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About the fine print in GM’s refund offer ...

You fell in love with that $22,000 Chevy Malibu because of its color, style and price. After driving it home, you realize there's a lot to hate — maybe the way it handles on the highway, the location of the cupholders or the shape of the seats.
/ Source: The Associated Press

You fell in love with that $22,000 Chevy Malibu because of its color, style and price. After driving it home, you realize there's a lot to hate — maybe the way it handles on the highway, the location of the cupholders or the shape of the seats.

Don't worry. Bring it on back for a refund, no questions asked, says GM's Chairman and new TV pitchman Edward Whitacre Jr.

But is it really as easy as returning an ill-fitting shirt to Macy's?

As with any deal, it's a good idea to read the fine print. As your love affair with the new car turns to hate, you'll need to drive very carefully and make sure to limit how many miles you put on the car. Don't die. And don't expect your wallet to be made whole even if you follow the fine print to the letter.

Q: So, I can bring back my car or truck to the dealer anytime?

A: Not so fast. No returns are allowed within the first 30 days of purchase. It's anytime between day 31 and day 60 of ownership.

That seems like a narrow window, but the policy makes sense for GM. Buyer's remorse can set in within days for new customers, who grouse over things like knobs and cup holders appearing to be in the wrong place. Owners can grow more accepting of problems over time, says Jack Gilles, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America.

Q: Do I have to cite a defect?

A: No. You can hate the color for all GM cares. But the policy says a returned vehicle can't have more than $200 in damage — and GM, through an inspection, gets to decide what constitutes that much damage.

Q: Wow, $200? Doesn't even a small scratch or dimple caused by kicked-up gravel cost that much to fix?

A: It's true the cost of vehicle repairs — even small, cosmetic ones — can easily exceed $200. (Repairs covered by warranty are excluded.) But GM insists it had to set a limit to protect itself from customers returning badly damaged vehicles and expecting a full refund.

Lena Pons, transportation analyst for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, says the amount of damage GM assesses depends on "how much they're going to nitpick" scrapes, dings and dents on returned vehicles.

Gilles says the $200 limit is on the low side — particularly when coupled with the prohibition on returning before 30 days.

"You combine that with the 30 days, it's easier and easier to get $200 in damage," he says. Plus, with GM making the determination on damages, "it may appear that the cards are stacked against you."

The lesson for consumers: Be extra careful during those first two months if you're thinking about returning your new ride. And no car can be returned if it's been in an accident.

Q: If I keep the car free of dings, I get all my money back?

A: In this case, "money back" doesn't mean all your money. Just the cost of the vehicle and sales tax.

GM won't refund the title, registration and other fees, which can add up to several hundred dollars depending on your state.

"It's not really unfair because otherwise you've rented the car for free for 30 to 60 days," says Terry Connolly, dean of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University.

GM also won't refund any accessories purchased through the dealer, like paint or rust protection, aftermarket equipment and the like. So choose those add-ons carefully if you think you might return the car.

Q: What else do I need to look out for?

A: Don't go on a cross-country jaunt. The new car or truck cannot have more than 4,000 miles on it. Also, owners must be current on payments.

Forget buying his and hers pickup trucks. Only one return is allowed per household. In addition, leased vehicles are not covered.

And if you die, no refund.

The program started Sept. 14 and runs through Nov. 30, which is the last day customers can take delivery of their new vehicles to qualify for a refund.

Q: How does this compare with the Hyundai Assurance program?

A: The Hyundai Assurance program, which the Korean automaker launched in January, also allows buyers to return their vehicle. But the key difference is a buyer is eligible only if he or she loses their source of income. In addition, the policy kicks in after two months of ownership, but is good for a year.

Q: If I return my vehicle and everything is in order, will I get my old car back?

A: No.

According to GM spokesman Pete Ternes, dealers aren't obligated to return the car you traded in. In any case, after 30 days it's probably sitting on a used-car lot or in the hands of another driver.

Instead, the dealer will treat the value of your trade-in as money toward your new car and refund you the full price, Ternes says.

Q: What happens to my returned car?

A: Dealers will put the returned vehicles up for sale on their used car lots. GM, through an insurer, then reimburses the dealer for any loss he or she takes on the refund.

Q: How much could this program wind up costing GM?

A: GM purchased an insurance policy through the firm cynoSure Financial Inc. to cover the cost of any reimbursements, spokesman John McDonald says. The policy was purchased using funds from GM's marketing budget, which that automaker does not disclose.

Q: With all the restrictions, why would anyone want to participate in this program?

A: Several consumer experts say the hassle isn't worth it, particularly when you consider that GM is quietly offering an incentive NOT to participate.

Customers who waive the return policy receive a $500 rebate toward the purchase of their vehicle. The sensible choice seems to be to settle on the car you really want and take the rebate, says Gilles of the Consumer Federation of America.

"In my book, spend a little more time checking the car out and take the 500 bucks."