Horror stories drift back like cannon smoke from the front lines of the 4x4 warranty wars. Some of them sound like war crimes; some are only aggravating; others are legendary. There's the refusal to fix automatic door locks under warranty because the truck had an aftermarket turbo. Tranny warranty repair refused because the suspension was lifted. An aftermarket performance chip blamed for a radio failure. We've even heard tales of warranties not being honored because of any aftermarket modification whatsoever. You've probably heard of, or experienced, similar battles.
And just like legends, tales of warranty-war atrocities can bring tears to your eyes and put a lump in your throat, but they may also make the real truth hard to see.
So what is the real deal with 4x4 factory warranties? Why do so many buyers of new and still-under-warranty trucks wait-often years-until their warranties expire before performing the mods they've wanted from the moment they bought their rigs? Is that really necessary? Can lifting your truck's suspension legitimately void the warranty on your tranny or engine? For that matter, does adding an aftermarket turbo or performance PROM chip necessarily kill your engine or drivetrain warranty?
"Never Fear, Your Rights Are Clear"That's a quote from Gale Banks, owner and founder of Gale Banks Engineering, maker of aftermarket turbos and drivetrain performance products. Because some of his products nearly double a stock engines' torque, Banks has had to deal firsthand with new-truck warranty issues from time to time during his 41 years in business.
Banks points out that the Magnuson-Moss Consumer Protection act is very clear: The mere act of adding an aftermarket part such as a turbo cannot legally void your factory warranty. Not even the part of the warranty that covers your engine.
In some cases, your whole warranty can be voided if you tamper with or disconnect the odometer. Hypertech's tech supervisor Sean White echoes the same certainty.
However, your warranty does not cover any damage or failure caused by an aftermarket part or modification. That makes sense, right? If you put a supercharger on your new engine and blow out the head gaskets, you can't expect the dealer to replace them under warranty. If you lift the suspension and run the U-joints at extreme angles that munch them, you can't expect new ones for free.
But if your electric door locks go south, you can't legally be denied warranty coverage just because you have a turbo on the engine. That concept should make sense too, but Banks says such ridiculous stories are common. Why? For one thing, individual dealer service departments have lots of freedom in warranty-or-not decisions. And service writers may not be as informed as they should be about how warranties work when aftermarket parts are involved. It may be easier for them to just say no-and pass the problem upstairs-than to risk the wrath of a wrong choice. That's why it's important for you to know your rights and be prepared to insist upon them.
Another factor in warranty confusion is the vague and misleading language in factory warranty statements. Whether by design or default, warranties often give the impression that any and all mods are forbidden unless they're performed by the dealer before you take delivery of the truck.
Lease and sales contracts make matters worse. General Motors Acceptance Corporation's (GMAC's) Smart Buy (a purchase contract) Smartlease (a lease contract) and American Honda Finance Corporation's lease contract all specifically prohibit changing, altering, or modifying a vehicle "without written consent." Significantly, Chrysler's lease agreement contains no such chilling verbiage. See the "Lease LuLus" sidebar elsewhere in this article for more on this.
Finally, there's the confusion caused by some extended warranty contracts. These are designed to take over when your original factory warranty runs out. However, at least one huge provider of extended warranties, Wynn's Product Warranty Program, specifically excludes "Vehicles modified from the manufacturer's original specifications." As an example, Wynn's contract excludes trucks with snowplows.
Between all the warranties and lease agreements, there's enough legal fine print to keep a thousand lawyers busy for years. However, Banks keeps honing in on the primary issue: the factory warranty language outlined in every new 4x4 owner's manual. If you read it carefully, you'll see that despite the scary language, what they really say is that damage caused by aftermarket parts or modifications is all that's not covered.
Who Has the Burden of Proof?Furthermore, Banks points out that the damage must not only be directly caused by the aftermarket part or mod, but the burden of proof is on the dealer service department, not the truck owner. That means it's up to the dealer to prove the part or mod caused the damage; it's not up to you to prove it didn't.
That sounds good: You don't have to prove anything; they do. But it's easy to understand how dicey that can get. Say you've modified your engine to make more power and suddenly your tranny has a problem. Technically, the dealer or warranty service provider can't refuse to cover the repair unless it can prove the tranny failure was actually caused by the increased power. But prove it how? And to whom? And how long does the palaver go on while your 4x4 sits unfixed?
Every 4x4 manufacturer has a formal procedure to follow if you disagree with the local dealer's warranty decision. The exact process may vary among specific 4x4 makers, but basically you'd appeal a decision to a local supervisor, then to a regional customer service rep, then to his or her supervisor and so on up the line. Hypertech's White points out that the disagreement-resolution line extends all the way to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Washington (877/FTC-HELP). Yikes! Makes you tired just to think about it, doesn't it?
Let The After Marketer Go To Bat For YouDon't despair. Banks has another great piece of advice. The first call you should make when you encounter a warranty problem is to the maker of the aftermarket part that's triggering the refusal. Chances are good they've heard of the same problem before and already know the best way to respond. Banks says that you should make that call before authorizing any warranty repairs which may cost you money. Both Banks and White assured us that when their products are involved, their customer service techs will go so far as to call up a local dealer and hash the problem out on your behalf.
As an example, Banks' techs know how to talk through tranny diagnostic procedures with local dealer service techs to determine if the failure is really torque related (due to the turbo's added power). If it is, you can't expect coverage. But what if the failure turns out not to be torque related, but due to, say, a weak internal part with a history of failure? Banks' people know how to ferret out the truth. But would you know?
As a first step in any warranty dispute, Hypertech's White urges getting the dealer or service provider to put in writing the exact reason for the warranty denial. Sometimes that request alone will convince a balky service department to go ahead and do the right thing. If they still won't cover the repair, you'll have the clear hard copy statement you'll need to send to the aftermarketer and to use in your appeals process.
Go With QualityIf you plan to put aftermarket parts or mods on your new truck, it makes good common sense to choose parts that are thoroughly and expertly designed, developed, and tested.
Make sure you understand the warranties on the aftermarket parts themselves. What responsibility does the company take in case its product does cause a problem?
Before you buy, don't be afraid to quiz aftermarket makers or suppliers about their customer service and how they handle factory warranty problems. Find out if they'll help you hash out a warranty dispute if necessary.
Good News And, Uh, Other NewsHopefully it's good news to you that simply adding aftermarket parts can't legally void your factory warranty. It's also good news that quality aftermarketers are willing to go to bat for you in a warranty dispute. After all, it's good business for them if you add the parts and mods sooner rather than waiting for years until your factory warranty runs out.
The, uh, other news is that there's obviously still quite a ways to go before all local dealers and warranty service providers understand and accept the reality of the warranty laws. And to be fair, they've certainly had to deal with jerk customers trying to abuse their warranties and get something for nothing too. Dealer service writers have some pretty good war stories of their own. So you can't really blame them for being a bit gun-shy and suspicious.
Still, you may have to stand up and fight for your warranty rights. Just remember, as Gale Banks says, "Never fear, your rights are clear."
Lease LulusA big attraction of leasing a new or near-new 4x4 is that your monthly payments can be much lower than if you buy. But if you plan to modify the truck, carefully read the lease contract's fine print about "Use." For example, item 12 on the back of the GMAC Smartlease Agreement (Lease Agreement 8) says, "You will NOT" and then lists six items. The fifth You will NOT is "change the vehicle without our written consent."
The dealer said that meant we could not modify a leased truck at all. When we pointed out that the contract didn't prohibit changes, just said we needed written permission, the dealer referred us to GMAC's customer service department.
After a long, friendly conversation with a supervisor (we didn't say we were with the magazine), several important points came to light.
1)Leased trucks are expected to be returned in stock condition. That's no surprise. You can't torch off the stock IFS to add a lift on a leased 4x4.
2) There's no list of pre-approved "changes" that are OK under the lease. Each one has to be considered individually.
3) Practically nobody ever asks for written permission to change leased cars or trucks. They just do it and then get one of two surprises when the lease is up:
A)Just like in a leased apartment, anything you bolt onto a leased 4x4 technically becomes the property of the leasing company. That includes a floor-mounted cell phone or a fancy stereo as well as any fender flares, bumpers, etc., you've added.
B) You may be allowed to remove aftermarket parts as long as you don't leave any visible holes or other evidence that the parts were there. If there are holes, you may be charged for their repair even though the leasing company isn't required to actually make the repairs you pay for.
These three items aren't the whole lease story, just a sort of wake-up call. Other leases may handle changes and mods differently. Just be sure you know the whole deal before you sign up.