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Millions of owners have found themselves stuck with unsafe, unrepairable cars. If you’re one of them, here’s how to get back on the road safely.
David Diller of Los Angeles was excited when he bought his Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid in late 2021. The plug-in hybrid minivan could travel up to 32 miles on electric power alone, and he expected that would save him money on gas and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But his joy turned to frustration in February when he received a letter from the automaker telling him that his minivan was part of a recall of nearly 20,000 Pacifica Hybrids that could catch fire when parked. Chrysler told Diller to store his car outside and away from structures. Most vexing was the fact that the company also warned him not to charge his minivan and instructed him to drive it using only its gas engine.
“Being asked not to charge a plug-in hybrid minivan in Southern California during the recent surge in gas prices is one thing, but to have to park it outside and away from any structures because it might spontaneously combust is just unrealistic for so many folks,” he says.
We can relate: Consumer Reports has just such a van in our test fleet, and we had to park it outside for much of this year.
Diller is one of more than 2 million people in the U.S. whose car has been recalled this year without the option of an immediate repair, according to CR’s analysis of recall data. Although Chrysler recently announced a fix for Diller’s minivan—eight months after announcing the recall—others are still waiting, including owners of Nissan Pathfinders with hoods that might not stay shut and Kia and Hyundai SUVs that can catch fire due to faulty trailer hitch wiring.
If you own one of these vehicles, we outline below what you should know—and what you need to do in order to get your car fixed. You may be able to get money back for out-of-pocket expenses, and in some cases an automaker may even help you get a replacement vehicle.
Photo: Chrysler Photo: Chrysler
They’re issued by automakers under supervision from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). By law, automakers are required to issue a recall notice soon after a safety defect is discovered and confirmed, even when there’s no fix available. That strict protocol means some recall actions are initiated while the automaker is still engineering a solution. (Learn more about the automotive recall process in our Guide to Car Recalls.)
The intent is to warn consumers of a problem as soon as possible, but the gap between that and a solution can sometimes make things confusing, says Rosemary Shahan, president and founder of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), an advocacy group.
“If you’re telling consumers, ‘Your car has a really bad problem, good luck,’ what does that do to people’s perception of the seriousness of safety recalls, and whether they really need to pay attention to them and get them fixed?” she says.
Some recall repairs are delayed due to a lack of parts. A few years ago when millions of cars with faulty Takata airbags were recalled, automakers had to prioritize fixing the most dangerous models because there simply weren’t enough replacement parts available to fix them all at once.
Lately, supply chain issues have delayed the availability of repair parts, says Michael Brooks, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety. “There’s a lot of convenient excuses for manufacturers who aren’t doing their due diligence, but there are legitimate issues with supply,” he says.
When it comes to recalls of plug-in hybrids and EVs, such as the Pacifica and Chevrolet Bolt (which was recalled in 2020, also due to fire concerns), Brooks says that delays may be related to the small number of battery suppliers and the newness of the technology. For example, both the Bolt and Pacifica use similar batteries from the same supplier, LG Chem. A Chevrolet spokesperson told CR that it took several months for GM and LG engineers to find out why Bolts were catching fire, which ended up being a manufacturing flaw. It took more time to ensure that the manufacturing issues were resolved.
“When you have one battery supplier who is putting out batteries that are potentially catching fire, you’ll see an increase in the ‘park outside’ warnings,” Brooks says.
This awkward delay from when a recall is announced until the fix is developed, validated, and communicated to dealerships is evident in the case of the Pathfinder hoods.
“As the safety and security of our customers and their passengers is paramount, and as required by law, Nissan notifies owners of affected vehicles when a safety concern has been identified,” a Nissan spokesman said. “Owners of affected vehicles were mailed an interim letter in July with instructions for checking the condition of the secondary hood latch.” Before the formal fix was available, the Nissan representative said customers could take their vehicle to an authorized dealer for inspection and maintenance, free of charge.
In some cases, this notification precedes the identification of a remedy so that consumers can be made aware of a potential issue and take the appropriate precautions.
Photo: Adobe Stock Photo: Adobe Stock
So your car has been recalled and there’s no fix yet. Now what?
It depends on the severity of the recall. Some are for minor compliance issues, such as a missing warning label or misaligned headlight, while others are quite serious, related to potential engine stalling, brake failures, or fire risks. If there isn’t an immediate fix and the automaker doesn’t say the car shouldn’t be used, continue driving, but be attentive to the potential issue. Recall notices often cite potential symptoms that a driver might experience, such as warning lights, that would precede a true failure.
Ultimately, the best guidance is to get the car fixed as soon as possible.
But many recent recalls have required owners to make major adjustments, such as leaving cars parked outside and away from structures, or not charging EV batteries to their full capacity. In this case, Shahan says it’s worth complaining to dealerships and manufacturers.
• First, contact your local dealership, especially if a recall notice says a car is unsafe to drive or it recommends that you limit how you use it. In such a situation, Brooks says you should at least ask your dealer for a loaner car to drive in the meantime, even if the recall notice doesn’t mention alternate transportation. Automakers can approve payment to the dealership for loaners for these customers, Brooks says. For example, Chevrolet offered free loaners to some Bolt owners during the recall.
• If that doesn’t work, contact the manufacturer directly. There’s usually a contact number and website list in the back of your owner’s manual or on the recall notice itself. The manufacturer may also be able to tell you when parts are arriving and how long the repair might take. A spokesperson for Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, told CR that less than one-fifth of customers affected by the Pacifica Hybrid recall have contacted it since the campaign was launched, and that accommodations were made on a case-by-case basis.
• If a recall that’s related to a serious safety issue or is causing a major inconvenience has gone unfixed for many months, Brooks says it might be time to ask the dealership to repurchase the vehicle. “It depends on the dealership; it depends on a lot of factors,” he says. But it’s important to start the conversation. “If you don’t ask, you’re never going to get a chance for that to happen.” He says that owners of unfixable recalled vehicles should also complain to NHTSA—here’s how—because it may put pressure on the automaker to act.
• If you aren’t having any luck with the dealership or the automaker, it may be time to contact an attorney. The National Association of Consumer Advocates (consumeradvocates.org) has a “find a lawyer” page. Many attorneys don’t charge upfront for taking on a case involving a product defect, but be aware that you may end up with expenses at the end of a lawsuit.
“Sometimes you have to be the squeaky wheel,” Shahan says. “They’re perfectly willing to string you along and tell you you need to be patient, but you’re not getting what you paid for. You paid for a safe, functioning car. Especially if you bought it brand new and you have the factory warranty, they’re not living up to their warranty.”
Photo: Chevrolet Photo: Chevrolet
Sometimes owners of cars without a recall fix can get the manufacturer to buy the car back or replace it with a new one under what’s called a Lemon Law, legislation that’s meant to protect consumers who own a product that fails repeatedly.
These laws are different in every state, so check with your state’s consumer protection office for details. For a car to be defined as a lemon, it must meet certain qualifications, says Ron Burdge, an attorney in Ohio who specializes in lemon law cases. Typically, they involve how many days a car has been out of service, how serious the defect is, and how many attempts to repair the problem have failed. “Usually, it’s three or four repair attempts within a certain amount of time,” he says.
But lemon laws have statutes of limitation. Most claims must be submitted within a year or two of the vehicle’s purchase, and most states have mileage limitations.
Even when cars qualify for a lemon law buyback, Burdge says he’s seen automakers drag their feet and fight the claim. “You might have the right to make them take it back,” he says, “but if they don’t want to voluntarily do it, you might have to get an attorney to do it for you.”
Shahan says that even the threat of a lemon law buyback was enough to help some owners of Chevy Bolt EVs who had to wait more than a year for a recall fix.
“They got refunds without even having to have an attorney,” she says. “GM just didn’t want those cases going forward in court, and under [California’s] lemon law, they face potential double damages penalty if they willfully violate the law, so that gives them a modest incentive to actually do the right thing.”
Some states also have arbitration programs as part of their lemon laws. These are usually run by the state department for consumer affairs or the attorney general’s office, and they can speed up an outcome, according to Shahan. “You can submit a claim and get a decision pretty quickly, and get the law applied,” she says. For example, New York’s program allows you to file by email.
No matter what, Burdge recommends keeping detailed notes of any and all communications you have with an automaker and its representatives, and holding on to any receipts for rental cars, parking, gas, or other expenses you incurred as a result of a recall. “Keep notes of who you call, when you call, who you talk to, and what they say,” he says.
In some extreme cases, automakers will offer compensation to owners of vehicles with unfixable recalls. That’s what happened with the Chevy Bolt; Chevrolet paid some owners up to $6,000, but in exchange, they had to waive their right to sue the automaker.
If a large number of vehicle owners face similar economic losses due to a recall—for example, paying for gas because they can’t charge a plug-in hybrid—there’s a good chance they—and you—might be able to join a class action against the vehicle manufacturer. If the class action is successful, you may be able to get money back for your losses, such as expenses you paid out of pocket while waiting for a recall remedy.
Search the phrase “class action” and the make and model of your vehicle to find out if a current class-action lawsuit exists. Remember that there are deadlines to meet if you want to participate in such a lawsuit. If you participate in one, you give up your right to sue a company on your own.
You might get so fed up with an unfixable vehicle that you may just want to get rid of it. Burdge says that you should contact an attorney before doing so, because trading in a vehicle with an open recall may end up costing you in the long run. Some dealers may not want it, and it won’t be worth as much as a vehicle without an open recall. That’s also what CR was told when we asked dealerships about trading in specific vehicles with open recalls from our own test fleet.
“The practical solution is almost always to just simply sell it, trade it off, get rid of it, move on,” Burdge says. “While it is the practical solution, it can sometimes be the economically harsh solution, too.”
Diller is glad there’s a fix for his Pacifica, but the months of waiting for a repair left him soured on Chrysler. “It’s too bad, because we like the car but feel let down by the company with their response to this recall,” he says.
Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it’s my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they’re stuck in traffic. When I’m not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.
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