Some deals worked as promised for a while. Buyers signed a standard sales contract, then got a check from the dealership to cover all or part of the monthly payments. But the deals started to sour, in some cases because the checks stopped coming.
According to the attorneys general, a customer typically got a Suzuki to drive for a limited time, usually six to 10 months. At the end of that time, the customer was supposed to return the car and exchange it for another Suzuki, which the customer then could drive for another limited period of time at the same low price.
But when the customers returned to the dealership, they allegedly were told that the promotion had ended and that they were responsible for the terms of the original contract — a standard purchase agreement.
When buyers began to complain, Jenn Strathman, the local NBC affiliate's "Call for Action" reporter, got on the story. Her reports alerted both the Missouri and Kansas attorneys general. Last month, each filed broad consumer-protection lawsuits against the Chad Franklin Suzuki stores, which have been renamed Legend Suzuki.
The Kansas store was the focus of Strathman's news report on KSHB-TV. The reporter, accompanied by an unhappy customer, entered the dealership with a camera that looked like a pager clipped to the front of her purse. The station also rounded up six consumers who say they were scammed, assembled them on camera and let them talk.
"I said, 'OK, what's the catch?' " Tracey Wright told Strathman. "There's got to be a catch because you can't be just giving out cars for $43 a month."
Still, Wright signed a contract and last September drove a new 2007 Grand Vitara SUV off the lot. In a report Wright filed with the Web site Ripoff Report, she said Chad Franklin Suzuki agreed to pay $559.89 of her $602.89 monthly payment and her fuel costs up to 15,000 miles until February. At that time, Wright said, she was to return the vehicle and exchange it for a 2008 Grand Vitara and get the same attractive terms.
When Wright returned the 2007 Grand Vitara, she said, a dealership employee told her the promotion had ended and she had to put down $9,500 to get into a new SUV.
Kansas Assistant Attorney General Emilie Burdette said the dealership made a variety of promises in the TV ads and different representations at the point of sale. One incentive allowed the consumer to take part in a "two-, three- or four-year vehicle performance test."
Matthew Donnell, a professional dancer in the Kansas City Ballet, said the salesman told him they were looking for people to "performance test" cars for six-month periods.
"They give you payments for 41/2 months," he said. "After six months, you could take over the loan yourself and make full payments or bring it back and trade it back in. They said they wanted to build up their used-car inventory, but they wanted to get their own cars back with low miles. I bought it hook, line and sinker."
Donnell said he signed a standard sales contract for 72 months.
"I'm sitting in front of the finance guy, and he's circling the big numbers," Donnell said. "The payments were $574, and he circled it and said, 'Don't pay attention to this.' And I kept saying, 'My payment will be $47, right?' And he's like, 'Yeah.'
"Then they sent me the dealer's check, and it was $700 shy of what it should be to make payments of $47. They said that was due to the negative equity of the car that I traded in."