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lou's garage

A 2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI was towed in this week for a professional opinion as the owner was contemplating possible litigation. He purchased the car from a private independent dealer as a used vehicle a couple years ago with approximately 80,000 kilometres.

The engine recently had a catastrophic failure at the 105,000-kilometer mark leaving the owner with a car that needs an engine and a transmission. Why also a transmission? Because the engine failure occurred at highway speeds, sending spinning, out-of-control internal engine parts in all directions. On this occasion, one of those spinning out-of-control parts travelled so far that it broke through the engine block housing beside a transmission mounting bolt. Kinetic energy from the bolt placed into motion cracked and damaged the transmission housing beyond repair. Ouch! This vehicle was initially towed to a local dealer for assessment and would normally have been out of any warranty, but because it is one of the recalled diesel-gate vehicles, it has an extended warranty because of the Volkswagen settlement. The owner had some hope.

The problem arises because VW is seeking the service history for the car. The new owner supplied the dealer with the two oil change receipts since his ownership, but this was not good enough. This specific vehicle, had no previous maintenance history recorded in the VW dealer database, therefore leaving the customer in a precarious position. All manufacturers will typically delay or deny warrantable repairs until all maintenance records since new, are supplied when dealing with engine failure. The owner is now trying to locate the previous owners in hopes of piecing together some sort of history.

The brand of vehicle, nor the mileage is important, but this issue of warranty refusal due to missing maintenance history is something I’m seeing on an escalating basis.

I have even witnessed this dispute occur when a used car has been sourced and purchased from a factory authorized dealer’s used car department. A used-car buyer should not have to worry about this when they are buying a pre-certified, premium used car from a new car dealer, but they still do. If this dealer cannot provide you with a full-service history, then get it in writing, on your sales contract that they will accept responsibility for any warranty claim issues that might arise due to this lack of history.

When buying a used car from a private seller or private dealer you must add another layer of complexity to an already tedious, soul-sucking task. If the vehicle you are looking at is new enough to still have a factory, extended, or transferable third-party warranty, then you must be diligent in satisfying the requirements necessary of the warranty holder. In all cases, this means being able to provide history from a time period prior to your ownership. If the selling dealer can’t provide it and it can’t be sourced through a manufacturer dealer query, then one must consider that warranty to have limited value to you, the new owner.

Your automotive questions, answered

Hi Lou:

Thanks for the informative tuning article. I enjoy your articles, especially about your project cars.

Your Tuning article raises an interesting question when buying a used car that has a turbocharger or supercharger. I like these technologies especially for highway performance and passing on two lane highways.

I have had Subaru WRX and Forester XT, VW turbos and Mini Cooper S with a supercharger.

As you have likely seen, the Subaru turbos are often a favourite of the tuner crowd which can mean that when buying used, these cars might need some extra pre-purchase research and inspection before buying.

Do you have any suggestions to determine if they have been “tuned” and may not have manufacturer warranty?

In my experience, contacting dealers as part of pre-purchase research doesn’t get much info because the dealer cites privacy of information. Contacting the Canadian office of the manufacturer with the VIN generally provides outstanding recall info.

Other than asking the seller, are there any other sources you’d suggest looking at?

Do you have a suggestion how to get the dealer to share info, it can be valuable info to have specially to support whatever maintenance claims the seller is making? I live in Alberta.

To put this question in perspective, I am an older driver and typically run from anything that has been “tuned” or is advertised with a Cobb sport. In my opinion, either of these generally means “I see expensive engine work in your future”

Do you think this is a valid opinion?

Thanks, and appreciate your work!


Thanks George, I do agree that purchasing any vehicle advertised as modified in any way, whether it be hardware or software, has an elevated risk associated with it. Vehicles can be tuned and then detuned to stock software settings; aftermarket performance equipment can be taken off assuming the previous owner kept all the original parts.

Unfortunately, some unsuspecting used vehicle owners are made aware of an undisclosed software modification at their first dealer service, when any kind of computer update is required. While this hasn’t been a significant issue in the past, it is becoming more relevant as turbo and supercharged vehicles are now mainstream in our marketplace. Accordingly, all manufacturers are now keen to ascertain when a car has had unauthorized software tampering. Most dealer diagnostic equipment can now easily detect those software alterations when they are still present in the vehicle, but what about when they aren’t still there?

The latest tactics that some manufacturers are implementing is to record the number of software rewrites a vehicle has had. This information is stored both in the vehicle’s main computer and also within manufacturer databases. Because modifications are only typically completed by authorized dealers, the records should always be consistent and accurate between the two. If the vehicle is showing two or more additional rewrites, then assume it has had a modification and then returned to stock. At this point the vehicle is flagged in their system as modified and warranty repairs may be denied.

A prospective buyer can do little to detect software modifications without assistance from a dealer. Even then, I’m confident you won’t easily convince a dealer service adviser to write a repair order searching for these sorts of modifications. This is not yet a regular retail service request, and most advisers won’t have a clue as to what you are asking for.

Hi Lou,

I have a 2005 Ford Escape XLT with automatic AWD and a V6. I bought it as a low mileage lease return in 2005, with a balance of factory warranty. It now has 101,000 kilometres. I don’t drive much any more, about 2,500 kilometres a year, only around town. I live in Richmond B.C., with covered parking. I have had two significant repairs, known in Escapes: engine oil seals; and a tone ring replacement. I’ve replaced, once each, the battery, tires, shock absorbers and rear brakes. I consider that normal maintenance. I like the height, solidness, reliability, power and AWD. I can afford a new car, and my friends think I should buy one, but I’m not convinced.

What do you think?

Love your columns.

Bob F

Thanks Bob, 2,500 kilometres per year or approximately 210 kilometres per month is definitely at the low end of use. It makes me wonder if you even need a vehicle at all. With fuel, maintenance and insurance costs, it might almost be cheaper to Uber/taxi everywhere locally, especially when you consider that you could probably rent out your covered parking spot.

That being said, if you still want the conveniences this vehicle affords you, I think keeping it until it starts costing significant amounts in repairs is the correct decision.

When the Escape finally dies, I suggest you revaluate your needs and consider not replacing it. However, if you are the type of person who requires having their own set of wheels, I get it, as I expect I fall into that category. If that is the case, I would still question if a brand-new vehicle were the best decision, perhaps something a few years old would do the job.

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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