Jamie L. LaReau
| Detroit Free Press
DETROIT – After working 40 years in Michigan government, Vanessa Bishop Diggs retired to the warmth of Savannah, Georgia, in 2016 to enjoy “the moss hanging off the trees, the architecture, the food, the culture and the music,” she said. By May 2019, Diggs, 66, had saved $97,000 to buy the car of her dreams: the high-end performance 2019 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 sports car, in black.”That was my dream vehicle. I did all the things I was supposed to do in life, if you did this and this, things come to you and you reap what you sow,” Diggs said. “And then, bam!”One year later, Diggs’ dream car, with just 15,000 miles on it, started to “shutter and shimmy,” she said. Diggs found out she had four bent wheel rims. The warranty did not cover replacing them and GM reps told her that her driving and normal wear-and-tear caused the problem. It cost her $3,000 to replace the rims — and it shattered her dream. “I don’t want the car now, even with the new rims on it, because it was sick,” Diggs said. “I don’t want to deal with it and the way General Motors is treating me, I don’t want it now.”More: Here’s why the 2021 Detroit auto show could be hugeMore: Eddie Van Halen’s ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli a self-proclaimed ‘GM brat’Diggs is one of hundreds of owners of 2015-19 Corvette Z06 or Grand Sport models who have reported bent or cracked wheel rims despite low mileage and careful driving. Some have complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, others to the Better Business Bureau.Now a consolidated class action lawsuit filed against GM seeks millions of dollars in reimbursement for 18 owners named in the lawsuit plus all others, including Diggs, who suffered damaged wheels. The class action accuses GM of using inferior materials and a faulty manufacturing process that resulted in substandard wheels.GM declined to comment for this story. But a GM spokesman said there have been no safety recalls on the 2015-19 Corvettes, nor are there any planned. In GM’s view, the damage is caused by regular wear and tear while driving, the car’s chief engineer has said.Also GM dealers offer Tire and Wheel Protection to customers, a spokesman said. While the cost of it varies based on many factors, it tends to be around $1,000 for the total plan, the spokesman said.Bad roads or bad manufacturing?The consolidated class action filed Sept. 10 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan blames GM for the defective wheels and argues those impacted by it should be reimbursed for their cost. It is filed on behalf of anyone who bought or leased a 2015 to 2019 Corvette Z06 or 2017 to 2019 Corvette Grand Sport.The lawsuit alleges those models’ rims are “prone to deforming and cracking, without impact damage.” GM made the wheels with inferior material that is “cast, rather than forged, and is of insufficient strength, and in an insufficient quantity, to withstand the torque and power input from the drivetrain,” the lawsuit states.GM used less material than necessary, too, to save “unsprung weight,” which is weight that is not borne by the vehicle’s suspension, the lawsuit said.”As a result, the rims are not strong enough and crack and deform under normal driving conditions,” the lawsuit stated. This leads to the vibration the drivers said they felt. The lawsuit said the cars are unsafe to drive because the broken rims could puncture the tires, causing air leaks and tire blowouts.The lawsuit also cited Car and Driver magazine’s review of the 2017 Corvette Grand Sport. It reported that it had to replace or repair six damaged wheels over its 40,000-mile test period to the tune of $4,098, the lawsuit said. It said GM would not cover the costs under warranty. “Consumers regularly paid over $900 per wheel to replace one cracked wheel with an equally defective replacement wheel,” the lawsuit said. Lawyers: We’re looking out for consumersLawyers named in the lawsuit declined to comment on the exact amount of compensation they are seeking. “We are consumer advocates and look forward to vindicating the rights of all consumers who purchased one of these vehicles with defective rims. Our only goal is to ensure that owners receive what they bargained for,” said Tarek Zohdy, senior counsel at Capstone Law in Los Angeles, one of the firms bringing the lawsuit.But the math shows it could add up to tens of millions of dollars.In 2019, GM sold 17,988 Corvettes. GM does not break out how many of those were Z06 and Grand Sports. Still, even if only a quarter of them were the impacted Z06 and Grand Sport models, that’s 4,500. So, at about $4,000 each to replace all four rims, it could potentially cost GM $18 million to reimburse those owners. That’s just for the one year.GM would not provide a breakout of what percentage of sales were the higher-end Grand Sport or Z06 models, but a spokesman said the Stingray coupe and convertible models are the most popular editions sold. Those did not experience any problems with wheels. Likewise, within the Z06 and Grand Sport models, there are certain wheels customers may or may not have chosen for the car, a GM spokesman said.Corvette engineer: It happens But over the years, dozens of complaints about wheels bending and cracking have been posted on Corvette Forum. In 2017, Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter addressed the topic on the forum. Juechter wrote: “We design wheels to withstand extreme pothole loads and test them on high speed laboratory equipment that can simulate the entire life-cycle of the vehicle.””People are often surprised that a wheel can be bent or cracked without any visible damage to the tire or obvious scratches on the wheel.”He said frequently a wheel gets bent “by a road hazard, but the damage is initially almost undetectable to the driver. Maybe the driver notices a little more vibration, but many times not if the wheel is only slightly out-of-round (just a millimeter or two).”Eventually, he said, “fatigue cracks” can form and the wheel, which may not look different, begins to leak air at the rim.”Since it is hundreds or thousands of miles after the damaging event, the driver often can’t remember hitting anything that would justify a crack in the wheel,” Juechter wrote. “I have actually experienced this myself.”But to those who’ve endured the problem, GM’s explanation falls flat. Diggs said GM customer service representatives told her that it was her driving and normal wear-and-tear that caused her bent wheels.“I am not hot-rodding in this car or speeding down the street,” Diggs said. “I’m from Michigan, so I know how to duck and dodge a pothole. It’s my baby and for someone to say, ‘wear and tear’ and suggest I abused it, it’s insulting.”One driver gets action through BBBJim H. was told it was normal road wear when he encountered the problem. The Ohio man, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of backlash from the automaker, bought his 2017 Corvette Grand Sport Convertible new in June 2017. He paid about $73,000 for it and he only drove it in warm weather and on pristine roads.Yet last year, with less than 6,000 miles on it, it developed a vibration, he said. The local dealer told him all four wheels were bent. His bumper-to-bumper warranty did not cover the cost to replace the bent wheels.”GM and the dealers are blaming it on the road conditions. But the roads I’m driving on are fairly good,” Jim H. said. “It just seemed unreasonable to me that this was occurring. I babied the car.”He could drive the car, but it vibrated and he said he worried that the bent wheels could lead to cracking and loss of air, stranding him somewhere. “There might be a chance you could wreck it, too, but I was more upset that I’d get stranded,” Jim H. said. “I was most upset that my car was damaged and I did nothing to damage it.”Around Labor day 2019, he bought aftermarket replace wheels, “I was still battling GM and knew I wasn’t going to put their wheels on my car,” Jim H. said. It cost him $4,940 to fix his car, so Jim H. filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and won in arbitration. GM had to reimburse him the $4,940 he paid.In the judgment, the arbitrator wrote: “Contrary to its advertisements, the manufacturer testified at the hearing that the wheels must have been damaged due to road conditions, and that even ‘minor depressions’ at ‘low speeds’ could cause the wheels to bend.”The arbitrator noted there was no evidence, besides his four bent wheels, to suggest road damage and, “had the vehicle presented with one bent wheel, the possibility of a road condition causing the damage may have been reasonable, although this would be hard to believe under the circumstances,” noting the good care Jim H. took of the vehicle.”I find the manufacturer’s explanation incredible,” the arbitrator wrote, adding, “I find the only reasonable explanation to be a manufacturer’s defect that should be covered under the manufacturer’s bumper-to-bumper warranty.”“The win meant more to me than the money,” said Jim H. “How upset I was with GM as a business and how they treat their customer and how they brushed me aside, it felt great to go against them and get something that I believe was fair.”Couple on their Corvette: ‘It had to go’Douglas Settell and his wife, Joanne Ottens, of Sacramento, California, remain loyal GM customers, but not for the Corvette, given their experience.In June 2018, the couple paid $106,000 for a silver 2018 Corvette Grand Sport. They bought it off the showroom floor with less than 10 miles on it, they said.“It was a pretty exciting time and it was a pretty car,” Ottens said. “You expect for that kind of cash to get a car that will drive well. Corvette’s such an iconic brand, I had never heard that it had a mechanical difficulty.”But within two weeks of owning it, Settell noticed the passenger-side rear tire was leaking air. He had to routinely refill it, he said. But the dealership found no problem with the tire. So Settell kept driving the car even though he and Ottens suspected something was “very wrong.”Finally, in January of this year, the tire picked up a screw. Settell took it to an independent tire shop and they found the cracked rim. Because there was a three-week backlog to order a new rim from GM, Settell had the shop weld the cracked rim.But by August, the rim had cracked again. Settell paid $872 to replace it.“I asked the dealership why this isn’t covered under warranty and the service manager said they tried several times to put in warranty claims on this issue and General Motors denies the claim every time,” Settell said.Soon, a service technician would find the driver’s-side front wheel rim was also cracked. Settell ordered another new rim. Then he got a call from the dealer.“The dealer said they are interested in buying the car back to increase their used car inventory,” Settell said.Ottens felt her husband was “driving a death trap” and Settell was fed up.“I was tired of cracked rims and having to pay for it out of pocket and GM wasn’t honoring its warranty on it. I was fed up,” Settell said. “Also, I didn’t feel safe driving it out of town because if I hit a pothole and shred a tire, I’m in a world of hurt. It could spin out of control. It had to go.”So the couple sold the car back to the dealer for $48,000. Settell got a 2020 Silverado heavy-duty pickup in its place. The couple is ineligible to participate in the class action lawsuit because they sold the car. But if it prevails, they might consider applying for restitution, they said.Other ways to make things rightA spokeswoman for the BBB’s Auto Line declined to disclose how many cases it has handled similar to Jim H.’s in relation to the Corvette wheel damage. The BBB Auto Line, a division of BBB National Programs, offers out-of-court dispute resolutions between consumers and carmakers over alleged car defects.Nearly 63% of all claims are resolved by mediation, said Abby Hills, a spokeswoman for BBB National Programs, an independent nonprofit dedicated to industry self-regulation accountability programs and dispute resolution.If the parties cannot resolve their dispute through mediation, they have the option to proceed to arbitration, she said. The customer can accept or reject the decision within a set time period. If the consumer accepts the decision, the manufacturer is legally bound to comply, Hills said.On the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website there are 250 complaints about the wheels on 2015-19 Corvettes.”We are in regular communication with the manufacturer and continue to gather information and monitor the issue,” said Sean Rushton, NHTSA spokesman. “NHTSA will not hesitate to act if a safety-related defect is identified.”Consumers should report any potential safety defects to NHTSA on its website or by calling 888-327-4236, Rushton said.Diggs filed a complaint with NHTSA in July. But she said she will never buy another GM vehicle even though her father worked for GM as a die-setter at Oldsmobile.”My father would roll over, but that’s OK because if he were alive, he’d be very upset right now,” said Diggs. “People could get killed if they’re not fixing this.” She has also requested paperwork from the Better Business Bureau. Lawyers in the class action lawsuit have approached her, she said, and she plans to join it.”GM can make this right by people,” Diggs said. “I just want them to do what’s right and to make sure people are safe. If I get my $3,000 back, that’s icing on the cake. But you can’t treat people this way.”Follow Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter @jlareauan.