Why Is GM's Free Loaner Car Policy So Hard to Find?

Camaros at dealership
A cluster of Chevrolet Camaros on sale at a Los Angeles dealership, April 1, 2014.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

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It's easy to understand why someone who owns one of the 2.6 million recalled General Motors cars with faulty ignition switches might not want to drive it until the defective part can be replaced.

That's why GM told its dealers to give their customers a loaner if they asked for one. But getting information on the program hasn't been straightforward.

During her appearances on Capitol Hill this week, CEO Mary Barra told Congress that the company has "empowered our dealers to take extraordinary measures" to assist its customers, including free loaner cars.

"If people do not want to drive a recalled vehicle before it is repaired, dealers can provide them with a loaner or rental car—free of charge," she said.

The details of the loaner program weren't included in the recall notice, however. They also haven't been posted on GM's website.

Lawyers for GM owners in California filed a motion on Tuesday asking a U.S. District Court judge to order the automaker to immediately notify customers about the loaner program. They say this notification is required by California's Secret Warranty law, which prohibits a vehicle manufacturer from quietly starting an "adjustment program" without telling everyone who is eligible to participate.

Attorney Eric Gibbs believes GM is trying, again, to save money. Drivers are only offered rental cars if they call and specifically request them, which rarely occurs, he said, because most drivers don't know the program even exists. Because the program isn't clearly spelled out, customers get different responses from different dealers.

"Some people who call the dealer are getting the loaner cars. Some are told they'll receive a loaner car, but only for the time their vehicle is in the shop for repairs. Others are told that there aren't loaner cars available," Gibbs said.

GM did not comment on the litigation, but GM spokesman James Cain said about 13,000 people across the country are now in loaner cars.

More than a dozen federal lawsuits have been filed on behalf of those who bought the recalled vehicles with defective ignition switches.

A Seattle law firm, Hagens Berman, plans to file a motion on Friday that would ask the judge in California to extend the notification requirement to all the states with Secret Warranty laws, which would include Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia and Wisconsin.

"How do they expect people to know about this loaner program if they don't tell them about it?" asked attorney Steve Berman.

GM disagrees with that characterization.

"We have communicated this through press releases, in speeches and sworn congressional testimony, we have discussed it in press conferences and with news media at all major broadcast and cable networks, all national newspapers and scores of regional papers, radio stations and TV stations," GM's Cain said. "In addition, we share the information freely through our Customer Care Center (call center), at dealerships and more."

Cain confirmed that details of the loaner program are not on the GM website and wrote that he would suggest that it be added. As of Friday, he said the site would be updated later in the day to include the information.

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.