GM (quietly) offers a loaner for recalled cars

When Beth Foster received recall notices from General Motors (GM) on her 2004 Chevy Malibu, she said she had little option other than to keep using it.

"I had gotten two cards from GM saying my car had been recalled, but the parts weren't available," Foster said. "I didn't have a choice but to drive it" because she didn't have the money to buy or rent another car, and she depends on the vehicle to make the 60-mile round-trip commute to her Chattanooga, Tenn.-based employer, a social justice ministry.

But when the steering wheel "went nutso" -- one of the recalls was linked to that model's power steering -- she said a friend contacted the dealer on her behalf.

In mid-August, "he called the dealership to see if they could get it fixed," Foster recalled. "He really pushed." Finally, her friend asked if the dealership could provide a loaner car, which paid off: Foster is now driving a rented 2014 Hyundai Sonata while her Malibu waits to get fixed.

The problem, Foster notes, is that her recall notices lacked information about the loaner-car program GM offers, so she had no idea the program existed. As GM continues to work on repairs for millions of vehicles, only a small fraction of consumers with recalled cars have taken the company up on the plan.

GM says the loaner program is noted on its recall website, although the information isn't easily found. Also, its customer assistance hotline has details.

"When you bring your car for repairs, you should be told a loaner is available, and there should be prominent display," said Steve Berman, managing partner at law firm Hagens Berman and the co-lead counsel in the class action against GM. "People don't think, 'I should get on a website and do a Q&A search.'"

About 85,000 customers have received loaners since the program started, said GM spokesman Jim Cain. But with 2.6 million GM cars recalled for faulty ignition switches -- which have been linked to at least 13 fatalities -- that means only 3.3 percent of car owners have been given a temporary replacement. Whether that's a low or high number isn't clear because Cain said the program may be the first of its kind.

"It's the kind of thing we wanted to dealers to have at their disposal to address customer concerns," Cain said. "It was something they could proactively offer if customers had concerns, or if they asked."

But with the repairs dragging on, hundreds of thousands of cars with the ignition-switch recall remain on the road. As of Aug. 21, only one-third have been fixed, according to The Wall Street Journal. GM's Cain said the company is on track to fix the ignition-switch defect in October.

So, why hasn't GM made the loaner plan more obvious to car owners? One theory: to keep costs down, Berman said, who added that allegations of GM taking short cuts to save money with its ignition switches "will be the theme of our case."

GM, which took a $700 million charge earlier this year for its recalls, hasn't broken out the costs of the loaner program, although Cain said it "was certainly not an inexpensive program."

That's clear from Foster's experience. She said her rental car charge for the first month alone is $1,000, a bill that GM is covering.

Foster said she would probably still buy another GM car, even after the experience. Her late grandfather, who worked on the GM factory floor for 40 years, "ground into our brains that this is the car to get."

She added: "He would probably be a little disappointed that GM was not more responsive. He was also very loyal, so he would want us to stick with GM and give them to chance to fix it."