Susan Deneen used to love her Chrysler Pacifica until her mechanic discovered rust, rot and corrosion were eating away the underbelly of her popular minivan. The Illinois mother wasn’t alone with the problem. Some Pacifica owners say they wish they’d been warned about the problem with the 2004 and 2005 Pacifica.
Deneen says she remembers vividly the day her suburban “mom car” turned into a “scary” car last fall: she was at her mechanic's for routine tire service.
"He put the car up on the lift and got the shock of his day," Deneen told NBC. "The whole engine cradle was rusted and corroded. He could put his hand through it, it was so corroded. He told me, basically, if you were my wife you wouldn't be driving this home."
The NBC 6 Investigators get results
"I really didn't want her driving it," said Greg Hoops, who owns an auto shop in Frankfort, Illinois and is a certified Grand Master mechanic.
Owners of 2004 and 2005 Chrysler Pacificas say they have documentation the car maker knew about the expensive and extensive problem, but severely limited the group of owners who would get assistance from the company.
Hoops snapped photos of Deneen's entire subframe, or engine cradle, riddled with corrosion and rust. He says he has seen the same thing on another Pacifica, and it leaves him worried.
"People here are driving time bombs, that don't even realize it," Hoops said. Kurt Collins also drives a Pacifica, and he says he had the same disturbing discovery, also during a routine mechanics checkup. "When I went to pick it up, the mechanic was just standing there, shaking his head saying 'bad news,'" Collins said.
"He starts telling me about the rotten sub-frame. It's corroded away. It's a dangerous situation. Your engine can fall out."
Both Pacifica owners describe an ordeal shared by hundreds across the country. NBC reviewed more than 300 complaints submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and online driver forums. The bulk say they were never give a heads-up about the problem by Chrysler, and others say they were told “no” when they asked Chrysler for help covering the roughly $2,500 repair.
But early in the process, the carmaker did acknowledge the concern when it sent a warranty extension letter to owners of the 2004 and 2005 vehicles. That offer was then withdrawn, and changed to a service bulletin that severely narrowed the extent of the coverage. The carmaker instead said it would cover only Pacificas made in a roughly six-week time frame in 2004: from Feb. 23 to March 31.
Both Deneen and Collins say they were told by Chrysler they didn’t qualify for any financial compensation for repairs because their cars fell outside the identified time period. Both say they appealed through numerous phone calls and letters, and ultimately received partial compensation. Deneen's cost was $733.
"Which is still, you know, I could think of a lot of things I could do with that money, but we did what we had to do and got the car fixed," Deneen said.
Collins' cost was about $750. "Which was a lot of money but it's a lot better than the $2,500 I was being quoted," Collins said.
Three months after Deneen's repair, NBC contacted Chrysler about an apparent difference in financial compensation for motorists whose cars fell outside the company's extended warranty. Deneen says she was stunned to later get a phone call from Chrysler, telling her she would be getting the $733 back.
Chrysler told NBC the crux of this problem was the engine cradle's coating thickness for vehicles produced in the time frame it identified. The carmaker says approximately 7,000 vehicles were impacted. Chrysler says it reviews customer complaints on an individual basis, and concentrates on the satisfaction of its customers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms it got hundreds of complaints submitted by 2004 and 2005 Pacifica owners at its safercar.gov site. The agency says it has not detected a pattern of any safety defect in the 300-plus entries regarding engine corrosion submitted by Pacifica owners. New entries are still coming in.
Does Chrysler plan any further action on the engine cradle corrosion problem? A spokesperson would only say to that: "Matters are investigated by our customer care team and resolved on a case by case basis. We listen to our customers and strive for fairness."