You would think an owner like Natalie is exactly the sort of person Subaru would want for the BRZ. She clearly adores the car, and hers is modified, personalized and prominent on her social media accounts. Plus, it’s actually used in the way it was designed to be used. So why did her dealer attempt to hold her 2015 Subaru BRZ for ransom?
The answer is actually pretty complicated, and I’m not sure either side is completely in the right or wrong, either. Natalie’s tale (which she shared on Reddit, to a lot of attention, though she asked me not to use her surname here) does show some very questionable dealership practices and the confusing, often difficult ownership and warranty issues that come from using a sports car as we often advocate, on a track.
Natalie’s BRZ has a number of performance and aesthetic enhancements and personalizations, like a big wing and a custom full-car illustration wrap of her trademark fierce panda. It’s very cool.
She’s a software engineer, but does a lot with her car as a hobby, even beyond what most people do: she sells merchandise related to her car and her brand, she models with the car for photoshoots, and she actually drives the car as a sports car should be driven, doing autocrosses and other track events.
This saga begins about six months ago with her fuel pump, which failed. According to Natalie, she took it to her local Subaru dealer, Wolfe Subaru in Vancouver.
While replacing the fuel pump the dealer broke a ring nut, and had to keep the car for over a month. When the car was returned, Natalie saw a check engine light, and pulled the code to find there was a “Minor Evaporative Leak” in the fuel system.
That leak seemed to have been caused by the dealer re-using old seals. She returned the car to the dealer, who fixed that, returned the car to her, at which point the check engine came on again, this time proclaiming a Major Evaporative Leak. Clearly, that’s not an improvement.
The car goes back to the dealer yet again, the leak is fixed, the car comes back, and now the fuel tank sensor seems to be broken, which Natalie realizes the first time she filled the car with gas after it was returned.
Back to the dealer the car goes, but this time instead of a repair, Natalie got a phone call saying that the work would not be covered under warranty, as all the previous work was, because the car had “signs of abuse.”
Those were largely based on the service manager having his employees find her on Facebook and locate pictures of her and her car on the track. According to Natalie’s transcript of a phone call between her and the service manager (the service manager listed on their website is Hubert Belanger), this was described as:
“I told my boys to find you on Facebook and we uncovered all sorts of things. We see you racing your car and that’s clearly abuse to your engine. We’re going to put a note here to void your warranty and never service your vehicle again. You need to take that shit down. You think you look cool but you’re not doing yourself any favours. So we replaced the parts on your car anyways even though your warranty is not covering it. So you need to pay us $1200 in parts and labour to get your vehicle back.”
Of course, this is unprofessional and problematic in an Imperial fuckton of ways. Aside from the creepy-ass practice of cyber-stalking a customer’s social media feeds and making unsubstantiated inferences from what they find there, there’s the whole issue of doing $1,200 of non-warranty work without customer approval, and then holding the car until payment is received.
If they felt her use of the car would negate her warranty, why would they go ahead and do the work without talking to the owner first?
I reached out to Wolfe Subaru and spoke with the service manager. I asked about the situation, and was told that the evidence used to determine that the car had been tracked involved tire wear, the Facebook pictures, and, of course, the fact that the car had a number on the door.
The service manager disputed the specific wording of the conversation Natalie related, but confirmed the basics, saying he was “just giving her good advice.” He also claimed that the initial damage to the fuel pump was caused by the car driving over a track rumble strip.
Natalie confirms that was his assessment, and adds:
“Service manager claims I hit my tank on Rumble Strips because “he races McLarens and Porches on the track all the time” and has experience knowing what “rumble strip hits” are like. And if I wanted my car to be covered under warranty I should have bought a Porsche.”
Now, the problem here—well, one of the problems—is that the dealership did not put the car on a lift to confirm outside, rumble-strip-type damage to the car. I was told they looked inside the fuel tank, via the fuel sender hole, to confirm.
I asked Natalie to crawl under her car and take some pictures so we can finally see if there was any actual underbody damage, and here’s what she saw:
That underbody looks pretty pristine. I don’t see any evidence of damage from a rumble strip or anything; certainly not to the point where it would damage the fuel pump.
I’ve been looking at pictures of the BRZ’s saddle-shaped fuel tank online, and I’m having trouble deciding if possible rumble strip damage is even a plausible cause of damage to the fuel pump. From what I can see, the pump mechanisms are actually mounted on the upper side of the tank, and there’s protection plates below the tank’s halves on either side of the differential.
I can’t believe no one at the shop even bothered to just crawl under the car, lift or not. The service manager’s claim that this was rumble strip damage does not seem to hold any water, and it’s utter bullshit that they would make the claim without even doing something as simple as peeking under the car to confirm.
The good news is that after what Natalie says was an hourlong phone call, and threats to contact Subaru of Canada, the dealership agreed to “bite the bullet” (their words) and fix the car under warranty.
Now, here’s where it gets complicated; while fixing the car under warranty was the right thing to do here, based on how the dealership behaved, Natalie may have been in violation of the BRZ warranty by having it on a track. Even so, it’s not entirely clear.
The BRZ warranty states:
These warranties do not cover damage to any component that is the result of operating the vehicle in any competition or racing event.
And I’m not sure Natalie driving her car on the track for her own enjoyment—or even participating in an autocross—qualifies as a real “competition” or “racing” event. It’s pleasure driving, hobby driving, whatever you want to call it, but she’s not doing anything that would really be considered racing, though who knows what a court would decide there.
For what it’s worth, Natalie elaborated on her track time for me:
One thing i wanted to say about the track days is it was never racing; as it was never timed. I only do lapping days to improve drivers skills, the car hasn’t been to a time attack or a race or anything like that; just to be technical.
There’s enough wiggle room there that, sure, the dealership could likely make a case, but if so, then what’s the point of having a car that’s fun to drive if there’s such a severe penalty for driving it for fun, in a responsible way, at a track?
I don’t think the fuel pump failed for the issues the dealership stated—based on what can be seen under the car, rumble strip-related damage seems very unlikely. If that wasn’t the cause of the fuel pump failure, then does it matter if the car had been tracked, if it didn’t affect the part in question?
There’s also the larger issue of should Subaru have a warranty that allows for some track use of a car that is clearly designed to be a fun car that’s very much at home on the track, and is advertised and marketed with the car’s capabilities and driving enjoyment as the major selling point?
What Natalie is doing with her car is exactly what you should be doing with a BRZ—enjoying the shit out of it. Autocrossing and tracking a car certainly do cause more wear on many parts, but it’s not universal; that fuel sender, for example, doesn’t really care how the car is being driven.
That’s a larger question; what is clear is that it’s wrong to do work on a customer’s car without consulting them. And then you sure as hell can’t hold the car for non-payment if you do.
Wolfe Subaru backed off of that pretty quickly, and when I spoke to them they were quick to point out that the customer has her car back and everything is fine. That’s true, sure, but it doesn’t change that they tried.
And the fact that they even tried suggests, as was pointed out by a number of commenters on the Reddit thread, the possibility of a double-billing attempt by the dealer. If that happened, the work would have been done without asking because Wolfe Subaru service department knew the warranty would cover it; they could then attempt to bill Natalie for the same work, which, of course, is a scam.
I reached out to the dealer for a response to this suggestion, and have yet to hear back.
Is it ethical to check a customer’s social media account for pictures of their car being used in ways that violate a warranty? I don’t think so at all. I know that pictures can be misleading, and a car parked on a track is not evidence that car did anything else on that track. Also, it’s just creepy, and I think a customer has some right to privacy when they bring their car in for work. Natalie’s Facebook pictures aren’t exactly public, either.
I reached out to Subaru Canada for any statement about the situation, but so far have not gotten a response. I’ll update if I hear anything.
Oh, and the kicker here? Natalie reports that her fuel level sensor still doesn’t work.