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PSST - `SECRET WARRANTIES' MAY GET LESS SECRET

For the sake of good will, automakers for years have used unwritten warranties to fix car problems after the written warranty expires.

Such service programs - sometimes called "policy adjustments" or "secret warranties" - have covered premature tire wear, floorpan cracks, cracked blocks, faulty automatic transmissions, peeling paint, power-steering trouble, broken timing belts and many other defects.The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group in Washington, D.C., recently counted nearly 500 such warranties.

But the free repairs are doled out to the few consumers who complain loudest or know the warranties exist. You must be willing to put up a fight or even take your case to small-claims court.

That practice may be nearing its end. Three states - Connecticut, Virginia and Wisconsin - require carmakers to inform owners about notices sent to dealers concerning handling repairs after the written warranty period.

California, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania are considering similar laws.

Wisconsin's law is the toughest. It requires manufacturers to notify owners of free repairs within 90 days of implementing a policy.

Unlike other states' laws, Wisconsin's covers past, present and future secret warranties and allows unsatisfied owners to sue for damages double the "pecuniary loss."

If your state doesn't have a disclosure law, your best protection is to ask friends who own cars such as yours what problems they've had and whether the repairs were covered.

When there are numerous complaints, the manufacturer may issue a technical service bulletin with instructions to correct the defect, often for free. Ask the dealership or regional service manager about any such "policy adjustments."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can also help. For a fee of $25 to $35, depending on the extent of the search, NHTSA can furnish copies of a manufacturer's bulletins on specific cars.

Write to Department of Transportation/NHTSA, Technical Reference Division, NAD-52, Room 5110, 400 Seventh St., S.W., Washington, DC 20590 (or call 202-366-0123). Include the make, model and year of your car and the problem you want searched.