My New "Certified Pre-Owned Volvo" Is Infected With Mysterious "Black Gunk"

Reader M writes:

I purchased a certified used 2005 Volvo XC90 two months ago, from a large, well-known national used car dealership. I purchased the vehicle in North Carolina. After purchasing the vehicle, I realized that the remote was not working to unlock/lock the doors. When the auto superstore was unable to figure out the problem, they told me to go to the Volvo dealership, and that they would reimburse me for any costs I incurred. The associate in the service department at my local Volvo dealership took the key apart, to find that it was filled with black, thick, sticky residue. He had no guess what the substance was. It had the consistency of corn syrup, but very dark in color. He tried putting in a new battery, but could not get the key to work. They ended up ordering a new key for me, and $376 later, I thought my issues were resolved (the $376 was later reimbursed by the auto superstore where I purchased the car).

Two weeks after purchase, I got in my car to drive to work…and it would not come out of park. I tried everything under the sun, turning the car off and on, mashing the brake all the way to the floor…and no results. After twenty minutes of trying, it clicked right into drive, as though nothing was the matter. The same thing happened again two days later. I was concerned, so I called the auto superstore and they told me to bring the car in. They kept the car for a week, and could never replicate the problem, and “are you sure you were doing it correctly…did you know you have to push the brake down in order to get it out of park?”

So I picked the car up, frustrated, both for being insulted and because I was having problems with a car that I had owned less than a month. The very next day, the same thing happened. So back I went to the auto superstore. This time, they had the car for two weeks, and finally called me, saying they had the same problem. They told me there was a small catch in the gear shift, and that was causing the problem, so they had replaced it, and now my car was totally fixed. Relieved, I went pick up my car.

Three days after I picked up my car, it would not come out of park AGAIN. I was beyond angry at this point. I called the auto superstore, and the Volvo went back to them. They decided that they could not handle the problem, so they sent the car to the local Volvo dealership. I got a call yesterday from the auto superstore, saying that the Volvo dealership took the gearshift apart, and found that it was covered in a thick, black, gunky residue. (Sound familiar?–the substance that was inside of my key/remote??) The service technician from the auto superstore said he was sure it wasn’t me (*sarcastic*), but that someone had probably spilled coffee down in the gearshift. He also told me that Volvo had cleaned up the residue, and my car was good to go.

I then pointed out that my key/remote had been covered in the same thick black substance, and that I had never seen coffee that looked like the substance that was found all over my key, and down in the gearshift. The technician at the auto superstore was astonished, and pulled out my key, took it apart, and had no idea what the substance was. He then noted that the remote did not have a battery, but that it worked to lock and unlock the car–how is this possible?? The remote can not work without a battery…he suggested it was battery acid, but that he had no clue about the gear shift. (I am wondering how on earth he thinks that battery acid would cause a remote to work…but I didn’t push that issue.)

So, my situation now is that the auto superstore thinks that my issues are resolved. They think that because Volvo cleaned up the gearshift, that I should be “good to go.” I am angry and frustrated, because I have no explanations as to what the black gunk is. Why was it in both my key and the gearshift? (The gearshift is in between the two seats, not on the steering wheel…so the key and the gearshift are nowhere near each other). The auto superstore supposedly does not sell damaged cars. I have now owned the SUV less than two months, and it has been in the shop for the majority of those months. Do I push the superstore to send the vehicle back to Volvo, have them take the entire thing apart, and figure out what the problem is? Why did the auto superstore sell me a vehicle in this condition? It obviously has not been through the “so many hundred checks” they do in order to ensure they are selling an undamaged vehicle. Is there any way (other than proving it is a lemon) to make them take the Volvo back and refund my money? Am I just SOL because I bought a problematic car?
I would appreciate any advice or recourse you think i may have.

North Carolina’s lemon law doesn’t apply to used cars, so that’s out of the question, and it’s hard to tell from a description what exactly is wrong with the car. You could try pressing the Volvo dealership for a better answer as to what the gunk was so that you could confront the used car dealer with some evidence, but if they don’t know… You’re probably going to reach a place where you’ll have to hire a lawyer in order to proceed further, especially if your car’s symptoms don’t reoccur.

You never know, it might have really just been coffee.

Does anyone with more auto expertise want to take a crack at this one?



Edit Your Comment

  1. bsalamon says:

    you should put this up at jalopnik

  2. nacio says:

    aunt jemima syrup?

  3. Lithium542 says:

    I keep hearing about those vehicles that get resold after hurricanes, floods, etc. Maybe all that black goo is residue from the car being 6 feet under.

    I’d get a car fax report, and send a sample of the black goop to some kind of lab to figure out what it is. If it’s sediment, or something really bizarre, you might have some recourse as the dealership in question *cough* CARMAX *cough* promises not to sell wrecks.

    Either that, or you could make them fight the guy in the ring of fire.

  4. bsalamon says:

    @nacio: probably liquefied best buy gift cards

  5. m4ximusprim3 says:

    Stand over the hood and yell “The Power Of Christ Compels You!”

    It worked in this one auto manual I read. Except the car was a girl. And I watched it, not read it. But the gunk was the same!

  6. Hobie-wan says:

    2005? Maybe a Katrina vehicle?

  7. bsalamon says:

    maybe its g-oil []

  8. htrodblder says:

    Probably soda it turns into a dark sticky mess after it dries, the prior owner probably spilled in all over the car, (big gulp) and that nasty stuff can go everywhere. I have seen it freeze up a steering column and shifter to the point of breaking parts. During the “inspection” it checks the fuction of items, not if they are full of soda. To accuse the dealer of hiding something is a bit extreme. You would be amazed how trashed some cars will be when they are traded in, even new ones. The dealer took care of the problem, no harm no fowl.

  9. Coder4Life says:

    @m4ximusprim3: wow taht is just halarious.. Little bit of Family Guy and rest of god knows what is going through your head…

  10. SoCalGNX says:

    Carfax does not always give the truth so save your money and don’t bother buying one.

  11. lostsynapse says:

    The X-Files set manager called. They want their black oil back for the second movie after all.

  12. Adam Rock says:

    Black tar Heroin?

  13. robotprom says:

    My wife’s old car had the same problem. There is an solenoid in the gear shift housing on the floor, keeping you from taking the car out of park when the brake isn’t depressed. One too many spilled Diet Cokes and Starbucks and the solenoid was gummed up, and you couldn’t take the car out of P unless it was a very hot day.

    It was fixed by disconnecting the solenoid. Problem solved.

  14. loueloui says:

    I think maybe you bought a Katrina car. Better get a Carfax.

  15. htrodblder says:

    As a follow up, look at the carpet around the console, you will probably notice staining at the edge where the carpet extractor did not reach. We have in the past had to dissassemble the console, reclean the carpet and wash the parts with plain soap and water. If the prior was a slob, there may have been multiple sodas spilled there. Remember cupholders dont always hold so well.

  16. loueloui says:

    Also the ‘Ooze:’ tag spells out something dirty with the Consumerist logo in my browser tab.

  17. theirishscion says:

    My money is on non-diet soda residue. Had this exact problem on two cars personally, a Nissan Xterra some years back and a friends Civic just last year. Washed all the components we could get out, re-lubed anything that looked like it needed lubing, and it was fine from that point onwards. A taste-test, whilst disgusting and arguably a little dangerous, confirmed the diagnosis in both cases (what can I say, I like to live on the edge.)

    The location of the damn automatic gear levers in modern cars is just brain dead and asking for this problem. There’s no reason to have it down there and lots of reason to have it elsewhere, on the column, on the dash, who cares, just get it out of the way of the falling crud.

  18. vr4z06gt says:

    i work at a large dealership, its amazing to see what passes as certified…it really means nothing, but most newer used cars came from auctions, where they were fleet, rental, of lease, demo, any number of things all usually subject to abuse…

  19. theirishscion says:

    Oh goddamnit! Stop eating my posts consumerist!

    Abbreviated, what I was saying is it’s almost certainly evaporated non-diet soda clogging the solenoid. I’ve had direct personal experience of this twice in the last couple years, once in an Xterra and once in a Civic. Clean or replace the solenoid and you’ll be right. Try to get the crap out of the rest of the shifter mechanism as well, there are frequently position switches and suchlike nearby, none of which like Dr. Pepper. Once fixed, should stay fixed.

  20. coolsright says:

    From that picture there it looks like motor oil on his hands.

    Did you ask if it was motor oil. Figures that there’d be motor oil on a car, I think that what they run on them.

    Call and ask.

  21. trinidon2k says:

    Did you taste the black gunk? You don’t need to send it to a lab.

  22. ionerox says:

    @Adam Rock: I was thinking something a bit less addictive, like hashish.

  23. harumph says:

    as a former mechanic, i would look to see if the gunk is in other spots too. it could very well just be some spilled liquid but the possibility that it was submerged in something at some point shouldn’t be ruled out. people get very crafty in trying to cover this sort of thing up. get a carfax report and get an independent mechanic to look around under the carpet and behind the dash. there are very likely more surprises awaiting you.

  24. Bay State Darren says:

    I want to believe…

    [as little black squirmy things wriggle into my pores and dark clouds flash over my eyeballs]

  25. IphtashuFitz says:

    Give Car Talk a call. Click & Clack can figure anything out.

  26. jaydez says:

    I’m putting my money on that black tar crap that turned Spiderman into Venom… You might need more help than Volvo can offer.

  27. Parting says:

    @Adam Rock: In this case ”he’s rich” :)

  28. LordieLordie says:

    Probably a Katrina salvage car..

  29. Fitwit says:

    “Certified Pre-Owned”. That means “Yep – It’s USED.”

  30. Ray Wert says:

    @htrodblder: @theirishscion: That was our diagnosis over at the Jalop. Our bet is someone dropped the fob into soda or coffee and spilled it into the center console trying to fish it out. Or something along those lines.

  31. Geekybiker says:

    well you see that is where the manual transmission lever needs to go. So if you have a car that has a manual transmission option the auto transmission lever needs to go there too. Amazing, but some of us still like to drive manual cars.

    As for the black gunk, there is an aweful lot of black gunk in and on cars. Sucks that you’re having problems, but it sounds like the dealer is actually treating you pretty well. Most of the time they pretend they can’t replicate the problem and send you on your way.

  32. Froggmann says:

    I think it’s the “Oil Slick” from Stephen King’s short story “The Raft”

    I would take the car back to the dealership and either exchange it or try to get your money back. I would argue that no “Certified” car should spend as much time as this one in the repair bays of the dealership.

  33. Black Bellamy says:


    all this gunk and not one word in that whole story about how it smells

    what happens when you try to burn some

    not one word about how it tastes

    he cares about his car so much but he doesn’t take a single step to identify the substance

    it’s just a mysterious “gunk”


  34. Bay State Darren says:

    Important diagnostic: what does the gunk taste like?

  35. chiieddy says:

    Get a CarFax report, but first check out the NICB free VIN check too see if it’s been declared a Flood car by an insurance company in the past.


  36. bukz68 says:

    “He then noted that the remote did not have a battery, but that it worked to lock and unlock the car–how is this possible?? The remote can not work without a battery…he suggested it was battery acid, but that he had no clue about the gear shift. (I am wondering how on earth he thinks that battery acid would cause a remote to work…but I didn’t push that issue.)”

    I think the first thing you should do is blast Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher from a portable stereo and see if your car drives around under it’s own “slime” power. Also, be on the lookout for giant Stay Puft Marshmallow men…

  37. NightSteel says:

    I’d guess it’s a flood car also, but there’s really no way to be sure. You might, unfortunately, be screwed on this one.

    I think if I were you, I would inspect the car very closely, even to the point of taking things apart that wouldn’t normally be taken apart and looking for signs of damage. Otherwise, just keep pressing the dealership on the issue. If your work is covered by some sort of warranty, look for a lemon clause in the warranty terms.

  38. Orv says:

    I’m with the people who are saying it’s pop residue due to the previous owner being a slob. That stuff is sticky as all get-out when it dries; the water evaporates leaving only the sugar syrup. It’s also corrosive to electrical parts. If you get a little on your finger and it tastes sweet, that’s almost certainly what it is.

    You’ll probably be OK from here on, because there’s only so many places they could have spilled the stuff, but you should check the seat belt latches if they’re in the same between-the-seats area. Too much junk can cause them to not latch properly, which can be bad news in a crash.

    If you’re really worried it might be a flood car, try to pull up an edge of the carpet and see if there’s mud caked underneath.

  39. elislider says:

    my girlfriends 95 volvo 850 turbo had same problem with not being able to get it out of park, as well as the remote buttons not working. dunno what the issues are with the volvo autotrans’s … i would probably venture a guess that my gf had spiller coffee or Rockstar on the shifter though, lol. probably the cause

  40. JustAGuy2 says:

    Also, how is this a Volvo Certified Pre-Owned? I thought you could only buy those from dealers?

  41. lestat730 says:

    perhaps its some kind of new fangled dope the previous owner was attempting to smuggle somewhere!

  42. valarmorghulis says:

    @Coder4Life: uhhh…that’d be The Exorcist

    as far as the gear shift, my volvo has the same sticking problem (’92 240), but it is definatly caused by the ‘Shiftlock’ and i just reach in there and push it out of the way. As for the gunk…i’d have to guess, and that’d be the flooded thing. does it have an odor? WD40 gumms up something terrible under heat.

  43. trujunglist says:


    I wouldn’t taste anything from a pre-owned vehicle, who knows where it’s been? Annnd, I’ve also heard that antifreeze tastes lovely…

  44. hossfly says:

    I would’nt worry too much about the “submerged” theory, at least as far as salt-water is concerned.
    With most of today’s vehicles “vital controls” being controlled from some sort of electronic device (OBD II or III, electronic fuel injection,etc.), they don’t take too well with water, especially the corrosive salt variety. With that said, i can’t see any vehicle that has been submerged to the point that the windshield is under water being able to operate without most ALL electronics having been replaced, thus, not a very profitable investment from my view. (go price a few major engine control devices for ANY current vehicle regardless of make/model; MAP sensor, OBD,etc).
    As far as Carfax goes; c’mon people, it doesn’t take weeks/months for saltwater to eat-up cheap untreated metal components; why do you think ALL marine related electronic components/accessories are either sealed or made from copper/brass of high-quality stainless steel?
    i think some companies just jumped on the opportunity to promote their product…just my opinion there.
    Besides all that, just go pour some water (regular or salt) into your rear axle or engine or cv-joints and see just how long they last….make sure you don’t forget your cell-phone for the tow-truck…..
    Anywho……as far as the sticky/gooey stuff goes….go get a S***ta cola…..pour some in a small plastic storage container (or the top of a gearbox just laying around) and let it set for a couple weeks…….nasty doesn’t begin to describe the end results.
    Besides all this, the used car dealer is taking care of everything: now THAT’S unusual!!

  45. luckybob343 says:

    The remote with the gunk is probably battery acid that has eaten through virtually all of the no-name battery that has always been there. A battery can corrode into a gunky, goopy mess and still function. Key fobs can be ordered off eBay and can be programmed through a convoluted switching and door opening sequence done from the car.

    The goop within the shifter is more than likely soda/coffee like everyone else has said in here. It could also be a mix of something the previous driver splashed through that worked it’s way back. Your car should have a switch somewhere on the shifter console that allows you to manually free the shift lock. If that switch shorts out (as switches will do when covered in sugary, liquidy gunk) or if the solenoid connected to the break pedal shorts out, you won’t be able to free the shifter, even if you push the button. Have the shop check the connections. If you’re handy, take the console apart and hit everything with some contact cleaner.

    There’s a forum called that I used when my wife and I owned a 96 850 Turbo. Being that its a Volvo, there are pages and pages of problems and fixes.

    Remember kiddies, if the car’s name starts with V, you’ll be on a first name basis with your mechanic.

  46. Don’t disconnect the shift solenoid–it’s a safety device. Clean or replace it. Also, if your brake lamp switch wears out, it will also prevent the car from shifting out of park.

    BTW, some VW/Audi products allow the automatic gear shift to operate freely when the ignition key is turned to a certain point–about halfway between “off” and “run.”

  47. Buran says:

    I’m not sure what the goo is, but the problem with the gearshift being stuck in park is caused by, ultimately, the brake light switch failing or the car otherwise not being able to tell that the brake is being pressed. Automatics have an interlock that, for safety reasons, requires the brake to be pressed (as you know and as most people know) to shift out of park so that the car won’t lurch and hit anyone.

    I would guess that some of that goo (and it might indeed be soda; I spilled soda on my dash once and it was a PITA to clean it out) may have damaged that switch or some of the wiring.

    In other words, I’m concurring with luckybob. I have not personally experienced this but I’ve owned a vehicle that was similar to one that did end up being recalled for a switch replacement, and my boss’ car did have this problem. Oh, that was fun trying to explain to him why his cruise stopped working (he has a stick so he could still drive it, but since the cruise uses the brake switch to disengage, the cruise is automatically disabled if the switch fails).

    He got it fixed and it never failed again since the part was re-engineered by the manufacturer for all future shipments, but for people who don’t know the details of how it all works, the “can’t get out of park” problem can be quite mysterious and confusing.

  48. Buran says:

    @segfault: Sometimes. I wonder if it’s a design feature or a flaw, at least on the MkIV.

  49. Lithium542 says:


    Well, if you’ll notice where he found the goo in the key, and in the shifter in the center console. That theory would allow for most of the onboard electronics to be intact, as well as the seats if you’re lucky. I wasn’t saying it was a likely scenario, however, there could be the off chance that someone indeed made the vehicle into a project.

  50. StevieQ says:

    @BayStateDarren: Ha! The Xfiles is the first thing I thought of, too. Maybe the Volvo was at the bottom of the sea…

  51. jarchie219 says:

    If the remote really doesn’t have a battery, is it possible that the doors never lock?

  52. Since Ford bought a chunk of Volvo, quality across the board is down and cost across the board is up. Enjoy your new lemon and welcome to the Hell that is used Volvo ownership, model year 1998 and later. If I had all the money I have dumped into my used s80 back (including original purchase price), I would have enough money to buy a brand new Accord v6 and would be very happy to do so. Or I could buy a new Fordvo s40 and be considerably poorer due to maintenance and bullshit.

    If you can take it back, do so.

  53. Turcicus says:

    I’m a forensic scientist (for reals). Send me some of the gunk, I’ll figure out what it is.

  54. stpauliegirl says:

    @loueloui: Heh, I totally didn’t realize that until you pointed it out, and then I saw it right away. I’ve also been watching a lot of Sopranos lately.

  55. Sudonum says:

    To those saying “Katrina Flood”, if the car was indeed flooded up to the shift lever there would have way too much damage to even consider repairing it. And I doubt a key fob that flooded would be working at all, let alone be transferred with the car to a new owner. Look for a “water line” somewhere in the engine compartment or trunk.

    @hossfly: Most of the Katrina flooding in the New Orleans area was with fresh/brackish water. My house flooded with “fresh” water due the fact that the parish sent all the pump operators north to safety and then had no way to contact them to come back when the storm passed.

  56. strathmeyer says:

    Did you keep the receipt? Maybe you can return it.

    Seriously, the problem seems to be that the buyer still isn’t satisfied with his original Certified Pre-Owned Volvo purchase because nobody seems to have any clue what this gunk is or care enough to find out for him. In situations like this you just take the car to CarMax (or your local equivalent) and sell it, and consider it a lesson about Volvo.

  57. paulprod says:

    that goo could very well be some kind of bitumen sealant – stuff is used to rustproof hollow metal parts, glue sheets of plastic to door metal and anywhere else where “soft” seal is required. Its pitch black, very sticky and a lot of sh*tty stereo installers/mechanics use it to hold stuff they broke together.
    its possible when car was “conditioned” before the sale they just used a glob of it to hold the broken keyfob and some plastic around the shifter together.

  58. failurate says:

    @paulprod: You should win a prize of some sort.

  59. MrEvil says:

    I concur on the soda syrup diagnosis. That stuff may as well be roofing tar and it collects ANY dirt and debris that comes in contact with it. It will turn black in an environment where there are lubricants or a chance for it to absorb alot of dirt.

    Might I also state I hate that stupid brake pedal interlock in gearshifts. Just because some fuckwit leaves their keys in the car with their kid not straight-jacketed I have to have my foot on the effing brake pedal to put the vehicle into gear.

    @Geekybiker: Oh contraire, Ever hear of three on the tree? The manual shifter can go on the column too. What gets my goat is that there’s so many vehicles these days sold with that damn console automatic shifter in models that don’t even have a manual transmission option. If I drive a standard I reach for the shifter on the floor, I drive an automatic I reach for the column shifter. My first car was a 4 speed, but I absolutely HATE a floor-shifted auto.

  60. Stitchopoulis says:

    @Geekybiker: In the majority of modern manual transmission cars, the transmission is sort of under and beside the engine, and the transmission linkage is cable actuated, thus enabling the gearshift to go a multitude of places. My friend Ben says that I look like a stone cold badass when I shift my ’77 Dodge with the column shifter, and I’d have to agree.

  61. Stitchopoulis says:

    @MrEvil: You beat me. But I’m the first to mention a 3 on the tree plus bench seats plus your sweetie equals smooching.

  62. Orv says:

    @MrEvil: I think the real reason is that floor shifters are seen as “sportier” than column shifters.

  63. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    @Stitchopoulis: I was just chuckling over “stone cold badass” :)
    Do you prefer three on the column or four on the floor?
    (Missing my old 72 Challenger with the Slap Stick automatic)

  64. I can’t believe you’d even consider shopping at carmax. They promote the no-haggle atmosphere, then charge 20% more than any sane person would ever pay for anything.

    Shit what’s the point in buying a car if you can’t haggle anyway?

    And then there’s the fact that they fill your volvo with black goo.

  65. cpoiscrap says:

    We purchased a “certified pre-owned Volvo XC90” in October,and what a mistake that was. No black gunk, but just about everything else that could go wrong has. The first two month’s that we owned the car it had two recalls, the transmission went, needed new rotors, replaced 4 bulbs, replaced stereo panel, failed inspection, replaced ball-joints, etc…it just never ends. Volvo the corporation offers nothing but a complaint line, and the dealership has told us that it is our problem now. We are left with nothing else to do, but to file a suit against the dealership for falsly certifying the vehicle. The vehicle we purchased obviously never went through the 130+ point VOLVO CPO check. If you are experiencing a similar situation contact Volvo the Corp or write to your chapter of consumer protection or attorney general for your state. Maybe if they get enough complaints something will be done. Don’t trust CPO!

  66. Ghede says:

    Both the Car and the Key? Sounds like you have a classic case of automotive possession. I suggest using aquafina, and book of random religious-sounding gibberish. Feel free to substitute any liquid and text of your choice.

  67. Anonymous says:

    Maybe this was brought up already, but you shouldn’t be able to buy a “Certified” vehicle at a superstore. Only dealerships offer that.

    And I agree with the coffee/soda spill theory, anything with sugar in it combined with the high heat of an interior turns rock hard fast.

  68. failurate says:

    I still agreed with paulprod. The quantity of goo described far exceeds that of spilled soda.
    This is a lube/tacky job gone wrong.

    And, anyone can certify anything. I myself have been certified as “Excellent”. It really depends on how much you value the opinion and reputation of the certifier.

  69. Foneguy says:

    I agree with paulprod as well. I live in Michigan and in the 70’s and early 80’s there was a company called Ziebart, (It’s us or rust) that used to undercoat vehicles. The method involved drilling holes in all the hidden crevices of your car, including the doors, and spraying this black tarry gunk all over the inside, and underside of your car. The gunk prevented moisture and road salt from causing rust from the inside, and it really did work. In those days, Michigan cars would rust out in two years from the Winter road salt. But that was before manufacturers started dipping the entire chassis in rust inhibiter during production. It could be that the original dealer sold the original owner rust proofing that he really didn’t need. Ziebart caused the exact same symptoms that are described, but it usually dried and stopped after a few weeks. In the mid 80’s, most cars started coming with high mileage no rust guarantees, and Ziebart turned into an accesories aftermarket type company.

  70. wesrubix says:

    I don’t understand how you can buy a Volvo Certified used Volvo from a non-Volvo dealership?

    Oh wait. Yes I can: you got scammed!

  71. Kendra says:

    The car was flooded.

    All batteries and fluids have congealed inside -with- any possible molds/silts/residues.