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lou's garage

Auto shop owners will tell you that being a preferred repair shop for an aftermarket warranty company is both a blessing and a curse. While the work is steady, it also comes with a constant flow of misguided customers.

Third-party warranties are typically bought by used car dealers in bulk, at a discount, and then resold to customers at the point of sale for a used car by that retail dealer. Typically, when a customer who has purchased one of these warranties walks through my door, they first describe what is wrong with their vehicle and then proudly declare that all costs are being covered by their warranty company. Unfortunately, the warranty companies’ literature rarely supports their blank-cheque attitude, leaving them upset and disappointed before I have even turned a wrench on their car.

This week, a 2017 Mercedes-Benz C300 came in with a malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) or check engine light on. The owner, who had just bought this used car, explained to me that their warranty was covering the repair costs. After a brief discussion, they also divulged that the light had come on multiple times in the two months they owned it, it even made an appearance the day they picked up the car from the dealer. The dealer made several attempts to fix the car, eventually washing their hands of it and demanding they contact the warranty provider.

It has been my experience that people trade in their vehicle for one of three reasons. They are bored and want something new; their family has expanded or shrunk and the most common reason, a major repair is looming.

I’m confident the chain of events goes something like this. The used car dealer bought a nice-looking Mercedes-Benz from a wholesale car auction, brought it to their lot, cleaned it up and prepared it for sale and then noticed it had a MIL light on. They took out their handy-dandy code reader, reset the light and continued with the sales process making sure they sold the car with a warranty. The unsuspecting customer buys the car and the warranty pushed upon them with assurances that the warranty covers everything. Except it doesn’t, and the new owner is saddled with a $2,500 repair two months into their ownership. I pointed them toward the Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) and the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (CAMVAP) for possible assistance.

So, who is at fault here? In my opinion, everyone shares a piece of the blame. However, the used car dealer holds the bulk of the blame, as I’m pretty sure they knew there was a problem with the vehicle and sold it anyways, using the warranty to get out of a bad buy. They should know better, and I wish the whole industry could be better at this.

Next up, warranty companies are not in the business of losing money. They do their research and know what costs them the most and save those big-ticket items for the most expensive warranty package. A warranty package most won’t buy because of the exorbitant cost.

The person who traded in the car likely knew they were passing on their problems to someone else and slipped it past the wholesale buyer, but everyone does this right?

And let’s not forget about the new owner. Many drivers want fancy, hi-tech luxury vehicles and when a brand-new sedan is out of their price range, they look to the used car market. However, the warranty they should have bought with the car was double the price to the one they actually bought.

If you can’t afford the luxury sedan and the most comprehensive warranty available, then pass and set your sights on something less pricey to repair. I recognize that this happens with all makes and models and in all price ranges, but in this upscale vehicle market, it financially hurts much more.

Your automotive questions answered

Dear Lou,

Your Dec. 5 column “Thinking of buying a high-end car second-hand? Be wary of the repair bills” reminded me of a friend’s attempt to revive and run a BMW 2002 that had been through many hands, on the theory that even though he couldn’t do the work himself, it would be financially bearable, the car being mechanically simpler than modern BMWs.

Experience proved otherwise. I’ve never fallen into that trap myself. But now I’m in a situation at what you might call the other end of the spectrum. My family has acquired my elderly dad’s 1995 Volvo 850 GLE, non-turbo inline 5, automatic, with 219,0000 kilometres, gratis. I know the provenance of this car and the careful habits of its single owner, so I’m confident it’s been well maintained, and serviced on schedule by the dealer who sold it, as the envelope full of invoices attests.

It’s cosmetically excellent, inside and out, and has a classy, timeless look. No accidents, no rust. And with some premium features for its time, including airbags, heated seats, power mirrors, sunroof. Everything works. It’s a Vancouver car, always parked under cover. The doors and trunk close with a very solid THUNK, and it drives nicely. Not what you’d call agile, but very stable, a perfect highway car. Take your hands off the wheel, and it keeps going straight. And, incidentally, excellent in the snow, as I’ve discovered today, with its Michelin snow tires. You don’t need snows often in Vancouver, but they’re essential when that wet coastal snow hits.

Our immediate use for it is as a safe, easy driver training vehicle for a family member. It’s perfect for that, unlike our other two vehicles, a Mazda 3 Sport (manual) and a CX9 (too big, and hard to see out the back).

I’ve had a trustworthy local owner-operated service shop inspect and service the Volvo. Apart from a new battery and wiper switch, it needed nothing, and they admired its condition. They do suggest replacing the timing belt (last done at 100,000 kilometres). That’ll cost some $1,500, and the initial servicing cost about $1,000, adding up to perhaps half of its resale value, judging by the few I see online.

I’m happy with that investment, knowing its history. And I’m not troubled by maintenance costs (which aren’t exactly modest, for the two Mazdas, though that may be because they go to the dealer). So here’s my question – is this the kind of situation where an older, high mileage European car makes sense? Is there a decent chance that (with regular maintenance) I’ll see the longevity that, supposedly, older Volvos can deliver?

Kind regards,

Richard B.

P.S. – your column is terrific. I never miss it, and it’s an important reason why I keep on subscribing to the Globe.

Thank you, Richard.

Indeed, older Volvos were boring, incredibly safe for their day and essentially indestructible. A mid-′90s 850 would be at the tail end of that generation, especially a non-turbo model that has an impeccable, identifiable service history.

The immediate problem as I see it is diminishing availability of parts. Twenty-five-plus years old makes it closer to a classic than mainstream commuter vehicle. Parts are still available, as there is a large following for these cars, but Volvo dealers won’t stock much and nor will their main warehouse. Aftermarket parts supplier warehouses won’t either. If you are okay with a longer repair time, I’d say drive it and enjoy it until it becomes a burden.

Your friend and his BMW 2002 are probably sitting pretty now, have you seen the value of them lately?

I have a 2019 Subaru Outback (15,000 kilometres) with a power rear gate that is supposed to open by pushing a button on the left side of the dash, by pushing the correct button on the FOB or by touching a pad on the rear gate itself.

Last winter and again this winter, I have at random occasions been unable to get the rear gate to open. I get three “chirps or beeps” instead of the normal two warning beeps. Apparently, the three beeps are supposed to announce a problem. Ditto sometimes when trying to close the rear gate.

Supposedly this happens when there is something obstructing the rear gate, but whenever this has happened to me, there was no obstruction except that it was winter (a few degrees below zero – not very cold) and there likely was a flake or two of snow, although I had cleaned the back with a brush. Certainly no obstruction when trying to close it when I can actually see what is there.

The dealer said to push and hold the dash button for five-plus seconds to reset the system, but that does not work. A dealer Hail Mary? Sometimes, after five or six tries, it will suddenly work but this is not always the case.

When it does not work, I have to unload all of the stuff from the back, into the snow via the rear side doors, crawl into the back, pop off a plastic cover and then pop the rear gate with a screw driver – per the owner’s manual. That suggests that Subaru knows about the problem, but they have not come up with a better solution than crawling into the back with a screwdriver.

This is a new, $50,000 vehicle and I cannot live with having to crawl in and out of the back to open the rear gate at random occasions. My wife even less so. When it sticks open, I can force it down to close the old-fashioned way, but then when you drive off, you get continuous chirping for two or three minutes because it thinks it is still open.

Any ideas?

Thanks, Tony F.

The 3 beeps indicate an obstruction and also a locked door condition. The vehicle must be fully unlocked first, before the lift gate will operate. I doubt it is this simple, but it’s worth mentioning.

Common relatable problems with your model are a weak main vehicle battery or depleted key FOB battery. Less common is a faulty lock actuator, clearance sensors or touch sensors. First, replace both key FOB batteries, you would be amazed at how many times it’s that simple. Forcing the gate down will get it closed in a must-do situation, but it will require a reset of the tailgate afterwards. Opening the tailgate fully and pushing and holding the rear liftgate close button located on the liftgate will start a reset procedure. Hold it until you hear four beeps, which indicates to the onboard computer that the liftgate is in the fully open position, hopefully resetting the system.

I understand you are frustrated, but if the problem persists you will be dependent on your dealer to find and repair whatever the problem actually is.

Lou Trottier is owner-operator of All About Imports in Mississauga. Have a question about maintenance and repair? E-mail, placing “Lou’s Garage” in the subject line.

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