Back when cars still had round headlights, warranty was a different animal. The average vehicle was covered for only ninety days, and any problems beyond that were pretty much the owner’s responsibility. It wasn’t until 1960 that manufacturers covered cars for a year, rising to two years in 1964. But then the Big Three discovered that customers could be wooed with longer periods of “free” repairs; Chrysler was first with a 5-year/50,000 mile drivetrain warranty in 1964, and in 1980 even offered a short-lived 30-day/1,000 mile money-back guarantee.

Today, 3-yrs/60,000 km is pretty much standard, with some going as high as 5-yrs/100,000 km on everything, and many offering that long on the powertrain and/or major components. Should that not be enough, you can spend extra for longer coverage plans.

It's important to understand all the types of warranties, what's covered, and what you may want to add before you pay for any extras, or take your vehicle in for repairs.

In a nutshell, a warranty covers vehicle defects, and problems that arise because of component failure. If your CD player stops playing because there's a short in the wiring, it's covered; if it's because your toddler stuffed a coin in it, it's not.

Most manufacturers cover "wear" items for a limited period, generally 1-yr/20,000 km. These include brake pads and rotors, wiper blades and light bulbs, which wear out because of friction or use. Adjustments such as alignments usually fall into the one-year category, as well.

When it's time for repairs, a few steps should help things go easier. Unless it's an emergency, make an appointment with the dealer's service department, and mention everything you want done: if you make an appointment for one repair and then come in with a list of others, they may not have set aside enough time for everything to be finished that day. Explain the symptoms, rather than what you think is wrong. Cars are complex, and something that may seem obvious may not be the problem. Be very specific about what the car's doing: describe such things as when the problem happens, how fast you're driving when it does, if you're applying the brakes, or what type of noise it makes. Ensure that the counter person writes it all down; it'll help the technician to diagnose the repair.

If a problem reoccurs and the technician can't pinpoint it, make sure you receive a work order stating this. Should the problem persist past the warranty period, you have ammunition to make a case for a covered repair.

The question of recalls, bulletins and so-called "secret repairs" can be confusing.

A recall is issued by the automaker, who registers it with Transport Canada (full information can be found at It's issued when a safety or performance problem is identified, often through intensive testing that mimics long-term wear; it can be as simple as reprogramming software, or rarely, involve a major repair.

Don't panic if you hear that your car has a recall; the automaker issues it for all vehicles that might be affected, and chances are that your vehicle would not have displayed the worse-case scenario. In some cases, the recall will only apply to vehicles built within a specific time period, which is why your neighbour's seemingly identical vehicle may have a recall, and yours doesn't.

If you buy a used vehicle, contact one of the manufacturer's dealers or the automaker, and have the owner's information transferred into your name in the company's database. That way, if a recall is issued, it will be mailed directly to you.

Technical service bulletins (TSBs) are diagnostic tools, not warranties. Automakers determine if a symptom might indicate a specific repair, and issues the TSB for the technician's use. For example, a failed sensor may cause a vehicle to run rough. By checking your vehicle's symptoms against the TSB database, the technician will hone in on the sensor first, instead of wasting time checking the vehicle's entire system.

The TSB is only a tool, and if the vehicle is out of warranty, you'll probably have to pay for the repair. It's the same as if the technician had searched throughout the vehicle's system to find the faulty sensor. With the TSB, he looked at the sensor first, and saved you money in diagnostic time.

Despite what the Internet says, "secret" warranties don't actually exist. Instead, most automakers give dealers some leeway for "goodwill" repairs, especially if the company knows a model is prone to the problem, and these repairs are sometimes done under this leeway period. If you feel your repair should be covered outside of warranty, make your case -- calmly and rationally, as making a scene seldom works -- and if necessary, be willing to negotiate. Sometimes a service manager will put the parts under warranty if you pay for the labour, or perform the repair if you pay for a portion of it. You can expect a dealership to be more willing to "go to bat" for you with the automaker if you've been a regular customer; just like other businesses, dealerships appreciate patronage.

What about maintenance? You won't void your warranty if you get your oil changes done at a quick-lube spot, but be sure to save all of your receipts; should you need major warranty work, such as on your engine, the dealer is within his rights to see proof that the malfunction is not due to lack of maintenance. If you do your own oil changes, keep your dated receipts for the oil and filters.

Basic and powertrain warranties are included with the vehicle, but you will have the option of purchasing additional extended warranty coverage. They're insurance policies and so are a bit of a gamble -- you're betting on whether the cost of any repairs exceeds the cost of the plan -- but should you decide on one, get all the information and buy it intelligently.

You will probably be offered several types of plans, with cost depending on coverage. No matter which one you choose, it's most important to know what isn't covered, to prevent nasty surprises when you need to use it.

Before you buy, check Internet resources to see if your model is known for any problems, and buy with those types of repairs in mind. Assess your comfort level. Do you just want to lengthen coverage on the drivetrain, where repairs can be more expensive, or do you prefer to spend extra to get "no charge" repairs on more items? Before you pay more for towing and rental coverage, are you already covered by an auto club, or can get a ride to work if your car's tied up?

Remember to do all the math too: if you roll the plan into your car payment, you'll be paying interest on it, and any deductibles will add to the cost. Five repair visits, with a $100 deductible, will add $500 to the plan price. (If a repair is less than the deductible, you pay for the repair.)

You can also buy third-party contracts, sold by independent companies; they're often cheaper than manufacturers' plans, but they can come with their own set of headaches. Keep these in mind before you buy:

  • Third-party plans allow you to take your car to repair facilities other than a dealer, but shops and dealers are not required to honour them if they choose not to, even if they sold you the plan (a dealer is obligated to honour its manufacturer's plan). You might have to pay up front and submit your bill to the warranty company to be reimbursed. This will likely be the case if your car breaks down when you're travelling and the repair shop may not be familiar with the warranty company.

  • Most, if not all third-party companies require repairs to be authorized by them first, even in emergencies. Many require that you pay for the diagnostic test, even if it pinpoints a covered repair. If you're in Halifax and your company's call centre is in Vancouver, you may not get authorization in time for your car to be repaired the same day.
  • Third-party plans are sometimes known for limited coverage. Pay special attention to what isn't covered; gaskets, which are frequently absent from many plans, can be very expensive to replace if they're located deep inside the drivetrain. Some will also require you to pay for peripherals: they'll cover the water pump, for example, but you'll have to pay for the seals and antifreeze.
  • Make sure you read the maintenance limitations, if there are any. Some plans are notorious for oil changes being done at specific intervals, and may reject a repair if the car is a few kilometres over its scheduled maintenance.
  • Understand the deductible. Some charge per visit, regardless of the number of repairs done, while some charge on each individual repair. You could bring the car in for three repairs at one visit, but be charged three deductibles.
  • Get the company's refund policy in writing. If the car is written off or sold, can you get back that portion of the plan? Can it be transferred to a new owner, or to your replacement vehicle? Or are you left paying for something you can no longer use?

Almost all new cars come with some form of roadside assistance as part of the basic warranty; read the brochure and see what's covered. Some will pay a portion of travel expenses if your car breaks down on vacation, or will bring emergency fuel or perform battery jump-starts. If you need a tow, you'll need to follow a procedure. Call the company's toll-free number, and the manufacturer dispatches a towing firm under contract to it. If you call a tow truck directly, you'll have to pay for it. When you call for assistance, have your vehicle identification number (VIN) ready; it's the 17-digit number visible on the driver's side of the dash through the windshield.

Warranties have come a long way since 90-day coverage, and it's important to know your plan. Take the time to read the warranty booklet and roadside assistance brochure that comes with your vehicle; if you buy extended plans, know exactly what you're buying. They're pretty dull reading, but when you're standing at the counter trying to get your car fixed, they can make all the difference.

Connect with