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Porsche whiffs on customer care

Wed, 18 Sep 2013

Porsche is making a mistake that could take years—and millions of dollars—to fix, and you might not even be aware of it. Well, that is, until now.

The mistake started with Porsche 911 and Boxster models sold in the U.S. from 2001-05, but the real cost is to Porsche's reputation. This reputational value—the “There is no Substitute” attitude, the Le Mans-winning juggernaut, the “Coolest Guy in the Room” aura—will evaporate courtesy of company lawyers.

It started when owners noticed a phenomenon not indicative of Stuttgart's traditional German engineering: a total intermediate shaft-bearing failure within the engine, a hand-grenade effect that transformed the uber-wundercars into functioning doorstops. So prevalent were the malfunctions that owners banded together to sue Porsche.

At first, Porsche refused to take responsibility. But, with evidence mounting, Porsche acknowledged the problem. With America as Porsche's largest market, to let Boxster/911 owners twist in the wind isn't the right thing to do.

Negotiations between counsel ping-ponged, and over time, Porsche agreed to fix any car with an intermediate shaft-bearing failure—with some exceptions. Porsche created a sliding scale of responsibility with qualifiers such as mileage, condition of the car, repair history and length of ownership. A car's owner, for instance, whose vehicle met all the criteria could receive 100 percent repair compensation.

Since this intermediate shaft-bearing-failure class-action suit is on behalf of owners whose cars were sold between Jan. 1, 2001 and Dec. 31, 2005, Porsche's lawyers said a car could only be in service for 10 years (see: Like a terrier with a dead rat in its mouth, Porsche's lawyers could hold this concession up to management as a “win.”

Sadly for Scott Schoelzel, he bought his car in March 2003, and it consumed itself in May 2013. He missed being covered by the class-action suit by 98 days! Forget that this 2003 Porsche 911 is his third from Stuttgart. Forget that, with a fleet of eight other cars—including an AMG Mercedes and multiple Audis—he's the customer any automaker cherishes. Forget that his Porsche 911 only had 26,000 miles on the odometer when, while going to dinner, he heard something that proved to be extremely not good. Only later did he learn that an “issue” existed with Porsche. Yep, that's right: He didn't know he had a problem until he had a problem … because he wasn't informed a problem existed.

Schoelzel's learned plenty since that gut punch, including that Porsche wants nothing to do with him and will not—cannot, they say—fix his car gratis. His problem, representatives say, lies outside the criteria of the class-action suit, and to fix it would violate the agreement. Schoelzel's car was registered to him and in service for 10 years and 98 days, so he's S.O.L. Had Schoelzel's Porsche length of ownership been lesser, say to the tune of nine years and 364 days, his dream car would be back in his garage and fixed courtesy of Porsche. And then it would be up for sale. If he wants the company to behave as it should and treat him as a loyal customer, he is going to have to sue them on his own.

Schoelzel can't be alone: From 2001 to 2005, Porsche sold 39,633 Boxsters and a whopping 51,375 Porsche 911 models (including rarer and unattached-to-this-suit GT2s, GT3s and Turbos). The point is, a lot of cars could be affected—and the cost to fix them could be high—but the cost to Porsche's rep could be far, far dearer.

The heart of the matter is the heart of what matters: If you can't trust Porsche to build bullet-proof engines and stand by their products, what can you do?

You bet Schoelzel has a bad taste in his mouth. The company he loved—the brand that showed the world he made it, a company to which over years he gladly, willingly wrote large checks—jettisoned and betrayed him. Schoelzel, a fellow dad whom I met at my son's fraternity house a few years back, won't buy another Porsche. That pains him. He figures he had another two or three cars in his future, as he's been on a 10-year buying-and-owning cycle. Now, he openly believes that, yes, Porsche, there is a substitute.

Who can blame him?

Editor's note: According to MRI data, nearly 8 percent of all Autoweek subscribers own a Porsche. If you think you have a claim, you have until Oct. 15 to make it. Don't say we didn't warn you.

By Dutch Mandel