Who Pays When a Test Drive Ends in Engine Failure?

A test drive gone wrong ended in a catastrophic engine failure, and the used car sales manager insisted the customer should be on the hook for the major repair bill. But she fought back.

A woman test-drives a car.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If a car dealer lets you take a car out for a test drive and it suffers catastrophic engine and transmission damage, are you responsible for the repair charges?

Note, I didn’t say, “Because of something that you did wrong,” rather, that it experienced a breakdown that occurred while you were driving the vehicle.

Confused? So, too was my reader, “Alissa” who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles, not far from one of most picturesque and yet dangerous sections of freeway on Interstate 5, which connects Southern California with the Central Valley.

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Known as the Tejon Pass, often called the Grapevine, it is a steep 5½ mile, 6% grade at the northern end of the pass that makes national news every winter when it is shut down due to ice and snow, stranding thousands of motorists and big rig drivers.

In summer, it can destroy a vehicle’s engine and transmission if they are in poor condition. It has two runaway truck ramps. All of that said, coming down I-5 is one of the most dramatic drives I know of and never tire of the experience.

Found the ‘Ideal’ Used Compact Sporty Car

“I was looking for a low-mileage, automatic, sporty car from Detroit and found a 2013 model year that I thought was ideally priced at $15,000 at a car dealership in Los Angeles. They photocopied my ID and driver’s license, handed me the keys and said, ‘While this particular model is no longer being manufactured, it was seen as Detroit’s answer to BMW and Mercedes. Take it anywhere you like.’

“I have family who live in the Central Valley and know the Grapevine like the back of my hand. After reaching the summit at about 4,000 feet, I began my descent, and shifted into a lower gear as I have always done. This is called ‘engine braking’ and allows the transmission and engine to slow the vehicle so you don’t run the risk of brake-fade.

“At first the car behaved normally, slowing down a bit, but then, in shifting to a lower gear, suddenly things went very bad quickly. The tachometer – showing engine RPM – began climbing towards and then into the red, at over 7,000 RPM and finally the needle was pinned at the end of the tachometer.

“I tried to up-shift, but nothing happened except this horrible, horrible sound developing. Next, I heard what sounded like an explosion, with smoke billowing from the car. I pulled off the freeway and onto the shoulder, heard more strange, ‘crunching’ sounds, then the car completely died.

“I phoned the dealership and they sent a tow truck. Later I learned that both the transmission and engine were ‘blown’ by over-revving.”

‘It’s Your Fault Because of Downshifting’

“Mr. Beaver, the used car manager, both in a letter and screaming at me on a telephone call, is insisting that I pay for repairs to the vehicle. ‘You use a car’s brakes to slow down, not by downshifting!’ he repeated.

“But this was an automatic, not a manual, and I have always downshifted automatics when descending the Grapevine with no problem. Can you help?”

‘Trying to Scam Him,’ Were the Comments from Auto Mechanics

I spoke with mechanics at transmission shops from across the country and with technicians at dealerships that sold this particular brand of luxury vehicle. They all agreed that unless there is a defect, an automatic transmission will prevent you from over-revving your engine by up-shifting automatically or by not allowing you to shift to a lower gear if there is a potential to over-rev.

Said a technician from Denver: “Automatics manufactured over the past several decades will not allow themselves to self-destruct. If you are driving at freeway speed and try to shift your car into the wrong gear, it won’t. It may shift to a lower gear than what you are in, but will not allow itself to cause the engine to over-rev.”

However, they all stressed, that, while most cars with manual transmissions have a rev limiter – or other components that prevent over-revving – nothing will stop you from downshifting into the wrong gear and accidentally over-rev the engine. “That’s why it’s

important to always take into account how fast your car is moving before deciding to downshift into a lower gear in a manual,” every mechanic pointed out.

Before I gave them the model, technicians at dealerships that carry the brand of car my reader drove said, “You’re talking about the XYZ, right? That car had tons of transmission problems.”

Also, they all agreed with Alissa that it is perfectly appropriate to use “engine braking” as way to help slow the speed of automobiles and big rig trucks on roads like the Grapevine.

A Little Chat with the Dealership’s Owner

It was evident that either the used car manager was clueless about anything mechanical, or was trying to bluff my reader into paying for something that was not her fault.

In conversations with auto dealer friends of this column, the conclusion they all reached was that asking the customer to pay for repairs was so wrong as to risk the Department of Motor Vehicles or District Attorney Consumer Fraud Departments getting involved.

In summary, they said:

“When a used car suffers a catastrophic breakdown on a test drive – especially a car almost 10 years old – unless you can prove the customer intended to harm the vehicle, you weigh the cost of repairs against just offering it to an auction lot, or having it declared scrap.”

Armed with that information, I phoned the dealership’s owner. Not only was he unaware of the facts of this case, but when informed what his used car manager was doing, became very upset.

“It is plain wrong! Please tell your reader that I am so sorry she was put through this nightmare and that if she still needs to buy a car, to pick one out and arrange to speak with me. I will make things right.”

I conveyed that information to Alissa, and it is my understanding that she will take him up on the offer.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."