Missing airbags upset cars' buyers

The head-protecting side airbags on Connie Wittkopp's Chevrolet Impala are missing.

Her husband refuses to drive it. When the company responsible tries to make amends, she laughs.

"A $100 coupon doesn't do it for me," said the Kansas City, Kan., woman.

Across the nation, more than 100,000 owners of certain Chevy and Buick models have received settlement proposals in the mail from St. Louis area-based Enterprise Holdings. The car-rental company for three years had ordered new vehicles, mostly Impalas, without side curtain airbags that otherwise came standard, saving roughly $175 per car.

Those so-called program vehicles have now left Enterprise Rent-A-Car's hands, and the company is offering everyone who owns one a $100 voucher that can be used for renting or buying something else from Enterprise.

As part of a $14 million class-action settlement, the company also proposes mailing out yellow stickers that warn "NO SIDE CURTAIN AIRBAGS," which owners can affix to cars when selling them.

"We typically do not comment on litigation," said Enterprise spokeswoman Laura Bryant. "However, the parties have negotiated a settlement and are proceeding in good faith."

A year ago last month, McClatchy Newspapers revealed that General Motors allowed Enterprise and other large fleet buyers to delete side airbags on the factory floor. Enterprise acknowledged taking advantage of the $175 discount on more than 60,000 Impalas over a three-year period, but not on all Impalas it ordered.

Still, the affected cars — model years 2006-08 Impalas and some Chevrolet Cobalts, HHRs and Buick LaCrosses once belonging to Enterprise's fleet — are revving up confusion in the used-car marketplace: What's supposed to be standard, after all, really isn't.

Wittkopp's cherry-red Impala, for example, was advertised last summer on Enterprise's website as having side front and rear airbags — a misrepresentation the company blamed on an online software glitch and corrected.

Many dealers, however, are continuing to make the same mistake in online ads for the used vehicles, acquired in auctions or as trade-ins, because many of their ads automatically list standard features.

Standard on Impalas, optional by U.S. law

GM has since stopped the practice that enabled Enterprise — the nation's largest buyer of new cars — to save millions of dollars and still provide rental cars that complied with federal safety mandates.

Though standard on Impalas, side airbags were optional on other vehicles at the time. GM spokesman Tom Henderson said the discount for fleet customers helped Chevrolet compete for their business.

After the McClatchy Newspapers report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revised the information on its consumer website regarding 2006-08 Impalas and 2008-09 Cobalts and LaCrosse models. The five-star crash rating for Impalas in side-impact wrecks was given only to those vehicles equipped with the airbags, which the federal website SaferCar.gov now lists as "optional."

Sean Kane of the auto-safety watchdog Safety Research and Strategies asked NHTSA to make the changes in the cars' crash ratings.

"The agency is sending a clear signal that it won't be party to the obfuscation of what is really 'standard,' " Kane said.

A class-action lawsuit filed in December resulted in the settlement agreement, scheduled to be approved at a St. Louis County court hearing this November.

Fernando Bermudez, one of the attorneys representing the class of affected car buyers, said about 130,000 people are eligible to receive the $100 vouchers and yellow stickers — whether they bought directly from Enterprise or from a dealer who acquired the cars at auction.

Safety advocate Kane said the stickers were necessary to "brand" the affected cars as those lacking a standard safety feature, even though nothing on the cars suggests they have the airbags.

"Is it ideal? Probably not," he said. "One of our concerns was that these cars would continue to be sold years down the road to people who assume they have side airbags. Labeling the vehicle in some way at least gets us closer to advancing the ball."

But that's not good enough for Wittkopp. When she bought her Impala, "safety was one of the main issues," she said.

After McClatchy Newspapers reported that many Enterprise cars were improperly advertised on its website, Enterprise Holdings — which also owns National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car — sent letters to 745 buyers that said, "We are extremely sorry for the mistake."

To those direct buyers, the company offered to take back the cars at $750 above Kelley Blue Book trade-in value or "we will give you $200 for your inconvenience."

Nearly 90 percent of the buyers agreed to one offer or the other, said Enterprise's Bryant.

Wittkopp, however, was not among them.

"We put $3,000 down on the car, and their offer wouldn't pay off that and what we had to borrow," she said. "I think Enterprise should just install the airbags the car's supposed to have."

Earlier this summer, Enterprise's image suffered another setback when a California jury awarded $15 million to the mother of two sisters — Raechel and Jacqueline Houck — killed in the crash of a rented PT Cruiser. Enterprise provided them the vehicle, even though it had been recalled for a power steering hose defect, which had not been repaired.

Two safety advocacy groups last month petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to take action that would prevent Enterprise and other companies from renting out recalled vehicles before they're fixed.

"Going forward, we can only try to do better and learn from the past," Greg Stubblefield, Enterprise executive vice president and chief strategy officer, said in a written statement. "Given all we have learned, today we would not rent the vehicle the Houck sisters were driving until it was repaired."