Customers say they were sold ‘unsafe’ vehicles by Ottawa used-car dealership

Some customers who’ve bought vehicles from an Ottawa used-car dealership say they feel the company was “dishonest” with them after discovering multiple safety concerns with their vehicles.

Now they, and an automobile protection expert, are warning others of the potential lack of safety oversight on dealerships in Ontario.

“I felt like he sold me a piece of garbage,” said customer Sydney Blanchard.

Customers said they opted to buy from a dealership that sells what’s known as “safetied” vehicles as opposed to private listings, believing they follow higher standards. 

A safety standards inspection and certificate — casually called “safetied” — is required by law in Ontario before completing a sale of a used vehicle meant for the road. It is done by a ministry-licensed garage or mechanic, and confirms the vehicle meets the province’s minimum safety standards.

Two customers of Garage Plus Auto Centre agreed to speak on the record with CBC News about their experiences.

CBC also talked to a handful of others on background who described a similar pattern of issues with the business in Old Ottawa South, which is both a repair shop and dealership. 

They said they were promised safetied vehicles, but now wonder whether their vehicles were adequately inspected.

Upon further inspection by other mechanics, four customers say they discovered serious issues previously undisclosed and in one report, the vehicle was deemed “practically undriveable.”

Some customers told CBC they lost money or sold their vehicles for parts. Others say they sought help from the province or vehicle sales regulator Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC), with no satisfying outcome.

Garage Plus Auto Centre in Ottawa on May 4, 2023. ‘We appreciate the issues brought forward, and they will be reviewed diligently and thoroughly to the best of our abilities,’ said the company in a statement to CBC. (Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

CBC first contacted the company on May 4 and offered extensions, but Garage Plus Auto Centre issued a statement through its lawyer saying it’s not in a proper position to review each matter due to CBC’s “short publication deadline.”

The company referred all complainants to contact its retained law firm to review the matter, citing it is “committed to a fair and reasonable compromise for all our customers.”

Inspection finds long list of issues

Kortney Force said she bought a 2013 Mazda CX-5 from Garage Plus Auto Centre in November 2022 for $12,650 plus taxes and fees.

“My first and foremost characteristic was safety,” Force said, adding she bought the vehicle while caring for a newborn.

She said the sales associate sold her on safety features and “insisted it was safetied.”

Force said she did not receive a copy of the safety certificate upon purchase on Nov. 14, but was reassured by a sales associate’s texts.

“It is full safetied for you,” staff wrote in a text viewed by CBC.

A woman crosses her arms in front of a busy road with cars. In the background is a car dealership building.
Kortney Force stands in front of the Garage Plus Auto Centre in Ottawa. She says the used-car dealership has wasted her time and money by selling her a vehicle with widespread issues. (Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

During her first trip in the vehicle, Force said the engine light and tire pressure light came on. Then, she started noticing the smell of “rotten eggs,” and said a “feeling of dread” fell upon her. 

Force took her vehicle back to Garage Plus Auto Centre, and said staff reassured her “there was nothing wrong” and they were able to get the lights on the dashboard to turn off.

She said both lights came back on shortly after, and she didn’t hear back from the dealership after airing her concerns again to the salesperson.

Over the next three months Force said her tire kept losing air, so she went to a Canadian Tire store where mechanics found a nail had punctured her tire. They replaced it with a spare. 

A hand holding a report.
Force holds up a report listing all the issues her 2013 Mazda CX-5 had after she bought it from Garage Plus Auto Centre in Ottawa. An automobile expert who reviewed the report said her vehicle should have never passed the province-mandated safety standards inspection, required to register a used vehicle meant for the road. (Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

“I realized the Garage Plus Auto was extremely dishonest,” she said, believing the tire was punctured upon purchase because the tire pressure light immediately came on.

She then brought it to a local Mazda dealership for inspection. That report, shared with CBC, included this list of issues:

  • The front exhaust pipe was “rotten and leaking.”
  • Other pipes were “rusted and look very weak.”
  • Sensor issues.
  • The battery was “very weak.”
  • The belt “dry and cracked.”
  • A ball joint had “excessive play”
  • The right front control arm bushing “torn.”
  • The left front was on a spare so it needed a new tire.

The repair quote was $8,252.37. 

“They told me it’s not even worth fixing,” Force recalled. “They told me that I should not be driving it, it’s not safe.”

After reviewing the list of issues, one automobile expert told CBC those should have been caught during the safety standards inspection, and her vehicle should have failed the certification.

Force questions whether the Mazda was even given a proper safety check.

A woman drives a car.
Force drives a vehicle she purchased after returning her issue-ridden 2013 Mazda CX-5 from Garage Plus Auto Centre in Ottawa. She feels there isn’t adequate used-vehicle safety oversight in Ontario to protect consumers. (Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

With the help of a third party who mediated on her behalf, Force was able to get most of her money back and returned the vehicle to Garage Plus Auto Centre in March. But she says she still lost thousands of dollars in warranty costs and other fees.

“They lied to me. The vehicle wasn’t healthy. I lost a lot of money. I wasted a lot of time,” Force said.

Force said she’s since reported the case to OMVIC, and the organization told her to contact the dealership directly, but has not heard back from OMVIC after that.

Up for sale again, changed hands 8 times recently

A CARFAX vehicle history report indicates that Mazda changed registered owners eight times since March 2022.

A few days after Force returned her vehicle, a red Mazda CX-5 with the same VIN number was posted for sale again on Garage Plus Auto Centre”s website — this time for $13,995 — $1,345 more than what Force paid.

The ad for the Mazda touted it as a best-seller “with a 5 star safety rating.”

“It’s in great condition! Fully inspected and certified, why spend more [at] other places,” the vehicle description read. 

It appears the vehicle has since been sold, with a new owner registered on April 18.

A red car on a parking lot.
A screenshot of an advertisement of a 2013 Mazda CX-5 posted on Garage Plus Auto Centre’s website between March and April 2023. The VIN number associated with this Mazda matched the Mazda CX-5 Force bought from the dealership in November 2022. (Garage Plus Auto Centre website)

In an emailed statement to CBC through its lawyer, Garage Plus Auto Centre said it was “under the reasonable belief” that this matter “was amicably resolved several months ago,” but didn’t address CBC’s specific questions.

“What I went through was on the verge of being traumatizing,” said Force, urging consumers to speak out when wronged. 

Vehicle suffered more damage than disclosed

Blanchard described a similar experience with the same dealership last summer. She purchased a 2012 Honda Civic from Garage Plus Auto Centre in June 2022 for just under $11,000. 

She specifically sought out a used-car dealership to avoid a private sale.

“I honestly thought that I’d be getting more of a better car,” she said. “They told me that the car was safetied.”

Blanchard says within a few weeks, she noticed her car would stall when she tried to accelerate. She described the issue as getting “significantly worse” when, one day, she says her car’s engine turned off in the middle of an intersection.

“[That] was really scary,” she said.

A grey car on a driveway.
Sydney Blanchard bought this 2012 Honda Civic from Garage Plus Auto Centre in June 2022. After a thorough inspection at a Honda dealership in Ottawa, Blanchard learned the engine would have to be torn down, inspected and replaced. (Submitted by Sydney Blanchard)

Mechanics at a local Honda dealership spent more than a month conducting a long list of tests to find the cause of the stalling. The Honda report, which CBC has seen, states they replaced a failed transmission, believing it to be the cause, but that didn’t fix the issue. 

The Honda dealership concluded due to the car’s collision history, the next step was an engine teardown suspecting “possible fracture or faulty component inside engine,” and an engine replacement, estimated to cost more than $6,000.

Blanchard said she only knew of minor damage — “like a cosmetic fender bender” — she says a Garage Plus Auto Centre sales rep discussed with her. Her bill of sale discloses one collision with a $1,032 claim.

But in the CARFAX report Honda provided Blanchard, the estimate of the “moderate damage” after a rear-end collision was $11,513.53, and the insurance paid out $1,032.

“I just felt so silly  … [that I] took his word,” Blanchard said.

She said a Honda adviser told her the car was unsafe to drive.

Because her 30-day warranty period was over, and the inspection with Honda took so long, Blanchard gave up on finding a solution with Garage Plus Auto Centre. 

She sold her vehicle for parts.

Garage Plus Auto Centre said in a statement it “attempted to amicably discuss” this matter “with the customer to no avail.” 

“It appears that some issues remain unresolved, unfortunately,” the statement reads.

Another customer told CBC his vehicle experienced engine issues, and said he also sold it for parts.

‘Dedicated to improving’ customer experience: company

CBC has tried to contact some customers who gave the company a five-star Google review. One person responded, and told CBC they were pleased with the service but they, too, ran into safety issues with their vehicle afterward.

Garage Plus Auto Centre’s website promises it “is committed to ensuring the safety of our customers on the road,” and says its certified mechanics are “honest automotive professionals.” 

CBC has verified Garage Plus Auto Centre is licensed to conduct safety standard certifications.

CBC contacted Garage Plus Auto Centre’s owner for an interview on May 4 and Daniel Nassrallah, a lawyer with DNG Law in Ottawa, confirmed he was retained by Garage Plus Auto Centre on May 8. That day, CBC sent Nassrallah a detailed list of questions to address by May 11, but offered to consider an extension should they need it.

“You certainly identified an extensive scope of purported issues, all of which warrant proper review and response on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, we are not in a proper position to review each matter and provide a response prior to your short publication deadline,” reads the Garage Plus Auto Centre’s statement.

“We want to provide the complainants in your story with comfort knowing that we appreciate the issues brought forward, and they will be reviewed diligently and thoroughly to the best of our abilities.” 

The company then invited complainants to contact its retained law firm or report issues to OMVIC. 

“We remain dedicated to improving our overall customer experience.” 

CBC offered Garage Plus Auto Centre another business day to provide more information but Nassrallah said his client won’t provide any further statements.

Instead, the lawyer insisted on fact-checking a draft of CBC’s article prior to publishing. CBC does not share unpublished drafts, but provided an extensive list of allegations — including dates, details and names  — outlined in this story. 

Nassrallah demanded CBC disclose this exchange publicly to reveal why his client declined an interview “to explain our reasonable position.”

Cars parked at a used car dealership and mechanic garage.
Garage Plus Auto Centre in Ottawa on May 4, 2023. In a statement, the company invited complainants to contact DNG Law, and said it remains ‘dedicated to improving’ its customer experience. (Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

In an email, OMVIC told CBC charges, convictions, suspensions or discipline hearings are publicly available, but not complaints or ongoing investigations.

“We do not have any publicly available information regarding Garage Plus Auto Centre Inc., or its general manager and general sales manager,” a spokesperson wrote.

Ontario suffers from lack of safety oversight: expert

George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association, said Ontario’s safety inspection system suffers from a lack of oversight and is “essentially unreliable” from a consumer standpoint. 

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) is the safety oversight body, but Iny says the ministry rarely penalizes those who don’t follow the rules.

“This shop should lose its MTO ability to certify vehicles,” Iny said, should there be a pattern of passing unsafe vehicles at Garage Plus Auto Centre.

In an emailed statement, the ministry said it can’t comment “on any active, pending or previous investigation concerning” a licensed inspection station.

WATCH | What consumers should know about the safety check: 

Shops passing vehicles ‘that should not be passed’ often not disciplined, advocate says

George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association, said MTO typically doesn’t get involved in disciplining a shop until it passes “a lot” of vehicles that shouldn’t pass a safety inspection.

Though safety standards paperwork is required, it’s rarely delivered to the customer with the vehicle, Iny said.

If the consumer feels a safety certificate was issued on a vehicle with significant issues, Iny recommends finding a second opinion. Should the dealer fail to co-operate, consumers can complain to OMVIC or even the MTO in cases of “serious” safety violations.

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