Marilyn Brown noticed the acrid smell in the new Hyundai almost immediately.
But the 79-year-old lost her husband, David, to a long battle with cancer the same month the two leased the Tucson sport-utility vehicle from Stew Hansen Hyundai on Hickman Road in Clive.
In October last year, a month after David’s death, Brown called to arrange to have the SUV picked up so the smell could be investigated. It was so bad it had given her daughter headaches when the two rode together.
What many call “new car smell” can be toxic chemicals used in car manufacturing. Especially when a car is new, or in warm weather, those chemicals are released and can cause a range of health problems.
But something strange happened next: The dealership called to say the Tucson had been involved in an accident. A hay bale fell off a semi onto the SUV while an employee was taking it for a test drive.
“We never even saw the car after the accident. So I don’t even know if the story is true. I don’t know what happened,” said Jana West, Brown’s daughter.
Marilyn Brown and her daughter, Jana West.
Marilyn Brown and her daughter, Jana West. (Photo: Special to the Register)
West said while Brown was driving a loaner vehicle, she was told by a Hansen employee that the dealership’s corporate office had approved a new exchange vehicle with the same value as the leased vehicle involved in the accident.
An invoice suggested the damaged vehicle would go into the used-car inventory.
But Brown returned to the dealership at least three times and was told each time she would have to wait longer for a new vehicle, the daughter said.
In November, Brown returned to sign off on a four-wheel-drive model of the same SUV that she and her daughter had test driven. But when she was called in to sign the paperwork, she was given the same Tucson involved in the accident, West said
West, who had been at previous appointments at the dealership with her mother, couldn’t go that day because she had to take a girlfriend to the hospital.
“My mother was expecting the brand-new car we had test driven, upgraded with heated seats. But she came back with a look of dismay,” she said. “This poor little old lady has been through hell the past seven months, and they knew that.”
In January, Brown and her daughter retained Urbandale attorney Charlotte Sucik to write the dealership, asking that Brown be released from the lease.
“After her experience, my client no longer wants a new replacement vehicle,” Sucik wrote. “She no longer trusts that any Stew Hansen representative will deal honestly and fairly with her, and she is unwilling to continue negotiating something she was promised months ago.”
The dealership’s general manager, Jake Paskert, responded, saying there was nothing he could do because the Tucson was actually owned by Hyundai Motor Leasing Trust.
“Unfortunately, the dealership is not able to address the issues outlined in your demand because it is not the owner of the vehicle and does not have the authority or ability to cancel the lease agreement,” he wrote.
Paskert suggested she call Hyundai’s Consumer Affairs.
Hyundai, meanwhile, encourages customers with problems to work with its Customer Care Department.
“No issue is too big or too small,” it states on its website. “Our goal is to give you one-on-one, personalized service and provide you with the best possible solution in the shortest amount of time.”
West said she spoke to Consumer Affairs and then sent Customer Care a registered letter. She never heard back.
West said last week she also made a complaint to Iowa’s Attorney General, but she hadn’t heard anything in more than a month from the Consumer Protection Division.
Reader’s Watchdog called to find out the status of that complaint and to inquire about any other complaints involving the dealership and similar-sized dealers in the metro.
Through March this year, Stew Hansen Hyundai had registered the sale of about 340 new cars — slightly fewer than other metro-area dealers such as Shottenkirk Chevrolet in Waukee (345), Ramsey Auto Center in Urbandale (372) and Dewey Ford in Ankeny (380), according to the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association.
The Consumer Protection Division has logged 14 complaints about Stew Hansen Hyundai since 2012, the year the Ken Garff Automotive Group purchased the dealership from Holmes Hyundai.
Since 2012, Shottenkirk has had five complaints, Dewey Ford has had five and Ramsey has had two, according to attorney general spokesman Lynn Hicks.
West said her mother is exhausted after the loss of her husband and all that has happened since.
In recent months, her mother has had health issues of her own, so she is moving in with West and her husband.
Moreover, the toxic smell in the SUV has gotten bad again with warmer weather, West said.
“It’s like someone dumped a bottle of hairspray,” she said. “Something is not right.”
When reached Wednesday, Paskert said the dealership was “in communication with others involved” and he would not comment because “we are in talks with the customer.”
Later that afternoon, West called to say that Paskert had agreed to refund her mother’s deposit and release her from her lease.
“I intend to respond and set up an appointment to return the vehicle,” she said.
West and the lawyer were also trying to assure that Brown’s credit would not be affected by the early termination of the lease.
West said Paskert wanted her to let Watchdog know the dealership was taking action to rectify the problem.
But after all the false starts, she’s waiting to make sure that actually happens.
Follow Lee Rood on Twitter @leerood