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Pressure Increases on Volvo to Pay to Replace Faulty Throttles
By Myron Levin, Times Staff Writer
Defective throttles in 1999-2001 Volvos have been failing at unusually high rates,
causing cars to stall, raising air emissions and sticking owners with costly
State and federal air quality officials are pressing Volvo for a commitment to spend
millions of dollars to replace the devices as they fail, and to reimburse owners who
have paid for the work themselves.
The faulty components are electronic throttle modules, or ETMs, which Volvo began
substituting for traditional mechanical throttles in its '99 models. Although
designed for a useful life of 100,000 miles, an estimated 21% to 94% will fail
within that time, depending on vehicle model, according to reports by Volvo to the
California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The state air board, backed by the EPA, wants Volvo to extend the warranty on the
throttles to 10 years and unlimited miles and reimburse owners who have already paid
as much as $1,000 to replace them. The basic warranty on the cars is four years or
50,000 miles, though in California emissions-related components by law are covered
for seven years or 70,000 miles.
The faulty throttles also are the subject of a class-action suit charging that Volvo
violated California law by issuing a so-called secret warranty to assist some but
not all owners with defective throttles.
Volvo executives refused to be interviewed or to answer written questions but said
in a prepared statement that it "is working with the California Air Resources Board
relative to the ETM, and we are fully cooperating with them."
Although pressure on Volvo is coming mainly from California, any warranty extensions
and reimbursements would apply nationwide. Volvo would not say how many vehicles are
involved. But based on U.S. sales of affected vehicles, including C70, S70, V70, S60
and S80 Series Volvos, the number appears to be 200,000 to 300,000 cars.
"We're in the gray area between consumer protection and emissions control," said
John Urkov, a branch chief with the Air Resources Board. Volvo is "going to have to
spend some money to do what we feel is the minimum necessary to get out of this
At a meeting with company representatives Feb. 23, air board officials rejected
arguments that Volvo had already taken all reasonable steps and was not responsible
past the warranty period. The automaker is expected to respond early next month to
the request for a warranty extension, Urkov said.
For the Swedish carmaker, a Ford Motor Co. unit known for advanced safety and
technological sophistication, the problem has been an embarrassing and expensive
"ETM issues are currently a major source of warranty cost and customer
dissatisfaction in the U.S. market," said a June 29, 2004, internal document
produced in the lawsuit against Volvo.
Customers have complained of dangerous stalling episodes on major thoroughfares and
have accused Volvo representatives of trying to shift blame by telling owners they
had bought bad gasoline or did not follow the recommended maintenance schedule.
"I feel the representatives of Volvo misled me," said Christine Noriega of Mar
Vista, who said she recently paid about $200 to service the throttle in her Volvo
sedan after a dealer inaccurately told her that her warranty had expired.
The June 2004 Volvo document said that in just over a year, the company had paid
more than $13.5 million to replace or clean 27,200 throttles and to buy back cars as
a goodwill gesture.
In many cases, however, owners have paid for the work because their warranties had
expired or they did not know the throttle was covered.
The class-action suit concerns a July 2001 Volvo notice to dealers agreeing to pay
for one ETM cleaning per customer. California is one of a handful of states that bar
secret warranties, in which vehicle makers extend service to owners who squawk the
loudest but fail to tell all owners.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by San Mateo, Calif., law
firm Fazio & Micheletti, alleges that the Volvo notice amounted to a secret
Dina Micheletti, a partner in the firm, said the action was suspect for another
reason too: Volvo has acknowledged in internal documents that cleaning a faulty
throttle to remove oily deposits that caused the malfunction can keep the device
going only for a while. Thus, the procedure can get Volvo beyond the warranty
period, with owners getting stuck later with the higher cost of throttle
Volvo said it "is actively defending the case and believes it has complied with the
applicable California law."
When Volvo introduced it, the ETM was considered an advance over the mechanical
throttles used in virtually all other cars and trucks. Like the mechanical version,
it's a valve that flaps open and shut to control airflow to the fuel system and,
ultimately, the output of power from the engine.
But in at least the first three model years, the electronic throttles were easily
fouled by carbon deposits, causing rough idle, increased emissions and frequently
loss of power and stalls. Micheletti said warranty claims data produced in the
lawsuit reflected close to 1,000 reports of stalling from California Volvo owners
Volvo documents show that the problem reared its head in the factory even before '99
models hit the showroom.
According to a Volvo memo in March 2000, "we have had problems with faulty throttles
in the car plants … since SOP 98w20" - a reference to the start of production in the
20th week of 1998.
Volvo scrapped the original design and switched suppliers early in the '02 model
year, a change that is believed to have reduced the problem.
Urkov said throttle malfunctions caused cars to pollute more than they otherwise
would. But he said the Air Resources Board had not ordered a recall, because it
couldn't prove that the extra emissions exceeded legal standards.
As an alternative, he said, the agency is pushing the extended warranty as "the
proper corrective action." Urkov said Volvo's stance had been that once the warranty
expired, maintaining the ETM should be the owner's responsibility.
That argument "basically fell on deaf ears," he said, because Volvo had certified
the device as maintenance-free when the emissions system was approved. "We want
Volvo to … step up to the plate," Urkov said.
Through Internet chat rooms and e-mail networks, Volvo owners have been calling for
action too.
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