In theory, repairs on your new vehicle should be simple.

You go to the dealer, explain the problem, the technician fixes it, warranty covers it, and you’re on your way.

Most of the time, that’s how it goes. But occasionally, there will be a repair that isn’t easily diagnosed, or one that your dealer can’t or won’t fix. In some of these cases, you may well be in for the fight of your life.

“There is quite a lot of variability between the service operations of different dealers,” says George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association. “The dealer is an independent businessman. People think they’ll call the manufacturer for help, but consumers have a misconception about the level of authority and support they’ll get.”

First of all, some background. Automakers may talk about “our customers,” but you’re not one of them. With only a couple of exceptions, every dealership is an independently-owned franchise store. The dealers are the manufacturer’s customers. The automaker sells the vehicle to its dealer, who in turn sells it to you.

The dealership gets reimbursed by the automaker for the warranty repairs that he does on your vehicle, which can be part of the problem. The manufacturer assigns a specific labour time for each repair to be completed, which is generally the maximum that will be reimbursed.

“The carmakers do not provide dealers enough diagnostic time,” Iny says. “They (the dealers) are under tremendous pressure to replace the part because that’s billable.” The dealer may also have difficulty being reimbursed for a problem that reoccurs after a repair is done. “It’s hard to get the automaker to fix a problem again if they’ve fixed it already,” Iny says.

The auto manufacturers keep track of each dealer’s warranty claims, and may enforce reimbursement restrictions if certain repairs come up too often. It’s primarily meant to catch dealers who may be padding their bottom line, or poorly-trained technicians who are throwing parts at a problem, but unfortunately, the consumer often gets caught in the middle. 

If a certain component becomes problematic, such as a transmission design that’s prone to failure, the repair frequency skyrockets, and dealers get tagged in the automaker’s system. The dealer may then be hesitant to fix your car, because he’s going to have to wait several months to be paid for it.

(This doesn’t apply to recalls, which aren’t tagged for frequency. Any dealer is obliged to perform a recall that applies to your vehicle, even if you’re not a regular customer. However, if a recall requires a part replacement and affects a large number of vehicles, you may have to wait until the company can produce enough new parts and ship them out.)

You’re not obliged to get your warranty work done at the dealership where you bought the vehicle. “We suggest that if you’ve been back twice for a problem that they can’t find, you could look for a better dealer in your area,” Iny says.

When a dealer can’t (or won’t) fix a problem, many people call the manufacturer, but Iny says it usually doesn’t do you much good. Many of the call centres have been outsourced and the person you reach probably won’t have the training or authorization to help you.

The person you really want to contact is the district service representative. He works for the manufacturer and is the liaison with the dealership, and has the authority to approve repairs, sometimes even those that are beyond the warranty period.

The problem is reaching him, since manufacturers usually keep his information a closely-guarded secret. “You may be able to find out their name from the dealer or the regional office,” Iny says. “You may not have to meet the rep in person, but you want to get their ear and get them to call the dealer.”

Any time you take your car in for warranty, be sure to get a copy of the work order, even if no repair is performed. The work order needs to show the date, vehicle mileage, a detailed description of your complaint, anything that was done (even if it was just a road test), and the fact that the technician couldn’t find a problem. This paper trail will be essential if you have to make your case to the manufacturer.

If your dealer is unable to diagnose a problem after multiple attempts, Iny has a suggestion: pay someone else to figure it out. “Get the name of a specialist in your area,” he says. “You may pay $120 or $150, but they’ll put it on paper and say what the problem is, and you take that to the dealer.

“Most people won’t do this because the dealer is supposed to fix it for free, but you should make the mental link and say, ‘If I spend $120, I could get a free $500 repair.’ If you show up with a report from someone else, it will give the dealer information that should help solve the problem.”

If you do go that route, you might try asking the dealer to reimburse the diagnostic bill as part of the warranty repair. There is a chance you might get some or all of it back, especially if the district service rep is involved in the issue.

The APA website has a list of “second opinion” shops for drivers in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. Iny also suggests asking used car lots for recommendations on shops. “They don’t use their own service departments as dealers do, and they’re pretty informal, so if you call or drop in, you’ll probably find the owner,” Iny says. “If you have a new car under warranty, they won’t see you as ‘shark bait,’ and they’ll steer you toward someone they know. That’s a good strategy if you need a specialized repair.”

If you can’t get your vehicle repaired to your satisfaction, you might also consider CAMVAP, the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan, which mediates disputes between consumers and manufacturers for vehicle defects or warranty administration. You must be willing to accept the final decision, even if it isn’t in your favour, but the service is free.