Do We Need Tougher Lemon Laws?

If your car can’t be fixed, if it’s a lemon - you’re screwed. We definitely do need better lemon laws

You are totally at the mercy of the carmaker’s capacity for good faith, in a dispute. (Good luck with that.) You’re out of pocket, the car’s a shitbox, and they hold the balance of power. Diagramatically, this is an example of the tail wagging the dog.

First, let’s meet The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries. (That name: You almost need trumpets to announce it, right?) So grandiose. It almost sounds much more official than just another lobby group, right?


[In matters of comment, the following report is my honest opinion. Except where identified by name, none of the report refers to individuals, or any group(s) of individuals. No reference to individuals is implied or intended. Personification is used to convey the comment that the behaviour of, or position taken by, organisations is contemptible - for example using collective terms including 'arsehole', which is fun...]


New cars Australia lemon laws

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries is a lobby group paid megabucks by carmakers to lobby for carmakers in Canberra. On a very kind day, I’d call them a bunch of anti-consumer, barrow-pushers.

Five years ago, The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries issued a 16-page document, to the effect of ‘we don’t need lemon laws; consumers already get a fair go’. (Parliament must not have concurred - the laws surrounding lemons were subsequently beefed up. However, they're still too soft.) That’s the kind of thing that happens when organisational psychosis and spanking the monkey collide.  

Decide for yourself: Download the FCAI's (PDF) lemon law report here: Submission to the Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council >>

Basically, The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries’ central thesis underpinning this Himalaya of horseshit is that fewer than 100 lemon-centred disputes make it to court each year. When they do, the FCAI claims, only five per cent of judgements go the consumer’s way. These assholes want you to believe the status quo is excellent. Meanwhile, back on Earth, car companies have virtually unlimited financial resources to litigate. You don’t.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries’ sixteen-page anti-lemon-law crap compendium is actually evidence that we do need rock-solid lemon laws in Australia, in my view.

The Federal Chamber’s defence of the staus quo is absurd. If there were no need for lemon laws, gazetting them would make no difference.

Einsteinian ‘thought experiment’ time: Imagine a world where people didn’t intentionally kill. Some do-gooder (probably a philosopher) decides that murder - which never occurs - is still hypothetically abhorrent. He develops laws sanctioning homicide - just in case. The reductio ad absurdum is: they make no difference. So, inductively, if there were no lemons, lemon laws would make no difference. In the immortal words of Bill Shakespeare: The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries doth protesteth too much, methinks...


Lemon laws would redress the fundamental imbalance of power between you and a car company. Take Holden. Here’s a carmaker masochistically flushing itself to obscurity, with a lemon-heavy product range. Still selling 100,000 cars last year, though. That’s a lazy three billion dollars in turnover. And you’re going to take them on? That’s like packing a toothpick at the Alamo. It makes David and Goliath look like a fundamentally fair fight.


Here’s how unfair it gets: The classic case is where Volkswagen’s high-priced asshole lawyers tried to get a customer named Levon Kara fired because he used his government e-mail address to communicate in relation to his defective car, which lost power multiple times. A lemon. All Mr Kara wanted, apparently, was a fair go. However, the asshole lawyers seized on the fact that unauthorised e-mail use by Mr Kara might have comprised a breach of Mr Kara’s employment contract, and they threatened him - or at least pressured him - over it. Mr Kara dropped his case as a consequence.

That’s just one of those cases that didn’t get to court. So I guess if you’re in a fight with a car company, the Marquis of Queensbury is not going to be much help.

New cars Australia lemon laws


The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries claim in their 2009 document that lemons are a statistical anomaly, but the reality is: there have never been more lemons. I had an unsolicited e-mail from Glen the other day about the … interesting pre-delivery testing protocol for the Holden Captiva. Bit of a quick, dirty lemon-check on the docks there. Anything from that former Daewoo factory should be painted bright yellow by law, and driven straight off the boat - and straight into the harbour. Lemon laws would bring Holden to its knees.


Ford Australia’s policy - it’s procedural remediation - for the crime of foisting the second-worst dual-clutch transmission on Earth onto unsuspecting customers in the Focus, is not to say, with appropriate humility, ‘terribly sorry - we’ll fix it’. Instead, there’s an institutionalised process of brushing you off at every step. Come in for evaluation - the car’s having a dozen epileptic fits, all at once. It’s: Apollo 13, 2.0 - directed by John Woo.

First the dealer says the transmission needs to adapt to you. Bullshit. Then they do a software upgrade - the next time you complain. Only: Software can’t fix physical defects. Then they wait for you to complain again, and only then, if you’re lucky, do they replace the clutches - but you have to wait weeks. While Quentin Tarantino collaborates with John Woo over how to make the ownership experience even more interesting. And then, after a few months the problem comes back, just like Chucky, because - in engineering terms that Ford transmission is … let's be very kind ... a disgrace.

New cars Australia lemon laws


Volkswagen is what happens when you make Hitleresque proclamations about global domination but you don’t actually have the product range to get there. When you rush the R&D you under-cook the engineering and you produce lemons. When Melissa Ryan was killed after her Golf lost power on a Victorian freeway in 2011 - hundreds of similarly lemon-owning Volkswagen owners came out of the woodwork, largely due to the excellent reporting of Melissa Fife at Fairfax Media. Do you suppose Volkswagen could handle the tsunami of lemon car claims, if consumers became suddenly better empowered?


Audi’s engineers dropped the ball monumentally on the 2.0-litre TFSI engine a few years ago. In their excessive Teutonic zeal to Vorsprung durch technic the crap out of internal friction the engine drinks oil like a sailor on shore leave. The official advice to one customer who contacted me was: Just wait for the low oil warning light to come on, and drop in to the dealership: we’ll fill you up. How is that a premium ownership experience?

Imagine if you had to do that with a Hyundai or a Kia. Instant media feeding frenzy. Instead of admitting they’d blown the design and fixing the problem globally, with a little humility, those four-ring fuckheads just re-wrote the history books. It was simpler and cheaper, not to mention breathtakingly more arrogant, just to describe the engine’s extravagant oil consumption as ‘normal’. And they got away with it.


Mercedes-Benz is doing it too. Unbelievable. Expertly giving customers the brush. Outrageous - how dare a customer expect a $100,000 E-Class Benz to function properly? After all, you’re paying for the badge. Anything else is a bonus, apparently.

I don't know about you, but when I read Anthony's unsolicited e-mail (right) I can almost hear the desperation - or is that resignation - in his voice. Here's a guy who spent $130,000 on a Mercedes-Benz E 250 CGI, and all he wants it to do is go properly. Seems reasonable.

Imagine yourself in Anthony's shoes - five years on, and still no joy...


Ashton Wood bought a $50,000 Jeep Cherokee in 2010 - another lemon, from an elite manufacturer of lemons. Twenty-two significant component failures, under warranty. The first happened during delivery. The fuel line broke and diesel spewed all over the showroom floor. It’s like, the Keystone Cops. Charlie Chaplin buys a car. You could not suspend disbelief, if it were fiction. It was a sign. Twenty-one more defects later, after months of jumping through bureaucratic hoops … Jeep offered Mr Wood a replacement battery and an extra year’s warranty. That good, old-fashioned customer service. I’d be needing a dozen massages, all with happy endings. I mean, this is why we need such strict gun control laws. After lawyers at dawn, Jeep ultimately offered Mr Wood $22,000 to buy the car back - that’s less than half of what he paid for it new.

Chrysler didn’t see the problem. Like, you certainly can put a price on gross inconvenience. Even though they didn’t. So Mr Wood went seriously, medievally, off the reservation. There was a Spanish Inquisition - of sorts. An $18,000 Kickstarter campaign launched a very public demolition of the evil Cherokee: It was shot, bashed and crushed with a 35-tonne excavator. Then it was burnt at the stake to end its apparent demonic possession. (And also because Mr Wood was ethically opposed to on-selling the problematic shitbox to another sucker, who would, presumably then also live in automotive hell.) I interviewed Mr Wood live on Radio 2UE in Sydney shortly after the event, which hundreds attended and which thousands more have viewed online. He was oddly rational, a quietly spoken professional. A bloke who simply had been pushed too far by a system too heavily biased against the consumer.


I’ve got a message for The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries. There are lemons. It is a problem. Consumers need to be able to return lemons for a full refund or replacement - at the consumer’s choice. A reasonable accommodation can be made for usage, as long as a reasonable accommodation is made for inconvenience. How friggin’ hard is it? Actually it is pretty hard: can you see Holden, Ford, Volkswagen, Jeep, Audi or Mercedes-Benz voting ‘yes’ for reasonable lemon laws? Imagine the bottom-line repercussions. Imagine the reputational damage if it goes on the public record. They’d actually have to stand behind the product - as opposed to just sounding like they stand behind the product.


New cars Australia lemon laws

The fundamental thing car companies don’t realise is that anti-ambassadors are very effective. Not everyone burns their lemon at the stake. publicly, like Ashton Wood - but everyone tells their friends and colleagues. Anti-marketing works. It’s very effective. And if you’re not getting the resolution you think you deserve, morally, don’t hold your breath waiting for new lemon laws - step it up now.

Call talkback radio, and have a spray. Contact the local paper. E-mail the TV news networks. Collect all the documentation, and sound rational but interesting. Make some noise in the media. Because, while there is profound imbalance in the legislative domain of consumer law, the media will give you a much more balanced hearing.

(General advice: Don’t mention individuals - individuals can sue you for defamation. But companies and products can’t generally be defamed. You enjoy significant freedom of speech there. And car companies are absolutely shitscared about criticism in the public domain - it’s one of the few ways you can actually get under their skin, and bring them to heel. If you're at the pointy end of a lemon-car dispute, and getting nowhere, what have you got to lose?)

Have you ever owned a lemon? Tell me your story. Leave a comment below, tell me about it and let me know what you think.