Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Suzuki Verona: Bait and Switch Warranty Repairs

One year ago I purchased a used 2005 Suzuki Verona with about 40,000 miles on the odometer. Because of the low mileage and less than seven-year age of the car, many of its parts remained under the power train warranty. However, I have discovered that getting Suzuki to perform a needed warranty repair is extremely difficult, very expensive, and has left me wondering if Suzuki is manipulating their customers in order to cover up serious safety issues arising from design flaws.

A risk in buying any used car is being saddled with someone else's lemon. My Verona is certainly a lemon. I understand now why Suzuki stopped making Veronas. The car has been nothing but trouble since I bought it. Over the past year, there has not been a period of longer than two weeks without the check engine light coming on and staying on for several days at a time. During those intermittent periods of engine trouble, the car hesitated when I stepped on the gas and then either suddenly accelerated or stalled. Needless to say it was challenging and dangerous to drive.

However, diagnosing and fixing the problem proved difficult. My mechanic did the obvious-replaced the spark plugs, located and replaced a defective ignition coil, changed an O2 sensor-but nothing solved the underlying problem of hesitation followed by either a sudden acceleration or a stall. My mechanic eventually realized that the problem was with the on board computer that controlled the operation of the engine. Every time the check engine light came on the diagnostic codes from the computer were different and contradictory.

His recommendation to replace the computer was both good news and bad news. The bad news: it is a $1000 part. The good news: it is still under warranty. However, my mechanic cannot perform warranty repairs, those can only be done by Suzuki dealers. My trip to a Suzuki dealer turned into an expensive and time-consuming odyssey that raised troubling questions about the company and its products.

The closest Suzuki dealer to my house in Reisterstown, Maryland, is Adams Suzuki, located in Fallston, Maryland, about 40 miles away. After a hair-raising drive-the car stalled at most of the red lights along the way-I arrived and explained that my mechanic had recommended a new computer installation to solve the engine problems. The service manager received the car and told me that I would be called after they did their own diagnostics.

The next day I was told that the wiring harness needed to be replaced. This is an expensive part ($597.15) and labor-intensive repair ($227.50), for a total of $876.38 after taxes and waste disposal fees were included, and the warranty does not cover the parts and labor. The engine and computer are warranted, but conveniently for Suzuki, not the wires connecting them. The dealer said the computer worked properly. I asked the service manager how she knew that the computer worked. She said that the computer would not generate diagnostic codes at all if it didn't work, an assertion my mechanic says is false. However, the dealership provided me with no other option but to replace the wiring harness. I reluctantly agreed, although I said that if a wiring harness replacement did not fix the car's problem I would expect my money back.

In the mean time I rented a car so that I could commute to work. Two days later on a Thursday, the dealer called me back to say that Suzuki had sent them the wrong wiring harness and that the repair would be delayed another two days. I said that I would be out of town for the next week, and I would pick up the car on the next Thursday morning (one week later).

The following Thursday morning I called, only to find out the repaired had just been started. The car would be ready Thursday afternoon, which forced me to spend more money on a rental car so that I could get to work. I asked for a 10% discount on the repair to offset the added expense. The service manager's reply was no. She said that it was not her fault that Suzuki shipped the wrong part the week before.

I picked up my car that Thursday evening and paid the $876.38. The car continued to hesitate and then lurch forward, although no stalls occurred. The check engine light came back on before I arrived home. I returned to complain. This time the computer diagnostic codes indicated a vacuum leak that the dealership claimed to have repaired about 30 minutes later. I again asked about the reliability of the computer, and I was assured that it worked. I was not charged for the repair because the manager said moving parts around during the wiring harness repair could have caused the leak.

I drove away and traveled about 3 miles before the check engine light came on again. I returned and this time the computer diagnostic codes indicated a problem with an O2 sensor, a part that I knew had been recently replaced. This time I spoke directly to the service technician who told me that O2 sensors fail frequently on Veronas, even relatively new ones. But, when I asked what was wrong with the O2 sensor, he discovered that the computer codes kept changing. First the O2 sensor was completely dead, then it was good, then it was sensing a "lean" mixture, then a "rich" mixture. I argued that a computer spitting out bad codes was a more likely explanation for the problem than an O2 sensor cycling between all four possible states.

But, the service technician told me that Suzuki's instructions were not to replace computers, even when that appeared to be problem, but instead to replace wiring harnesses. I asked why Suzuki was so convinced that the wiring harness was bad. He explained that the original wiring harness had design flaws that caused the wires to corrode and form intermittent connections that could cause the same kind of problems as a malfunctioning computer.

The technician said that the service department would provide an estimate for a new O2 sensor. But, I said I wanted the computer replaced before I agreed to spend any more money. If the computer spits out bad codes, I could replace parts one at a time forever. After all, there are hundreds of possible diagnostic codes the computer can generate. Reluctantly, the dealership agreed to order a new computer and replace it under the warranty agreement.

I returned a fourth time when the new computer arrived to have it installed. I have not had any problems with the car since the computer was replaced. The O2 sensor appears to work fine. Needless to say the $876.38 I spent on the wiring harness repair has not been refunded. The dealership argues that it was still necessary, and since the car did not stall afterward, the new wiring harness resulted in some improvement.

However, the experience raises some deeply troubling questions about Suzuki. If the original wiring harness design is indeed defective, it should be recalled. There is no question my car was dangerous to drive given its propensity to either lurch forward or stall when pressing the gas pedal. It appears that rather than issue a recall, Suzuki is instructing its dealers to replace the wiring harness and bill the customer for the expense, before doing needed warranty repairs.

I would not have traveled to a dealer 40 miles away for a non-warranty repair. My mechanic could have replaced the wiring harness cheaper, faster, and closer to my house. I would not have had to make four round trips (320 miles total) to the dealer and spend a total of $235.55 on rental cars to get to work. But my mechanic correctly diagnosed the problem as a bad computer and recommended that I have it fixed under the warranty. Between the repairs, rental cars, and travel expenses, I spent over $1100 on what should have been a no-cost warranty repair.

The car definitely needed a new computer. I still don't know if the car needed a new wiring harness, but if Suzuki is correct that it did, that raises deeply troubling questions about the safety of Suzuki products and integrity of its management. If it did not need a new wiring harness I should get my money back.

The sequence of events leads me to believe that I was a victim of a bait and switch. I brought the car to a Suzuki dealer for a needed warranty repair. But, before Suzuki would honor the warranty, the company insisted on selling me an expensive non-warranty repair. If the wiring harness repair was necessary because of possible design flaws, the part should be recalled. Suzuki should not be insisting that customers pay for its replacement before agreeing to do necessary warranty repairs.