, along with protecting consumers, the government has a responsibility to support the car industry. If everyone demanded a new car or a refund the moment something went wrong, the automotive industry would collapse.
I once had a man complain that a dealership refused to replace his car when the stitching on a section of its leather seats was unravelling.
Van Vreden said his most frivolous case involved a man who wanted the dealership to take the car back because its navigation system wasn’t picking up some of the roads.
Since January 2015, the Motor Industry Ombudsman of SA (MIOSA) is accredited as a dispute-resolution agency and is custodian of the SA Automotive Code of Conduct (ACT), which is part of the Consumer Protection Act.
In short, if a consumer feels done in by a manufacturer, or a dealership which sold them a car or serviced it, MIOSA is the government-sanctioned body to complain to. More serious failures, and the more safety critical the component – such as brakes or steering – strengthen the case.
And, while MIOSA doesn’t support the replacement or refunding of cars for all defects, in serious cases, it does.
I asked Van Vreden to elaborate on the kind of circumstances which would have his office supporting a take-back – at no cost to the consumer, except for usage – of a problematic vehicle.
“Each case is unique,” he said. “I cannot comment on this as there are too many possibilities and too many factors which are calculated when making a ruling.”
Whatever you do, if your new car develops mechanical problems shortly after purchase, take it to the dealer you bought it from. Do not go to another service provider to repair it.