A Sunshine Coast man who made headlines three years ago when he demolished his Jeep Cherokee in frustration has turned consumer advocate.
In 2014, Ashton Wood and members of his family dismantled their vehicle after it suffered 22 faults in four years.
They decided to wreck the car supplied by Fiat Chrysler to highlight the need for laws forcing car companies to refund or replace problem vehicles.
Now Mr Ashton has helped new car owners to get replacements or repairs worth millions.
Ironically, Mr Ashton said he was still waiting to resolve his own matter, but in the meantime he had become a champion for hundreds of unhappy customers.
“There’s been over 100 cases I’ve handed to them [Fiat Chrysler Australia]. I’m tracking results and they’ve handed out over $1.1 million in refunds or replacements to people,” he said.
“I’m also being approached by people with other cars, so if I see patterns forming then I’ll approach that car manufacturer and just have a chat to them about what happened with Jeep and why they probably wouldn’t want to go there.”
Manufacturers keen to protect brands
Mr Wood has also established direct relationships with manufacturers Ford, Holden and Mercedes.
“I’ve been tracking those as well and there’s about $1 million worth of cases that have resolved,” he said.
“I get involved between the very upset consumer who’s normally pretty burnt by this stage by the dealer, and the manufacturer who really just wants to protect their brand.”
He said it was more productive to deal with the manufacturer than the dealer.
“Usually when the manufacturer gets involved they can offer more than what a dealer can when it comes to protecting their brand,” he said.
But Mr Wood was surprised that in a developed country like Australia there was even a need for someone like him.
Australian Consumer Law covers new and second-hand cars and could entitle the owner to a replacement or refund where there was a major failure.
However, Tom Godfrey, from consumer group Choice, said when it came to “lemon cars” it was not as clear-cut.
Australia has no “lemon laws”, so buyers of those cars may get trapped in a cycle of repairs instead of getting a refund or replacement.
“In February, a review of the law recommended changes that will help lemon car owners,” Mr Godfrey said.
“The review proposes giving consumers a clear right to a refund or replacement in two situations – firstly, if you buy something and it develops any sort of problem within a short time-frame, and secondly if you buy a product that experiences numerous small, fixable problems over time.”
Mr Wood has been lobbying for a lemon law similar to one the United States has had for 40 years.
“The lemon law is more about vehicles, and the consumer law is general like if your washing machine breaks down you get a new one,” he said.
“But unfortunately dealers don’t seem to think the same way about cars. If your car breaks down they’re saying ‘We’ll keep fixing it and fixing it, you’ll never get a new one’.”
A survey of 1505 Australians by Choice and insurer NRMA last year found that two-thirds of all new car buyers reported problems with their cars in the first five years.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been looking into the new car industry and is expected to release the findings of its study next month.
Chairman Rod Sims said the level of non-compliance with Australian consumer law in the new car industry was alarming.
“Cars are the second-most expensive purchase most consumers will ever make, and if they fail to meet a consumer guarantee, people are automatically entitled to a remedy,” he said.
Emotional toll grows
Mr Wood said it was satisfying to help others who have had a similar experience to him because it was a stressful and emotional ordeal.
“It kind of eats up all your thoughts,” he said.
“Quite often people are coming to me in tears, they’re at the end of their tether, they’re emotional and that agitates the situation too.
“They’re saying to dealers ‘This is ridiculous, help me out’ and … a lot of the dealers say ‘Look, it’s not my problem, I’m just here to sell the car. I don’t make it, it just arrives on a truck’.
“So the dealers get quite frustrated too.”
Mr Wood, who does not charge the people he helps, said he was contacted weekly by frustrated consumers, and spent about 20 hours a week helping them.