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He had to drive a defective Ford Focus home in reverse. Now he blames automaker for debt

Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press
He had to drive a defective Ford Focus home in reverse. Now he blames automaker for debt

Mark DaGraca had five clutch replacements on his 2016 Ford Focus and finally gave up.

Mark DaGraca, pictured here on Dec. 21, 2019 at his home in Marlboro, Massachusetts, has replaced the clutch on his 2016 Ford Focus five times. "I ultimately had to trade the car in because it was not safe." Now he has a new car loan payment he had hoped to avoid.

Now he has a bigger monthly payment on a car loan that has ballooned in size.

“I ultimately had to trade the car in because it was not safe,” he said Dec. 9. “Just wanted to let you know that when I got my Focus, the dealership in Haverhill, Massachusetts, told me Ford was having a deal on Focus cars — a 1.9% interest rate on those cars only, regardless of credit. So because of that we bought the car. Within 16,000 miles, my car needed a new transmission. Every attempt with Ford to get this car taken back or made right was met with, ‘You don’t qualify for anything.’ Finally, I bought a new Ford Escape last month because I had to drive (the Focus a few blocks) home one day in reverse because it would not drive forward.”

DaGraca added, “They knew they made a poor product then pushed to sell it with attractive finance rates.”

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The 41-year-old video conference engineer from Marlborough, Massachusetts, is one of dozens of Focus and Fiesta owners who contacted the Free Press to say the cars’ transmission problems outlasted their warranty coverage, they feel trapped with a defective car that has lost value or Ford is pushing them to trade bad Focus and Fiesta vehicles for new vehicles, taking on fresh, bigger loans.  

Ford spokesman Said Deep said Monday, "Earning and keeping the trust of customers is vital to everything we do. That is why Ford and its dealers went to great lengths to stand behind and improve the performance of the DPS6 transmission. Vehicles with this transmission built since the second half of 2015 — and earlier ones with important updates — perform well and have competitive levels of customer satisfaction."

Mark DaGraca owned a 2016 Ford Focus that required five clutch replacements. He ended up with a new car loan and higher payments when trading the defective car for a Ford Escape. The dealer wrote, "I am just trying to get you out of that car."

Taking on a new loan is a financial burden for many customers who own the troubled Focus and Fiesta vehicles sold this decade with defective dual-clutch automatic transmissions that are the subject of massive litigation and a federal probe. The cars, discontinued in 2018-19 model years, were low-cost vehicles targeted at buyers on a tight budget.

A Free Press investigation published in July found that Ford knew the transmission was defective before putting it on the market and in 2011 rejected a plan to stop using it. Ford whistleblowers later described to the Free Press a fearful atmosphere within the company that led to silence during the transmission’s development and, in one case, downgrading the risk assessment of the clutch and control unit "due to political reasons." 

“Trust me, I didn’t want to do it but the car was not safe and the dealership told me, ‘They are instructed to not take any more Focuses to work on.’ I was told to drive the car even though it was an unsafe car and that the part was on national back order,” said DaGraca, who noted that his wife is a special education teacher and the new loan is taking a toll. “I now have a $30,873 car loan."

 The bigger balance reflects merging the old and new loans into one. He still owed $11,500 on his Focus loan. The new vehicle required borrowing an additional $19,000.

His new payments are $450 month, up from $350. And they’ll last for six years.

"We never planned on getting another new car. That was the car that we thought would last another five years, easily," DaGraca said Wednesday.

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Readers from all over the country have reported that dealers are starting to decline repair orders on the vehicles. Ford in 2014 extended the drivetrain warranty on the cars built through mid-2013, extended the warranty on the control unit in 2016 and, a month after publication of the Free Press’ Out of Gear investigation, extended the drivetrain warranty on more than half a million of the cars not covered by the 2014 action.

Trying to help

Scott Popkin, general manager of AutoFair Ford of Haverhill, wrote in an email to DaGraca dated Nov. 13, 2019, “I am taking your car to auction and I’m going to lose money there. I am just trying to get you out of that car.”

Mark DaGraca said he pleaded for relief from Ford Motor because his 2016 Focus had a defective DPS6 dual-clutch "PowerShift" transmission. Ford's DPS6 dispute resolution specialist/legal analyst denied DaGraca's claim. He is one 2 million people who purchased Focus and Fiesta vehicles with the technology that has resulted in consumer lawsuits in the U.S. and globally

Looking back, DaGraca said Popkin tried to do everything he could but Ford created an impossible situation.

"Because of them, Scott and his team was never going to meet my true needs," DaGraca said. "Scott gave us good value, but my issue is — I should never had to get another car three years after buying a brand new Ford."

He explained, “We brought our car in when it had around 15,000 miles to get the transmission fixed. The dealership told us that the fix would ‘fix’ the issue for good. But as you know, it never did. When we tried to reach out to the Ford dispute center, we were told there is nothing they can do because we did not qualify for assistance. I believe they lied to us so the warranty would expire and then we could not fall back on the lemon law.”

Owners from across the United States have contacted the Free Press with documents and pleas for help. They said they are everyday Americans who bought products in good faith and pay their bills and do the right thing and face financial hardship because of Ford’s handling of the flawed vehicles. Many of the families include Ford retirees.

‘It’s insanity’

Darlene Burns, 60, a bookkeeper who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, said her 2015 Focus, when it comes to a stop sign or slows down to make a turn, “all of a sudden just jerks. You depress the car pedal and the car does not move, goes nowhere.”

A native of Livonia, Burns’ father retired from Ford as an engineer in Dearborn.

“I’ve owned Fords all my life,” she said. “I’ve never had a car do this. It’s insanity. I’ve had problems since I’ve owned this car. Safety concerns more than anything. Merging onto I-65 or changing lanes and the car just doesn’t move. Gears don’t engage though it revs the RPMs. When you hit the gas, the car should move. It’s awful frightening. Now my gear clutch assembly has to go in for a second time.”

Some of the vehicles shudder, sometimes violently, and can shift erratically, accelerate unevenly and lurch unpredictably. The transmissions are designed to default to neutral when certain problems occur, which causes drivers to lose drive power. Ford says the cars are safe, and federal regulators have looked at the issue in 2014 and again after publication of the Free Press investigation and agree with Ford, despite thousands of consumer complaints that include reports of 50 injuries

The dealership asked Burns to consider trading the car as recently as Dec. 19 “because they’re fully aware of the problems and the cars being brought in for clutch assemblies,” she said. Burns is fearful during her shopping trips to Walmart with her granddaughter Ivy. But she said she can’t get the fair value of the car and does not want to start a new, more expensive loan.

“I paid, I think, $12,000 and I owe $9,400,” Burns said. “All the things other people are experiencing — shuddering, jerking, the default thing to go into neutral. The car not going anywhere for 2 or 5 seconds when you’re trying to go into moving traffic, is just the most frightening thing. Cars coming at you and your car is sitting there like a duck. Like a sitting duck. It’s frightening.”

She wrote in an email, “I am most concerned when the car DOESN'T MOVE although the accelerator pedal is depressed!!”

The Focus is scheduled for transmission repair Jan. 2, 2020. Burns said it will be her second since purchasing the vehicle in 2017.

Getting $19,728 

Phil Kovacs, 70, a retired human resources consultant from Northville, didn’t give up. He fought back. 

His wife’s 2012 Focus had 79,000 miles and went in for its sixth transmission — the fifth replacement.

“The first four replacements were paid for by Ford Motor Company, but with the last, which was done in early October, Ford refused to cover the $1,400 repair cost, despite it failing mere days after the 12-month repair warranty expired,” he wrote.

“I contacted the Ford customer service line only to be told there was nothing Ford would do to assist with the repair cost.  I shared with them the fact that I've purchased and driven at least 24 Ford vehicles since 1969.  In fact, when we took delivery of the 2012 Focus from Hines Park Ford, it was part of a three-vehicle purchase we made.”

Phil Kovacs of Northville, Michigan took his wife's 2012 Ford Focus to the shop for five transmission replacements. When Ford wanted to bill them $1,500 for the last repair due to warranty expiration, he found a lawyer who negotiated a settlement in December 2019. Ford paid $19,728.18 to buy back the car.

Not only is the defective transmission an expensive inconvenience, it is also a safety hazard “since it can buck, stall or refuse to engage,” Kovacs said. It shuddered in low gear, had “delayed acceleration,” rolled backward at stops and lurched.

“The Ford service technicians told us it was supposed to do that,” he said.

Kovacs found a lawyer in Michigan who specializes in lemon law cases and negotiated a deal with Ford. The company bought back the car on Dec. 10 for $19,728.18. The lawyer earned a $3,000 fee. Kovacs said he had been loyal to Ford since childhood. His father worked as a machine repairman journeyman at the Ford Rouge plant and retired from the company after 41 years.

Stranded in Texas

But the story of Robert Craft, 45, a mechanic from Newton, Texas, is more typical.

He said he must depend on his 1995 Mazda pickup truck because his 2015 Focus doesn’t work.

“But there’s not room for all three of us in that itty-bitty truck,” Craft said, explaining that he and his wife, who works at a Walmart deli, take their special needs son 70 miles for medical appointments three times a week. 

“When you go to take off, you actually feel the car shake and vibrate. The motor kind of runs free and then it finally hits the gear. I think it’s a safety issue because it can leave you on the side of the road,” he said. “I’ve taken it in two times for the transmission. The first time, they said there was nothing wrong, just drive it harder. The second time, it was doing the same thing on a trip to Las Vegas. It would just stall.” 

Joseph Craft, Janett Craft and Robert Craft Sr. (left to right) in Orlando, Florida on May 20, 2019. The Texas family was hit with a $1,600 repair on their 2015 Ford Focus after the warranty ran out. They need the car for medical appointments and the transmission is defective. "Nobody wants to touch this car," Craft said.

He said Ford charged him to diagnose the problem and then wanted to charge him $1,600 for repair, an amount reported by owners throughout the country when repairs were needed past warranty. He, like others, said local Ford repair shops have even declined to take the car. “Nobody wants to touch it.” 

Finally, “Ford said it would make the warranty good. They said I have until February until the warranty is gone again. I just can’t get nobody to help us out. I have a disabled son and we have to run back and forth from our hometown to Beaumont, Texas. It’s three hours round trip three times a week. It’s stressful having to worry about this car laying down on us at any time.” 

'We regret ...'

The Ford spokesman told the Free Press, "While these vehicles always were and remain safe to drive, we regret the inconvenience our customers have experienced."

Austin Hornyak, 40, of Shelburne, Vermont, is an ordained United Methodist pastor working as a social worker transporting people with developmental disabilities. He said he’s waiting to hear from the Ford dealer about his 2013 Ford Focus, which was left with a Burlington dealer on Dec. 19.

“I have real safety concerns,” Hornyak said. “The clutch has been replaced twice under warranty. They reprogrammed the transmission control module at about 34,000 miles, reprogrammed the transmission control module again and replaced the clutch and seals at about 40,000 miles, and replaced the clutch a second time at about 71,000 miles.  It's now at about 112,000 miles and in need of repair again.  I'm hoping it will be covered by the 150,000 mile transmission control module extended warranty.”

He paid $13,400 and still owes $3,500.

“The car started having difficulty shifting between gears at around 30,000 miles,” Hornyak explained in an email. “Especially when starting from a stopped position and cycling through the gears, there's frequently a lag when transitioning from one gear to the next.  When the gear catches, the car jerks forward.  Each clutch replacement fixed the problem temporarily, but the jerkiness eventually returned again.”

He said Monday, “Last week, a warning light came on saying to service the transmission immediately. The transmission seemed to be going into neutral. It wasn't jerking; it just wasn't engaging with any gears for periods of a few seconds at a time. When I hit the gas, the engine would rev but the car did not accelerate. After a few seconds of drifting, it would catch a gear and start accelerating.”


Still sad in Flint

Michelle Hughes, 44, a hospital worker from Flint, said she uses her 2012 Fiesta only to get to work. She said that's because nothing much has changed since Christopher Kwasniewicz, Ford's North American powertrain executive quality manager, visited her at home in August to accompany her to a local dealership and fix her transmission issues after they were highlighted by the Free Press.

Now, four months later, the red Fiesta still shudders.

“You can feel it shake,” Hughes said. "It shudders sometimes, like it had done before. They’ve designed a car that is not reliable.”

When the Free Press interviewed engineers for a story in early December, many asked if Hughes’ car was fixed. They predicted any improvement would be short term, because there is no fix.

Now, at least once a month, Hughes gets a letter from Ford asking her to trade her car for a new one.

“I can’t afford a new car payment,” she said. “They should be ashamed of themselves. I understand it was a cheap car, but people need to have reliable transportation.”

Frustrated, Hughes said the visit from the Ford executive was a “dog and pony show” in an effort to make Ford look responsive. “I don’t know if they were just trying to shut me up.”

One family's extensive repair record for a 2012 Ford Focus:

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid. Read more on autos and sign up for our autos newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: He bought a defective Ford Focus — and had to drive it home in reverse