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Ford secretly tells dealers: Fix faulty Focus, Fiesta transmissions until July 19

Phoebe Wall Howard and Jamie L. LaReau
Ford Motor Co. quietly notified dealers to expand warranty coverage of its 2011-17 Fiesta and Focus vehicles after a Detroit Free Press investigation.

Ford Motor Co. quietly notified dealers to expand warranty coverage of its 2011-17 Fiesta and Focus vehicles within 24 hours of publication of a Detroit Free Press investigation into defective transmissions, including model year 2017 for the first time. 

According to a memo to dealers dated July 12 that was obtained by the Free Press, Ford instructed dealerships not to solicit owners for the free repair offers. One dealer referred to the directive as a "carte blanche" repair order set to expire July 19.

“If a customer calls or arrives at our dealership indicating they are having transmission symptoms that need to be addressed, we are to arrange to diagnose the vehicle and fix as necessary," Mike Rabbitts, parts and service director for Friendship Ford in Bristol, Tennessee, told the Free Press Thursday.

Dealers said they have seen a spike in customer calls and visits over past week, since publication of the Free Press Out of Gear investigation of the carmaker's use of a dual-clutch transmission it called the DPS6 starting with the 2011 Fiesta and the 2012 Focus. Customers have gone to dealerships carrying the Free Press story to show that the transmission problems aren't their imagination, some car owners told the newspaper.

Shhh

Ford did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the issue.

In 2014, the company extended the warranty on transmission in the 2010-14 Fiesta and 2012-14 Focus and created a six-page "talking points" guide to help dealers work with customers. "We will not proactively communicate with the press," the 2014 guide said.

US Senators call for investigation: Ford Focus, Fiesta transmission decisions under scrutiny

The latest memo, which lists Ford spokesman TR Reid as a contact, said, "Additional updates will be provided by July 19, 2019." Reid did not respond to a call, text or email from the Free Press.

The inclusion of 2017 model year vehicles is a significant change, and is the first time Ford has suggested any issues with model years that recent. The Focus with the DPS6 was discontinued after the 2018 model year, and the 2019 Fiesta is the last of the line as Ford moves away from cars to emphasize pickups and SUVs.

A class-action lawsuit covering 1.9 million owners and former owners included only 2011-16 Fiesta and 2012-16 Focus vehicles. A proposed settlement in that case is under appeal. Other cases are pending in California and Michigan from owners who have opted out of the class action. In April, Ford warned shareholders in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission of potential liability from the lawsuits.

The Free Press investigation found that Ford "knowingly launched two low-priced, fuel-efficient cars with defective transmissions and continued selling the troubled Focus and Fiesta despite thousands of complaints and an avalanche of repairs."

The cars can lose acceleration when the transmission — which operates to the driver like an automatic but is internally more like a manual — slips into neutral at various speeds. Ford chose the transmission to improve fuel economy as the nation emerged from the Great Recession and federal mpg standards rose. 

Drivers also have told federal regulators about the cars bolting forward, including reports of injury accidents that the Free Press found in an analysis of more than 4,300 consumer complaints about the DPS6 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Many of the cars shudder and jerk and frighten and irritate owners. 

Customers seeking fixes

Ford sent its July 12 bulletin to "All Ford & Lincoln dealerships." It said:

  • If a customer calls or arrives at your dealership indicating they have transmission symptoms that need addressed, arrange to diagnose the vehicle and repair as necessary.
  • If a customer calls without a symptom asking questions about the DPS6 media coverage, direct customers to contact the Customer Relationship Center at 1-800-392-3673 to discuss their concerns.
  • This direction is applicable only for repair orders created July 12 through July 19. Additional updates will be provided by July 19.

Friendship Ford received Ford's bulletin on July 12. So far, Rabbitts said they have done "a couple" transmission fixes and, he said, "I’ve seen more Focuses in the service lane this week than in the past.”

If a customer comes to a Ford dealership between now and the end of the day Friday and a repair order is written to fix their transmission, it's a free fix regardless of current or extended warranty coverage, Rabbitts said. He suspects Ford will extend that offer.

"I’ll tell you from my experience that when they say additional updates will be provided by July 19 … they will extend this," said Rabbitts.

Right now the repairs take about half-a-day to a day to complete because most dealers have the parts in stock to do them, said Rabbitts. But Rabbitts worries his service shop might get backlogged as more consumers learn of a chance to fix cars with the DPS6 transmissions, he said.

"This is going to definitely create an influx and rise in the parts being ordered, which will mean a parts delay," said Rabbitts.

He said that the DPS6 transmission operating properly does have an unusual feel, such as a shudder. 

"It’s an electronic dual-clutch system that has characteristics that seem abnormal to the user until they get used to it, but there are some issues with it too," said Rabbitts. "There are verifiable concerns, too, no doubt.”

Many owners told the Free Press they gave up hope on getting a fix after many attempts. An internal Ford report on the DPS6 in 2016 noted that 350,000 vehicles “have already reached 3+ repairs in US” for transmission problems. 

The memo to dealerships refers to clutch and transmission control unit repairs. The 2016 internal report said Ford believed it had found a fix for the problems by then. In its initial statement for our story, Ford said, "While we eventually resolved the quality issues, the solutions were more complex and took longer than we expected." 

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, responded to quiet release of the repair directive by saying, "By failing to widely publicize that there are repairs available free of charge to many owners of their faulty vehicles, Ford is repeating a longstanding auto industry practice of providing repairs to consumers only when asked as opposed to standing behind their product proactively.”

On Tuesday, three members of Congress, including the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees NHTSA, called for immediate review by regulators. On Wednesday, Ford issued a lengthy statement to the media rebutting the Free Press investigation. 

Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid.

Out of Gear

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford Focus, Fiesta transmission: Dealers secretly told to fix issues