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Goodbye, MINI!

Today was the day that I bid farewell to my dear MINI.  At 10 am, I met with Kevin from MINI of Mountain View and Holly from ISG.  Holly did an inspection of the car and took lots of pictures, stuck a “I am a lemon” sticker on the car, and we filled out a bunch of paperwork where I relinquished the title over  to BMW and they handed me the check.  Hopefully I won’t suffer the same fate as these poor folks.

I asked Holly what will become of my car, and she said that the dealer will to a quick safety check to make sure everything is in order.  After that, the car will be shipped off to be auctioned off.  The car will be permanently marked as a lemon.

The Story

This is the story of how I discovered my MINI Cooper, purchased brand new in 2007, was a lemon, and how I received a near-full refund.

Standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.  Everything I know about the Lemon Law was gleaned from various sources on the interwebs.  Do not take what I say below as advice.  As with everything you read on the web, take this all with a grain of salt.  I do hope, however, that by sharing my experiences, I can instill hope to anyone stuck in a similarly unfortunate experience — all is not lost, and my story does have, for the most part, a good ending.  I consider myself extremely fortunate in that both MINI USA and MINI of Mountain View have been very cooperative.  Your mileage may vary.

On to the story…

The Car

On October 27, 2007, I became the proud owner of a brand new 2007 MINI Cooper purchased from MINI of Mountain View in California.  It was an exciting moment — I have wanted one since I first saw the remakes back in 2002.

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My problems with the car started two days after I’d had the car and the power steering went out.  I promptly took it back to the MINI service center in Mountain View, and fortunately they were able to take care of the problem rather quickly.  They even noticed an irregularity with the VANOS (the system that controls valve timing), which they attributed to a faulty solenoid, and replaced that.

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Overall, I was bummed that I had owned my car for less than a week at it had already spent a majority of its time in the shop.  Freak accident, maybe.  Little did I know that this would be a sign of things to come…

Fast forward to July 2008; the engine started making occasional whining noises when the ignition was turned off.  Fortunately, I was able to reproduce this problem in the presence of a service technician.  They ended up swapping out various parts of the engine until they found the problem (water pump pulley, whatever that is).

Less than six months later, in December 2008, the real problems began.  While stopped at a stoplight, the car began to shake.  I barely noticed it at first, but the shaking quickly became more and more violent.  At first, I thought it was an earthquake (hey, I live in California…), until I realized it was just me!  Not knowing what to do, I turned off the ignition.  When the light turned green, I tried restarting the car, and everything went back to normal.  I took the car back to the service center, and they found a fault code saved on the onboard computer.  It was attributed to a faulty VANOS solenoid, which was replaced and I was sent on my merry way.

Unfortunately, the problem came back less than a month later.  Again, I was stopped at a stoplight and the car started to shake.  Urgh.  Back to the dealership, and this time they attributed the problem to a “software bug” and updated the software on the onboard computer.

After that, I didn’t experience any more car-shaking episodes, although I did notice that the car would jerk abnormally when down-shifting occasionally.

In June, I received a letter from MINI regarding a catalytic converter recall, and that I should take it to the nearest MINI service center for a replacement.  While I was there, I mentioned the sometimes-jerkiness when downshifting, and they said they would look at it.  They discovered the same fault code stored on the onboard computer as the previous few times — looks like my VANOS solenoid problem had returned.  After much diagnosis (they had my car for over two weeks!) and consulting with a MINI factory technician, they decided to replace the entire VANOS unit.

While all the repairs to date were covered under the manufacturer warranty, I was definitely starting to get nervous.  I was definitely glad I spent the extra $1176 on the extended warranty when I purchased the car.  So, in September 2009, when the problem returned yet again, I decided it was time for some more serious action.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to find all the information I needed.

The Lemon Law

Each state has its own variation of what is commonly known as the “Lemon Law”.  In California, it’s known as the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, part of the California Civil Code.  The really short (and probably slightly inaccurate) summary is that you are entitled to compensation from the manufacturer if your car meets one or both of the following criteria:

  1. A specific problem continues to occur even after a “reasonable number” of attempts to fix the problem.  You also have to, at some point, notify the manufacturer directly of the problem.
  2. The car has been out of service for any number of problems for a total of 30 calendar days.  The 30 days need not be consecutive.

What constitutes a “reasonable number” of repair attempts is left open for interpretation, although from what I found, it is generally assumed to be between two and four, depending on the severity of the problem.  In my case, the same problem had cropped up on four separate occasions, and I was about the take it in for the fifth time.  Moreover, after going though my service record and counting the days my car had been out of service at the dealership, I came up with a total of 37 days — again not taking into account that I was about it take it in yet again.

Sounded to me like I had a lemon.

Compensation

So what kind of compensation could I expect to receive?  Well, the Lemon Law prescribes that the manufacturer must offer compensation by either repurchasing the vehicle and refund your money, minus a token amount for mileage, or replace your vehicle with a similar one.  For the buy-back option, the amount deducted for mileage is based on the miles you put on the car until you encountered the first problem.  In my case, I had put 67 miles on the car before the power steering went out, which meant that I could expect to get all of my money back minus a little over $15.  Sweet.

It should be noted, however, that any non-manufacturer options that you put on the car cannot be reimbursed.  In my case, I had two: an “Appearance Protection Plan” and an extended warranty.  So I would have been out an additional $2000, roughly.

Extended Warranties

Upon doing more research, however, I discovered that all was not lost.  Apparently, in California, there are laws which govern the sale of extended auto warranties.  Basically, if you don’t use it, you’re allowed a full refund.  The most they can deduct is a $25 “processing fee”.  Even if you are part-way through the warranty, apparently you may still be eligible to receive a pro-rated refund.

Taking Action

As McCoy would say if he were in my shoes, “Dammit Jim, I’m an engineer, not a lawyer!”  The Lemon Law (at least in California) contains a provision that says the manufacturer must pay all of your legal costs (only if you win, I presume).  So my first instinct was to consult a lawyer.  If you do a Google search for “California Lemon Law lawyer”, a kabazillion results come up.  You can hire a firm who have written a book on lemon law.  Even the DMV has a directory of Lemon Law lawyers.  After browsing through a few of these sites, I finally settled upon California Lemon Law Attorneys, who claim to be California’s largest Lemon Law firm.  I chose them for the following reasons:

  1. They’re based in California.
  2. They claim that for “most” cases, they no fees and only bill the manufacturer; only in “some” cases will they charge a small contingency fee.

So, I call the number listed on their website and ended up talking with someone named “Daniel”.  I described my situation, and he asked for a copy of my purchase contract and repair records.  After reviewing them, he informed me that he thought I would have a good Lemon Law case to pursue, and that they would be willing to take on the case and charge “only” a 5-10% contingency fee.  Contingency fee?!  WTF?  He tried to convince me that even with the contingency fee, I’d be getting a much better deal than if I tried to sell the vehicle myself.  Well, duh.  It’s a lemon, dude, who in their right mind would buy it after looking at its repair history?  As he could give me no reasonable explanation as to why my case did not fall into the “most” category, I decided it was time to consider alternatives.

Contacting MINI USA

As part of the Lemon Law, manufacturers are required to include a contact address in the warranty information they provide you when you purchase the car.  After digging through my owner’s manuals, I finally found it, embedded in the middle of the warranty manual.

I proceeded to write a letter to MINI USA explaining my situation and requesting a buy-back, and included a copy of the service records showing the repair history.

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I sent the letter off to the address indicated in the warranty manual via registered mail with a request for a return receipt.  I was initially concerned about sending registered mail to a PO Box address, but it turns out USPS can deliver registered mail to a PO Box just fine.  They simply leave a note in the PO Box, and when the person checking the PO Box sees it, they have to go to the counter to pick up the letter and sign for it.

I sent the letter on September 30, 2009, and the return receipt arrived a couple of weeks later indicating that my letter had been received by MINI USA on October 6.  All I could do, for the moment, was wait.  I told myself I’d give them at least two to three weeks to process it and get back to me, before sending a more sternly worded nastygram.

MINI USA Responds

It turns out I didn’t have to wait that long; on October 19, 2009, I received a call from Sophy, a customer care representative at MINI USA.  She was very cordial, said she was calling to acknowledge receipt of my letter, and that MINI was currently taking my request into consideration.  She also asked if I would consider taking any other form of cash settlement.  I understand this is quite common for manufacturers in Lemon Law cases to offer money, and you get to keep the car, but don’t get to make any further Lemon Law claims.  In my situation, since I knew I could expect to get the bulk of my money back, I (politely) declined.

She called me back the next day, saying that the buy-back has been approved, and I should contact the service manager at MINI of Mountain View who will be my local point of contact.

Kevin was also very cordial, and asked for copies of some of the paperwork.  He said he would be in touch after the check arrived.  The actual financial details are (for whatever reason) outsourced to a third-party company called ISG.  I also expressed interest in possibly purchasing another MINI Cooper with my refunded money, and he forwarded my contact info to a sales manager at the dealership.

A New Car

I found a voice mail from Nancy, the sales manager at MINI of Mountain View, on my cell phone the next evening, although I had not received any calls (thanks, AT&T).  I tried returning her call and left a voicemail, and followed up with an email a couple of days later, but I didn’t hear back from her for almost a week, at which point I was beginning to wonder whether they were interested in my business or not.

Anyways, after she finally called me back, things went much quicker, and on the evening of Wednesday October 28, I had a order for a custom MINI placed.  It would take, by their estimate, around 2 months before it arrived.  Since the repurchase process was expected to wrap up well before that time, I’d be without a car for at least a month or two.  Nancy made the same observation, and kindly offered to look into what she could do to minimize that inconvenience.

Summary

I’m scheduled to surrender the vehicle this coming Thursday, November 19.  I will meet at MINI of Mountain View, where Kevin and a representative from ISG will be present.  I give them the keys, they hand me a check, and we go off on our merry ways.  I wonder what will happen to the car…

In the end, I have to say this has been far more painless than I thought it would be.  Kudos to MINI USA for doing the right thing without my having to get lawyers involved.

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