A man walks past a car dealership with car prices displayed in Johannesburg, South Africa June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Last month’s new car sales figures showed a 20.6% slump from the same period in 2015, which the National Automobile Association of SA attributes largely to tough trading conditions. Despite this, many people prefer to buy new rather than ‘inherit someone else’s problems’

The new car smell, the features, the fact that almost no one else has driven it and a trouble-free performance (at least, for a while): there’s much to be said for buying off the showroom floor.

Only thing is, “new” is frequently a relative concept and once you’ve signed the paperwork, accepted the vehicle and driven it away, that’s where the trouble starts.

Phina Madubane bought a new BMW 218i Active Tourer from Leo Haese in Pretoria in February this year – a brand she believed in and a quality vehicle that would help her in her work, which required travel.

But while she expected BMW’s promised “sheer driving pleasure”, it has not delivered on it. To start, the salesperson had assured her the car was a new, 2016 model.

A scratch here and there would be understandable, but in her case, the “snag list” was worrisome: Madubane told me all the window seals had scratches; the windscreen beading had changed colour from black to grey; a parcel tray support had snapped; the brakes were loud; the tyres looked old; the car sounded like a diesel; the aircon was not working properly; it had a water leak; and so forth. And the car was dirty – and stank.

“The day I went to collect the car, February 4, I was not satisfied with the way it looked. It had scratches on all the window rubbers and it was filthy, it was dirty. I showed it to Tracey (the saleswoman) and I told her the car didn’t look new; it looked like a used car, but she told me it was new. She called the service manager and he also assured me it was brand new.

“Tracey told me the scratches were from the time when they unwrapped the car in Rosslyn, and the dirt was from the car not being cleaned properly. She told me to bring the car in the following day to be washed again.

“Things got worse. In March, I sent Tracey an SMS telling her there were more defects, and she arranged with the regional manager for the car to be inspected at BMW Hatfield, in Pretoria. BMW decided the car should be fixed, but no diagnosis was done.

“They forced me to let the car be fixed, but I refused. I told them I wanted the car to be diagnosed first and, if not, I would return it and I wanted all my monies paid (deposit of R30 000, the instalments deducted and insurance), back.

“I ended up consulting a lawyer. On July 11, my lawyer sent an e-mail to BMW stating that on July 15, I would return the car to the dealership, which I did.

“I didn’t expect this kind of treatment from BMW. I’m so disappointed.

“BMW sold me a car under false pretences. I took the car to Dekra myself, to have it inspected and diagnosed. The technical report confirmed the defects I complained about.

“I don’t want the car any more. I want the dealership to pay me all my monies back.”

The Consumer Protection Act guarantees an automatic six-month warranty of quality, but with vehicles – high-value assets that lose significant value the moment they are driven off the shop floor – some leniency is warranted, the Retail Motor Industry’s chief operations officer, Jan Schoeman, explained recently.

So dealers and manufacturers are permitted to insist on repairing vehicles, rather than simply replacing or refunding consumers – especially when they’re complaining about minor issues.  

Madubane insists: “The car sold to me was not new – it was a demo or whatever. Tracey (the saleswoman) made me believe it was new… I returned the car at the end of May and I want my money paid back to me in full, so I can buy another car which is new and what I wanted. I expected good quality and service from BMW, but they have badly disappointed me.”

After investigation, BMW South Africa’s group product communications manager, Edward Makwana, told me: “The car in question was manufactured in June 2015. It arrived at the BMW Vehicle Distribution Centre in August 2015, and was moved to our stock yard in Kaalfontein in November. It was processed for sale and registration in February 2016. During the three months at our stockyard, it was unfortunately exposed to the sun, which may have resulted in some of the exterior aspects looking faded.

“According to Jonathan Behr, dealer principal at Leo Haese, Ms Madubane was excited about the car and insisted on taking it when it was found on our system. The imperfections were not immediately noticeable at the delivery time, but only later was it brought to our attention.

“Subsequent to Ms Madubane’s complaint about the imperfections on the car, one of our technical specialists inspected the vehicle together with her, and an agreement was reached to replace the items at no cost to her. The parts to repair the vehicle were ordered and Ms Madubane was informed once they arrived, so that the condition of the vehicle could be restored to the right quality.

“She initially refused to bring in the vehicle to have the agreed parts replaced, but eventually dropped off the vehicle at the dealership, saying she no longer wanted it.

“While we accept that the car should never have been allowed to leave the BMW stock yard until the ‘imperfections’ were thoroughly addressed, and regardless of the sales pressure, we would like to still be given an opportunity to solve this matter in line with the principles of the Consumer Protection Act.

“We are still offering to fix Ms Madubane’s vehicle at no cost to her before we can start considering to possibly replace the vehicle or refund her.”

Makwana pointed out a vehicle’s model year was not defined by its year of manufacture, but by its first registration.

“The Dekra information is when the model range or generation was first introduced or launched in South Africa. Therefore, the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer model range was launched in February/March 2015,” he told me.

“We’re offering to reassess and repair all the issues raised by Ms Madubane. We cannot do anything if she does not go to the dealer to give the go-ahead, or at least in writing if she doesn’t want to go to the dealer.”

Fair point, but Makwana’s insistence that the so-called ­imperfections were attributable to standing in the sun does not explain why the tyres were worn, the wipers had discoloured and why it stank.

Then there were the “minor” concerns about the aircon, the brakes and the ­engine noise.

But Madubane should also not have accepted the vehicle in that condition. Some of the problems might only have been noticed later, but the smell, scratches and tyres should have been giveaways that all was not well with the deal.

No matter the sales pitch: if it doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and walk away.

I didn’t expect this kind of treatment from BMW. I’m so disappointed.

...

Wise up - here's how

Funny feeling? If you haven’t customised a vehicle, and you’re not happy with what is being offered, you don’t have to accept it. Salespeople’s verbal assurances won’t help you when you’re stuck with a dud.

Getting nowhere? If you can’t resolve the issue with the dealership, contact the RMI. They have regional branches across the country. You can visit 
http://www.rmi.org.za or call them at 011 886 6300/011 789 2542. They charge a R285 admin fee and for assessments, if required.

If you opt for mediation by the RMI, you’ll be expected to sign an agreement that you will accept the outcome of their decision, and that you can’t take the matter elsewhere.