Car Trouble? Check for Recalls

Recent auto recalls may have you wondering about your own set of wheels. There are ways to check up on your vehicle if you are having recurring problems and—in some cases—get them fixed for free. Go to the Defects and Recalls section of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site: http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/ivoq/index.cfm. Check out four different sections:

• Safety recalls. Start here. Your problem could have generated an official recall and you were not notified, especially if you are not the original owner of the car. If so, you definitely will get the problem fixed for free. Print out the details of this notice and take it to a dealership.

 • Defect investigations. Check to see if problems like yours triggered a NHTSA investigation. If one is under way, it may strengthen your case for a free repair. But if NHTSA closed the investigation without ordering any action—as in the case of Toyota unintended acceleration, where NHTSA ordered no action for 2002 Toyota Camrys—it undermines your argument.

•Safety complaints. In the Search complaints subsection, see if other owners of the same vehicle have raised this problem. Read the complaints carefully to see if others took their cars to dealerships. Be especially alert for a notation that a dealer fixed it at no charge and plan to show it to your dealer.

• Service bulletins. These bulletins, sent to dealers detailing needed repairs, must be filed with NHTSA. The agency puts summaries of safety-related bulletins on its Web site. But getting the full documents can take weeks or longer. Fees run $45 an hour for staff time. Instead, if evidence from defect investigations or owner complaints make it likely that the car company has detailed fixes for your problem, you can buy a full set of service bulletins from Alldata, a publisher of repair manuals and other automotive information. At alldatadiy.com, you can get a full set for $26.95. Print out any bulletin describing your problem.

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