LAS VEGAS-Auto makers are selling more vehicles loaded with parts from suppliers typically associated with the aftermarket, churning out special-edition vehicles to curry favor with young buyers.
To wit: the MazdaSpeed Miata, Dodge Ram SRT-10 and the varied Toyota Scions that were scattered throughout the massive Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show held Nov. 4-7 in Las Vegas. Such vehicles don't just bear the vehicle brand name under which they are sold; they boldly list the suppliers that provide key performance components such as Bosch, Hurst, Bilstein and AEM.
But as more auto makers create performance lines of vehicles, the line has blurred between which parts are covered under warranty and which are not.
Jim Spoonhower, SEMA vice president of market research, notes: ``The car companies' marketing arms want to embrace performance because it sells cars, but other parts of the companies don't often see it that way.''
Auto makers are enticing their customers to explore the limits of performance with their vehicles. But what if customers want a little more performance than the tire-scorching version they own? And what if they want to drive it like the folks in the TV commercials?
At Ford Motor Co., such situations are putting Ford's Special Vehicle Team, or SVT, unit at odds with its warranty department, said John Coletti, director of Ford SVT Programs.
``Ford Motor Co. has a rule that if you race the car, you've just voided the warranty,'' Mr. Coletti said. ``Yet the factory is inviting people to the track to drive their SVT Focuses. We're encouraging people to use the products as they were intended. You can't invite people to run their cars hard, then when they break, say, `Sorry, you were racing.'''
Usually, Ford will cut a break for such a customer, Mr. Coletti said. But the breaks end ``if a customer blows his engine three weekends in a row going to church.''
Dan Knott, Chrysler Group's director of Performance Vehicle Operations, said it is hard for warranty managers to evaluate what is rational use of performance pieces and what is abuse.
``Anybody who buys twin turbos for his 500-hp Viper and then rags it at the track every weekend knows he's risking damage. At the same time, we know he's also spent $80,000 on his car, so we have to treat him fairly,'' Mr. Knott said. ``But if we're not careful, we end up covering anything everybody does. We can't warranty customers who put (turbo) boost controllers on their Neon SRT-4.''
What isn't covered?
There was a time when a Dodge was a Dodge and no one else's brand name was visible. Now third-party suppliers jockey for space and publicity with the auto maker's name. The new Dodge Ram SRT-10 proudly features a Hurst shift kit, Dana axle and Bilstein shocks.
But should a customer modify a stock Ram pickup with components made by rivals to Hurst, Dana or Bilstein, the results often are not the same. The widely differing quality of parts not on the factory's approved list causes headaches for manufacturers' warranty departments.
Sometimes a third-party supplier is backed by an auto maker's factory warranty when installed on a particular car. But the same part, installed in a different car, might not be covered under warranty.
Some aftermarket companies, such as exhaust tuner DC Sports of Corona, Calif., have their own parts warranties last longer than many auto maker vehicle warranties. But that still doesn't stop consumers from worrying about what happens if the part breaks. After all, if a performance part breaks and in turn damages a stock part, who is at fault?
``I just bought an (Infiniti) G35 coupe, and I'm hesitant to change something that would screw up the warranty-and I'm in the industry,'' said D.C. Chavez, DC Sports marketing manager.
The dealer often gets caught in the middle of such squabbles. ``We're seeing warranty claims denied (by the factory) for problems unrelated to customization,'' said Beau Boeckmann, vice president of the Galpin Motors chain of dealerships in Van Nuys, Calif., and an unabashed modifier of vehicles.
Sometimes, he said, a warranty examiner sees some minor modification and concludes the vehicle has been abused.
A dangerous assumption
Customers assume that whatever they purchase will be covered by a warranty from somebody-``if not the manufacturer, then the aftermarket company,'' Mr. Boeckmann said. ``The problem arises when the aftermarket part causes the factory part to break.''
Some auto companies, such as American Honda Motor Co. Inc., have tried to avoid problems by not promoting the names of its performance supplier partners. So even though industry leader Showa Corp. makes Honda's performance shocks, Honda does not reveal that to customers.
Stony Furitani, American Honda manager of accessory marketing, notes: ``It's all about customer service. Bundling the parts under the Honda name saves wear-and-tear on us. It's why McDonald's doesn't sell Carl's Jr. french fries.''
Another reason: Honda engineers have spent countless hours verifying that the third-party performance part will stand up to road torture.
Other companies not working directly with Honda may not be as rigorous. It is why Honda gives its factory specifications only to its direct suppliers and not to third-party suppliers.
Hyundai Motor America is hiring an independent contractor to engineer and distribute performance parts that are made for its vehicles. The company, called H.A.R.D. Parts in Huntington Beach, Calif., will distribute the parts to dealerships and over the Internet starting around Christmas. But because it is not an entity of Hyundai, H.A.R.D. Parts is making a statement that most parts ``will have a negative impact on the new-vehicle warranty,'' said Roger Conner, H.A.R.D. Parts president.
Mazda North American Operations' nascent MazdaSpeed operation has created three layers of aftermarket parts and accessories, with varying impacts on the vehicle warranty, said Jack Stavana, Mazda director of accessory operations.
``Blue'' parts are dealer-installed and carry the full factory warranty. ``Green'' parts are installed by the consumer and carry a one-year warranty. ``Orange'' parts are for racing use only, may void the vehicle warranty and carry no warranty on the part itself.
Some types of parts, such as brakes, have entries in each category, so customers can decide how much performance they want and how much warranty risk they are willing to take, Mr. Stavana said.
Koni North America of Hebron, Ky., has been approached more frequently of late by auto makers wanting help on special-edition vehicles, said Lee Grimes, national street aftermarket manager. But Koni's asking price is high.
MazdaSpeed dumped Koni shocks for Tokico Ltd. for its Mazda Protege MP3 because Koni was too pricey-even though Koni had done some engineering consulting work, Mr. Grimes said.
``Honda Civic shocks cost about $10 a corner for a base model. Konis cost $140 a corner at Tire Rack. No Honda purchasing manager can justify that sort of cost increase, even for the Si model,'' Mr. Grimes said. ``But if those factory dampers stink, it's an opportunity for us.''
Engine tweaker AEM Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif., has been on both sides of the factory wall: It has made performance parts for almost every hot car on the market, but its cold-air intake also is backed by the Toyota warranty as installed on the Scion xA and xB.
AEM President Greg Neuwirth said he thinks auto makers' warranty departments are overstating the impact AEM products have on the original equipment. Because all AEM intakes pass muster with the California Air Resources Board and have a longer warranty than the products they bolt on to, ``if it's street-legal, it shouldn't void your warranty.''
SEMA's Mr. Spoonhower said: ``There's an impact on sales to the mainstream customers because they worry about the warranty. Enthusiasts don't worry so much; they usually assume what they've done will void the warranty.''
But Jed Connelly, executive vice president of Nissan North America Inc., thinks it is better for his warranty department to be safe than sorry.
``The stuff we test, we'll stand behind,'' Mr. Connelly said. ``But I don't know how we're supposed to stand behind some aftermarket part we're not sure of.''