Detroit carmakers will take some lemons back, but not all

Buy a car ... bring it back. That's the latest sales gimmick from Detroit these days. Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Chrysler have all introduced special programs under which dissatisfied customers can return their cars to the dealers within 30 days after they buy them. And other carmakers may follow. But buyers beware! There are some catches.

``Our research shows us the customer perceives this as an endorsement on the part of the manufacturer of the product's quality and reliability,'' says Gar Smith, Pontiac's director of marketing. The Pontiac program, which began Sept. 29 and ends Dec. 31, applies only to the new sports coupe, the Grand Prix.

Buyers may return their vehicle within 30 days or 3,000 miles, whichever comes first, and receive full credit to apply toward another 1989 Pontiac model.

The Oldsmobile program has identical terms, and applies to the division's new Cutlass Supreme, a mid-sized coupe similar to the Pontiac Grand Prix.

Chrysler's program, which covers all 1988 and '89 cars and trucks, extends through Nov. 20. It is so far being offered only in two test markets - Denver and Washington, D.C. And the terms of the buyback policy vary in both cities. In Denver, buyers may return any product, but they can only apply their refund to another Chrysler vehicle. In Washington, however, dissatisfied Chrysler buyers can return their car or truck and get their money back.

Chrysler is running print advertisements in the Washington area touting the new program with the comment, attributed to chairman Lee Iacocca: ``You want satisfaction when you buy a car. If you don't get it ... it's our problem, not yours.''

``It's a good marketing gimmick,'' says auto analyst David Healy of Drexel Burnham Lambert.

Ronald Glantz, an auto analyst with Montgomery Securities, agrees, although he calls the Chrysler program in Washington ``much more clever. With the Oldsmobile program, you have to be willing to buy another Olds if you don't like the Cutlass Supreme, so [if you aren't] it's not a powerful incentive to get you into the showroom.''

Chrysler says it may expand one of the versions of the program nationwide, and several other GM divisions may also start offering 30-day return policies.

Analysts say the Ford Motor Company, which is selling virtually every car it can build, is not likely to get into the buyback game. Industry observers question whether the buyback programs are likely to last.

``If I were a marketing person, I would be cautious about using the program,'' Mr. Glantz says. The more you use it, the more it becomes susceptible for abuse. There'll be someone who figures he needs new wheels to go to the prom.''

Pontiac officials play down that possibility, however. General manager Mike Losh notes that during an experimental program in California earlier this year covering the division's compact Grand Am coupe, returns totaled ``less than half a percent.''

Besides the time and mileage restrictions, the carmakers say customers will not be allowed to return cars that suffer any severe body or component damage.

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