Satisfaction Guaranteed? Maybe not

Ideally, every truck that rolls off an assembly line should be free of defects. No one wants to spend $90,000 (or more) on a truck that is poorly designed or put together improperly. Unfortunately, it happens. And when it happens to an owner-operator, it can often mean one or more aggravating, time-consuming trips back to the dealer to fix a light or leaking window. But in some cases, a truck that does not live up to expectations becomes an ongoing operational and financial nightmare for the owner-operator.

Dealers are the front line in disputes about defects, but many owner-operators tell us this is often a frustrating and futile attempt to solve the problem. Regional service managers and OEM customer service advocates are sometimes able to resolve problems to an owner-operator's satisfaction, but many complaints come to OOIDA. The business services department works with all OEMs to assist members in finding solutions.

However, some problems may be too big and too widespread for easy solutions. Problems reported to OOIDA by members concerning Volvo trucks might very well fall into that category.

The tip of the iceberg

In mid-1999, a call came into OOIDA offices from a member who was having serious problems with his 1997 Volvo WIA664TTES. Douglas Fabish of Eugene, OR, detailed problems with front-end vibration, premature steer tire wear (six sets in 330,000 miles), and shearing suspension bolts. Fabish told OOIDA that whenever he attempts to run with 12,000 pounds on the steer axle, it "ruins" his right steer tire. In spite of numerous three-axle alignments, and buying premium steer tires, the problem persists. According to Fabish, at one point a Volvo representative, saying the frame was bent, arranged to have the frame straightened. Still, the problems continue.

Within a few weeks, four more owner-operators reported similar problems. The decision was made to query Volvo owners in the OOIDA database to determine whether these problems were widespread or isolated incidents. While a few of the respondents said they had no problems with their Volvos, complaints began to roll in. To date, OOIDA has received more than 50 written complaints about Volvo trucks, primarily (but not limited to) complaints regarding front end vibration and premature wear on steer tires, especially the right steer tire. Space prohibits detailing all of the complaints, but here are a few examples:

What owner-operators are saying

Paul Bruinix of Archbold, OH, reported excessive vibration and three sets of steer tires in 170,000 miles. Bruinix told OOIDA that his dealer blamed the short life of his steer tires on the set-back front axle on his 1998 VNL64T.

Fred and Laura Hoggatt of Beavercreek, OR, say they were told by their dealer that the problem was with Michelin tires and that it wouldn't be worth it to go to Michelin, because they would just blame it on the truck. So the Hoggatts switched to Bridgestone tires. They say they were diligent about maintaining proper tire pressure and keeping the tires balanced, but the tires exhibited an irregular and premature (three sets in 194,000 miles) wear.

Lavern Campeau of Manhattan, MT, complained about the rough ride on his VN660, and even though the dealer adjusted the suspension, the problem remains. Campeau reports that at about 60,000 miles the truck developed a shimmy in the front end, resulting in irregular and premature wear (on the right steer tire). Numerous alignments have not helped. He tells OOIDA he has replaced the right steer tire four times in 194,000 miles.

Some used Volvo buyers are saying that they have had similar problems, dating back to 1993. Larry Gills of Mercer, PA, purchased a 1995 WIA64TTES in 1997 with 287,000 miles. He reports that when he bought the truck, the right front steer tire was cupping out, so he put two new Michelin steer tires on it. He took the truck to a reputable alignment shop where it was discovered the front end needed to be rebuilt, which Paul thought was a little early in the life of the truck. 40,000 miles after the rebuild, it was necessary to replace a spring hangar bolt on the right side. With 50,000 miles on the steer tires, the right tire was cupping out. Gills says he was told by the dealer it was the nature of the truck.

The search for solutions

What are owner-operators doing about the problems with their Volvos? After they feel more interaction with dealers and OEMs is hopeless, they go looking for other options. One trucker reported on his dealer's recommendation, he had his frame bent. It seems to have helped. Another tells of a shop in Salt Lake City that will add a third leaf to the two-leaf spring suspension in place on his Volvo with assurances that it will correct the problem.

Other owner-operators are trying to control damage to steer tires with automatic balancing systems, experiencing limited success. Some take the damaged right steer tire and rotate it to the left and put a new tire on the right in an effort to get more miles out of the tires. Some have replaced front axles or rebuilt front ends using heavier components. As you might imagine, the money for these efforts, as well as frequent three axle alignments, comes right out of the owner-operator's pocket. Add this to replacing steer tires every 60,000 to 70,000 miles and it's easy to understand the frustration of these owner-operators.

What is Volvo's response?

Shortly after OOIDA sent out a query letter asking members whether they were having problems with their Volvo trucks, a Volvo representative contacted the association. Dwight McAlexander, national service director, indicated a willingness to "investigate these concerns" and "respond as appropriate."

On Nov. 10, McAlexander and Vince Lindley (regional service manager for the southwest region) visited OOIDA headquarters in Grain Valley, MO, to meet with Jim Johnston, association president, Todd Spencer, vice-president, Ruth Jones, project coordinator and Paul Cullen, association counsel. McAlexander and Lindley requested detailed information about the complaints to assess the nature and causes.

OOIDA provided copies of 26 complaints from members who had agreed to have their information released for that purpose. The association also agreed to follow-up with information on other owner-operators' complaints as soon as we had their permission to do so. The meeting ended with assurances from Volvo that the complaints would be investigated thoroughly.

The following week, McAlexander faxed a letter (dated Nov. 19) to Johnston at OOIDA headquarters containing the following statement:

"As I am sure you are aware, this will be a somewhat time-consuming process. With the upcoming holidays we expect to have this completed by early January. We look forward to visiting with you with an action plan no later than mid January 2000."

While a wait of two months seemed like a long one, it was in fact even longer. Mid-January came with no word from Volvo. On Jan. 10, ten more complaints were forwarded to Volvo. (About two dozen members have not yet given permission to release their information.)

A frustrated Jim Johnston placed a call to Dwight McAlexander on January 28. McAlexander was reportedly out of the office, and Johnston left a message asking McAlexander to return the call. Johnston's only reply from McAlexander came in a fax later that day acknowledging the receipt of the additional complaints, and an indication he would be in touch when their investigation was complete.

"I am very concerned that three months after they received the first batch of complaints, Volvo has failed to provide any information regarding their investigation," Johnston says. "Their initial indication that they wanted to work with us to identify the causes of our members' problems now seems to be less than reassuring. However, we will continue to seek answers and solutions by whatever means are available to us."

If you are experiencing similar problems with your Volvo, please provide us with details in writing (no phone calls please). Mail your information to OOIDA, attn: Volvo Investigation, 311 R. D. Mize Road, Grain Valley, MO 64029, or fax to 816-847-5287. You may also e-mail your information to ooida@aol.com, but be sure to include your full name and mailing address.