What Does Your Warranty Actually Cover?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Most new vehicles come with several warranties.

The one most people think of first is the new car “bumper to bumper” (or “basic”) warranty. It covers just about everything except routine maintenance items such as oil and filter changes, brake pads, etc. Routine maintenance is on you. And more important to know, if you fail to do the specified routine maintenance, any problems that develop could also be on you. This includes using the manufacturer’s recommended fluids and filters — and keeping records as evidence that the specified maintenance was in fact done. Read the terms and conditions of your car’s warranty very carefully — and if there’s some point you don’t understand, ask about it at your dealership.

Most current-year vehicles come with at least a three year/36,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty. Remember the key phrase: whichever comes first. If you drive 20,000 miles annually, your new car’s bumper-to-bumper 3/36 warranty may run out before two years are out.

Overlapping the basic/bumper-to-bumper warranty is the “powertrain” warranty. It typically covers the engine, transmission, drive axles, transfer cases (4WD vehicles) and so on.

The powertrain warranty almost always lasts much longer than the bumper-to-bumper warranty; for example, several new cars (Hyundai, Kia) have powertrain warranties that are good for as long as 10 year/100,000 miles (again, whichever comes first).

There are also separate warranties for the emissions control systems, hybrid components for hybrid gas-electric cars (covers the batteries and electric motors) and even a warranty for the tires.

Information about your warranty coverages — all of them — should be in the vehicle’s glovebox, with the literature that came with your car when you bought it. It’s a good idea to read through all this stuff, ideally before you have a possible warranty-related problem. Know your coverages; then put the paperwork someplace safe. If you do have a problem at some point down the road, dig up the appropriate paperwork and get ready to take the next step.

* Schedule an appointment at an authorized repair facility –

“Authorized” is very important. Excepting emergencies (and sometimes, even then), most warranty work must be performed at a shop specifically authorized by the manufacturer (the people who built your car; GM, Toyota, etc.). That doesn’t mean it has to be a dealer; independent shops are sometimes ok. It just means the shop — dealer or independent — must be an authorized shop. Don’t authorize work before you know whether the shop is in fact authorized — or you may end up with the bill.

If you have an emergency, such as a breakdown miles from home that forces you to seek help at the first place you can find — “authorized” or not — warranty coverage may still be honored. But you must follow the protocols set forth by the manufacturer of your vehicle (again, see your paperwork), which usually involves calling or otherwise notifying the manufacturer (e.g., Toyota, GM, etc.) and documenting everything that is done to the vehicle.

* Discuss the problem/repair with the service advisor –

It’s important to be on the same page with them — and them with you — regarding any work that may (or may not) come under the provisions of your warranty. If it’s warranty work, be sure the service advisor agrees it’s warranty work — and that it is so noted on your invoice. You don’t want to argue about what was covered after the work has been done.

* Keep records (and documentation) of any and all service work related to a warranty issue –

Sometimes, problems recur because the part (or design of the vehicle) is itself flawed or defective in some way. If you’re unlucky enough to be the owner of such a car, you’ll want to have evidence of an ongoing problem so that the dealer will have a harder time trying to claim later on that “it’s just normal wear” should the same part fail once again — after the warranty has expired. In such cases, you may still be able to get them to fix it again at no cost or partial cost, even if the warranty is no longer in force. Worst case, you’ll have evidence to help you seek redress under state “lemon” laws. Generally, if a problem — the same problem — manifests three times, it is considered evidence of lemonhood.

* In case of dispute –

If you are unhappy with any aspect of warranty-related service, the first step is to attempt to communicate with the manager (better yet, the owner) of the dealership. Be calm, polite and factual. Reason with him; present your paperwork and explain your specific grievance. Don’t be accusatory; make it clear all you’re looking for is fair treatment — and a properly working car.

Hopefully, the problem can be resolved at this level. If, however, your problem has not been addressed to your satisfaction, the next step is to call the manufacturer’s Customer Assistance Center (this number will be listed either in your new vehicle owner’s manual or the warranty paperwork). They will try to mediate between you and the dealer to arrive at some mutually satisfactory agreement. And if that doesn’t work for you, the next step is to get in touch with the Better Business Bureau’s Auto Line Program. This is a free, out-of-court mediation service run by the Better Business Bureau to settle disputes without lawyers (and the expense of hiring a lawyer). The BBB Auto Line Program typically takes 40 days to handle a complaint; the toll-free nationwide number is 1-800-955-5100; you can also obtain more info at http://www.bbb.org/.

The final resort is to pursue the matter through the courts. Hopefully, it won’t go that far — and you should try to prevent it from getting that far, because the cost to litigate a warranty claim can literally be more than it’s worth — although you may get some satisfaction “on principle.”

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