The first place to start when attempting to determine how to deal with ongoing problems with a vehicle is the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) web site. There are lots of useful resources there and they keep one of the most comprehensive lists of ongoing vehicle problems called Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs). NHTSA is also the organization that is responsible for making sure that automakers repair serious safety defects in vehicles -- the recall.
The NHTSA database of TSBs (one of many such resources) is regularly used by mechanics to diagnose problems with cars and trucks and to look for problems that might occur in the future when doing a general "check-up" on a car. This database is accessible to everyone and can be found online at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/tsb/servicemmy1.cfm . This should be checked periodically to see if new problems with your vehicle are rising. That way you can repair them before they become significant.
Additionally, sometimes TSBs do become recalls. Knowing what is problematic with your car will help you know what to look out for and when to ask for a specific repair. The results of a TSB database search are generally lengthy -- sometimes 70 or 80 notices appear. However, many of them are duplicates. This occurs because the mechanics reporting the problems may describe them in different ways or at different times during their deterioration. NHTSA lists them all.
Recalls are regularly available on the site in the Tools section. However the most complete recalls database is located at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/recalls/recmmy1.cfm and should be checked from time to time even if you are not experiencing problems. NHTSA demands recalls not just in order to save the consumer unnecessary repetitious repairs, but, more importantly, to protect us from dangerous design flaws.
Recalls are a legal demand by the Federal Government that an auto or truck maker provide specific repairs to a particular make and model of vehicle. The manufacturer is required to contact all owners. Recalls don't expire so the manufacturer is always responsible to repair, replace or repurchase the defective vehicle, even if the car was bought pre-owned. The purpose of this is so that owners who don't receive a notice (which happens often in the case of a car bought second hand) are still protected.
However, there is an exception to the automaker's responsibility: they are not required to repair defects for free if they are first discovered more than 8 years after manufacture -- thus protecting manufacturers from having to repair old cars for which the safety technology did not exist at the time it was built. But once there is a recall it stays in effect forever.
Start by searching the recalls database online for the year, make and model of your vehicle or call a local dealership's service department and ask them if there are recalls for your vehicle. Searches can be narrowed to specific problems using the database, but that isn't necessary to do -- it's a good idea to see the entire list. You can then call the automaker's customer service line to double check on the recall, make sure it applies to your specific car, when it was issued and ask about getting things repaired.
Alternatively, you can call or visit dealerships handling the make and model of your car. Ask if a recall is active and if your car is covered. Find out when the recall was issued. Try a different dealership if you get an answer that is contrary to what the database tells you. If there has been a recall, take the vehicle in for the required repairs. Be aware though that the cost of only the recall-related repairs will be covered. Any other problems will not.
It is important to know that even though there is a recall for a specific year, make and model of vehicle that does not mean it is the specific car or truck recalled. For example, sometimes recalls are manufacturing-plant dependent. In other words, a car made in plant A may have a recall associated with it, but the same vehicle made in the same year at plant B may not. Additionally, a particular year, make and model of car may have a recall notice, but only a specific set of the vehicles is being recalled. So it is possible that only a group of specific cars had the problem. Even though you own a recalled vehicle, that particular car may not have the problem the recall covers and thus will not be repaired.
Car and truck makers are required to make a good faith effort to reach every owner -- usually they do this by purchasing lists from the state motor vehicle registration authorities and contacting the owners at the address on file at the DMV. NHTSA keeps track of their progress and sometimes takes additional steps, like multiple mailings or calls, to make sure consumers are notified. Therefore, even if the car was purchased used, as long as it is registered with the state authority, the owner can be reached with recall information.
Recall work is a separate matter from warranty work. They are not connected. Recalls are not paid for by your warranty. However, even if your warranty is expired, the automaker pays for the recall work, not the consumer.
On another note, consumers may hear about a recall on the news before any official notification is made. So it is possible that the dealer you speak to could correctly say he hasn't heard of the recall. In that case it pays to call the dealership in 3 or 4 weeks to see if they have received the notification and if your car is indeed being recalled.
If a consumer truly believes the dealer is shirking their duty -- saying there is no recall when there clearly is one listed in the NHTSA database -- then the consumer needs to call another dealership selling that brand of vehicle to compare the story. If there are still questions, call the automaker or NHTSA's toll-free Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 and they will attempt to assist.
Dealers in general like to do the recall work, because they get paid by the automaker. They get better and faster each time they do a repair -- which makes recall work profitable. It also gives them a chance to talk to potential customers and sell them services.
Cosmetic problems like peeling paint are not a safety issue and thus do not fall under the jurisdiction of NHTSA. Consumers experiencing cosmetic problems should check with the dealer to see if any arrangements have been made for special problems -- again, check with several dealers to compare their stories.
Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) handles questions about certain consumer problems. Call them and ask about a specific problem. The Center for Auto Safety keeps track of non-safety matters and publishes a newsletter called the "Lemon Times." State and county consumer agencies and state attorneys general also concern themselves with automobile problems, but they are not required to do so unless fraud is involved.