Imported car sales have surged in Korea in recent years, but so have complaints from customers. And while sales rose 22 percent annually over the last five years, complaints to the Korea Consumer Agency rose 41 percent.
The majority of complaints concern basic components, such as engines shutting down while driving, according to the agency. Poor after-service is another common gripe.
A total of 609 complaints about imported cars were received by the agency over the last five years, rising from just 56 in 2008 to 187 last year. The complaints in the tally are only those backed up by evidence rather than general dissatisfaction, of which it receives 50,000 a year.
◆ Critical Malfunctions
Poor quality accounted for 65.7 percent of the 609 complaints. Engine malfunctions accounted for 34.5 percent, noise for 13.3 percent and shoddy paint jobs 10 percent.
German luxury brand BMW recalled around 20,000 of its 5 and 6 Series sedans in April last year due to defective battery cables that could cause fires. Mercedes-Benz recalled around 5,000 vehicles last year due to defective diesel fuel filters that caused leaks.
But Chrysler was subject to the most complaints at 14.7 per 10,000 cars sold here, followed by Audi (13.7 cars), GM (13.5), Volkswagen (11.7) and Jaguar (11.4).
Honda (2.9 cars) and Toyota (4.2 cars) provoked the fewest complaints.
◆ Costly Repairs
Costly repairs also attracted customer dissatisfaction. The agency looked at the repair costs of three major components (front and rear bumpers, side mirrors) of imported cars with engine capacities of 1.8 to 2.5 liters and found that some repair shops charged W1.8 million (US$1=W1,117) to fix a single side mirror for the Jaguar XF 2.0.
It cost a total W6.32 million to replace the front bumper (W2.15 million), rear bumper (W2.37 million) and a side mirror (W1.8 million) for the model, equivalent to 10.6 percent of the car's total price tag of W59.9 million.
For the popular Mercedes-Benz E Class, replacing a bumper cost W1.6-1.7 million, and for the Honda Accord W1.1 million. In contrast, changing the front and rear bumpers of the Hyundai Genesis sedan cost only W200,000-220,000 and just a new side mirror cost W115,000.
Imported automobiles with 3 liter or bigger engine capacities were excluded from the tally, but there are many large imported sedans with bumpers costing more than W2 million.
A spokesman for the agency said, "Foreign carmakers have been offering discounts on their vehicles, but the latest study shows that it actually costs a lot of money to maintain an imported car."
Although the price difference between imported and domestic cars has narrowed a lot, the gap in repair costs remains high because ordinary mechanics can fix Korean cars using locally purchased components, while imported vehicles have to be taken to designated repair centers, according to Kim Jong-hoon at the Korea Automobile Quality Union.
"If the number of parts suppliers for imported cars rose and more repair shops were allowed to fix them, the cost of repairs would go down significantly," Kim pointed out.