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?