Check for Recalls, "Secret Warranties" Before Paying for Major Car Repairs

PHOTO: A Toyota Highlander is seen on a sales lot, Nov. 9, 2011 in Miami, Florida.PlayJoe Raedle/Getty Images
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Once again, you, the readers, have done my work for me! I love when people write to me with intriguing consumer questions that will help others as well. Here's a great example.

Q: I purchased a 2006 Toyota Highlander SUV Hybrid in Dec 2005 first Generation. My car has 166,000 miles on it. The SUV stop running without any warning as I proceeded on a Sunday morning going to volunteer for the Avon breast Cancer Walk. I conduct regular maintenance checks on my vehicle. I was quite surprised to learn that the part cost over $9,000 to replace --not including labor. The part to replace is called the "inverter assembly." I proceeded to conduct research and found a class action lawsuit against Toyota for the same make, model and year as mine. I was quite surprised to see this is a common problem with this part once you reach more than 100,000 miles. I seek help with getting Toyota to pay for the part. ~YW, Maryland

A: Soon after I received this question, I learned that Toyota had done the right thing and recalled these and other Toyota vehicles to repair the problem. Here are the key parts of the recall notice, filed with NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to give you an idea what they look like:

Vehicle Make / Model:

LEXUS / RX400H, Model Year(s): 2006-2007

TOYOTA / HIGHLANDER HYBRID, Model Year(s): 2006-2007

NHTSA CAMPAIGN ID Number: 11V342000

NHTSA Action Number: PE11005

Potential Number of Units Affected: 82,273

Summary: TOYOTA IS RECALLING CERTAIN MODEL YEAR 2006-2007 HIGHLANDER HYBRID AND LEXUS RX400H PASSENGER CARS MANUFACTURED FROM FEBRUARY 16, 2005, THROUGH AUGUST 30, 2006. A MODULE INSIDE THE INVERTER MODULE MAY CONTAIN INADEQUATELY SOLDERED TRANSISTORS THAT DURING HIGH-LOAD DRIVING, MAY BE DAMAGED BY HEAT CAUSED BY THE LARGE CURRENT. IF THIS OCCURS, VARIOUS WARNING LAMPS, INCLUDING THE MALFUNCTION INDICATOR LAMP, SLIP INDICATOR LIGHT, BRAKE SYSTEM WARNING LIGHT, AND MASTER WARNING LIGHT, WILL BE ILLUMINATED ON THE INSTRUMENT PANEL.

Consequence: THE VEHICLE MAY ENTER A FAIL-SAFE/LIMP-HOME MODE THAT LIMITS THE DRIVABILITY OF THE VEHICLE. IT IS POSSIBLE THAT THE HYBRID SYSTEM WILL SHUT DOWN WHILE THE VEHICLE IS BEING DRIVEN, CAUSING THE VEHICLE TO STALL UNEXPECTEDLY, INCREASING THE RISK OF A CRASH.

Remedy: TOYOTA/LEXUS MAILED AN INTERIM OWNER NOTIFICATION ON JULY 19, 2011 TO ADVISE OWNERS OF THIS RECALL AND THE FACT THAT THEY WILL RECEIVE A FUTURE NOTICE WHEN PARTS BECOME AVAILABLE TO COMPLETE REPAIRS. TOYOTA DEALERS WILL INSPECT THE HYBRID INVERTER PRODUCTION NUMBER TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE INVERTER CONTAINS SUSPECT TRANSISTORS AND REPLACE THE MODULE FREE OF CHARGE.

The recall process is not perfect. There is an understandable lag time during which manufacturers try to figure out whether there really is a systemic problem with all vehicles of this make and model in a particular year. During that time, vehicle owners faced with big bills can get frustrated, as this Maryland consumer did.

So here's what you need to do. If your car breaks down and a mechanic tells you it's a big, expensive, complicated repair, start asking questions before you allow the work to go forward. Ask whether it's understandable that this repair would come up at this point in your vehicle's life. If it's not typical of normal wear and tear, get on the Internet and start searching. Search the name of your make and model and the words "complaint," "lawsuit," "class action," "recall," "service bulletin" "service campaign" and "secret warranty."

You may find, as this motorist did, that there is a class action lawsuit over the flaw that your car is exhibiting. Or you may find that a recall has already commenced and you weren't alerted. This often happens if you are not the original owner.

There is also a gray area in between that you may come across. Sometimes when a manufacturer knows many of its cars are having the same problem, but isn't yet sure that it's a full-fledged epidemic, it will alert its dealers that it will pay for the repair if customers gripe about it. The slang for this practice is "secret warranty" because you often won't know about it unless you ask.

As you can imagine, the people in the auto industry don't call them "secret warranties." They say "goodwill adjustment," "warranty adjustment" and "after warranty assistance." They also refer to them as "extended warranties," because your car does not have to be in its initial factory warranty period to be covered –great news for you.

The reason I suggested you search the term "service bulletin" is that this is one way to find secret warranties. They are notices that are sent from manufacturers to dealers , and are also sometimes called "technical service bulletins" or "service campaigns." Here are three places to find them:

Auto website Edmunds.com has a listing, Click here

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer rights group, also has a partial list here.

AllData, which provides education and software to mechanics, does too, but for a fee: Click here