International pressure mounts over Ford transmissions

A Canadian lawyer is seeking certification for a class action lawsuit while Australia alleges "unconscionable" conduct.

Canadian lawyer seeks certification for class action, Australia alleges 'unconscionable' conduct

Trisha Glabb no longer owns her 2014 Focus. After a frightening experience on Highway 401, she demanded Ford take it back. (Trisha Glabb)

Ford is facing increasing international pressure over transmission problems in some of its Focus and Fiesta models.

A Canadian lawyer is seeking certification for a class action suit, Transport Canada is continuing its defect investigation and the Australian government is starting action against the automaker for alleged "unconscionable and misleading" conduct. At the same time, Ford has agreed to a proposed class action settlement in the United States.

"We've accumulated almost 3,000 registrations from people who've experienced terrible problems with their vehicles," said lawyer Ted Charney, who is leading the $825-million Canadian class action.

Dual clutch transmission to blame

At issue is the PowerShift transmission in 2011-16 Fiesta and 2012-16 Focus models. The vehicles are sold as automatics and have what Ford calls PowerShift dual clutch transmission — essentially two manual transmissions working in parallel, each with its own independent clutch.

The problems experienced by these vehicle owners are all similar, including shuddering, delayed acceleration, sudden acceleration and sudden loss of power.

Trish Glabb of Stoney Point, Ont., no longer owns the 2014 Focus that she plastered with lemon stickers. The final straw came when she was left fearing for her life, her mother's life and that of her 13-year-old as her mother was about to drive onto Highway 401.

"We were coming up the on ramp and my car just got stuck in its gear — which it is notorious for doing — and it wouldn't go any faster," Glabb said. "It was revving out to 7,500. We were between two semis and then the car decided to lunge forward."

Canadians from coast to coast have complained about their cars to Ford Canada. B.C. resident Taryn Day is one of them. Her 2013 Ford Fiesta has had the clutch replaced four times. (Taryn Day)

She said her mother was able to merge into the next lane and avoid an accident, but the experience sent a livid Glabb to McDonnell Motors in Strathroy, Ont., where she'd purchased the vehicle. The dealership had previously replaced two clutches on the car and performed several updates to its computer.  

"They finally agreed to buy out what was left owing on the Focus and gave me enough money for a down payment so I could afford a 2017 Ford Fusion," Glabb said.

145,000 such vehicles in Canada

It's not known how many times Ford has quietly settled with owners. It's estimated 145,000 of the cars have been sold in Canada.

Transport Canada says it has received 1,235 complaints concerning the transmissions but "most complaints received … are not safety related and pertain to driveability and performance concerns."

The department says it is not aware of any injuries related to this issue.

Charney is hoping the Canadian class action will be certified by the courts in November.

In the meantime, Transport Canada is continuing with its defect investigation into the cars, saying it is at the "preliminary evaluation" stage.

It says it will be meeting with Ford Canada in the fall as part of the probe.    

Australia calls Ford 'unconscionable'

In Australia, the government is taking a hard line against Ford Motor Company of Australia Limited, alleging it engaged "unconscionable and misleading or deceptive conduct, and made false and misleading representations in response to customer complaints."

A government news release alleges Ford misled customers who complained about the vehicles, telling them "the issues … were caused by the way the driver handled the vehicle, even though Ford was aware of systemic issues … from at least 2013."

It also alleges Ford refused to provide a refund or replacement vehicle unless customers paid on average $7,000 for a replacement vehicle. It says in many cases, "customers who could not afford to make these payments felt they had no option but to continue to use their vehicle."

The Australian allegations have not been tested in court.

U.S. settlement pending court approval

In the U.S., Ford Motor Company has reached a proposed settlement in a class action lawsuit involving the vehicles. It will go before the court for final approval in October. If it is given the green light, it will see a binding arbitration process for buybacks or repairs, as well as cash payments and/or discounts on future Ford purchases.

Jordan Bonaparte was provided with this replacement vehicle while he awaited the third transmission replacement in his 2013 Ford Focus. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Charney said Ford likely decided to settle the American class action because the U.S. has much stronger legislation and repercussions.

"If somebody actually gets into an accident where there's serious injuries down there then there's Senate hearings and they have to go to regulatory bodies and explain why they sat on this for years," he said.

Lawyer says Ford feels 'immune'

Regardless, Charney said with the facts of this case it doesn't matter how strong the legislation is.

"Something's going to have to be done about them one way or another. There's just too many people complaining about them now," he said.

He thinks Ford is "oblivious" to the concerns and considers itself "immune" because of its size and political strength.

"They consider this to be a little blip, or until somebody dies in an accident that has something to do with their bad transmission, I don't think they're going to pay attention to it," Charney said. "They're too big to be bothered with these things."

Ford responds

Ford of Canada responded to CBC's inquiry acknowledging the U.S. settlement, saying it only affects U.S. residents who meet certain criteria.

"Ford of Canada is not a party to the U.S. litigation or the settlement," company spokesperson Michelle Lee-Gracey said in an email. "Canada is a different jurisdiction from the U.S., with different laws and rules of civil procedure. Ford of Canada continues to defend its litigation."

Halifax resident Jordan Bonaparte, who first flagged this story for CBC because of problems with his 2013 Focus, said Ford should be embarrassed and ashamed of the way it has treated its vehicle owners.

He is also encouraging others to fight for a remedy if they believe they have been treated unfairly.

"People who feel they've been wronged by a large corporation, they need to stand up for themselves by getting organized, by getting educated on the background and just being persistent," he said.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.