Friday, August 17, 2012

Great Car Failure Saga of 2012

I own a 2007 Ford Freestyle.  Right now, it is basically a two-ton paperweight.  That's being unfair, actually.  It starts.  It goes in reverse.  The electrical system is top drawer.  It just doesn't go forward.

Forward, as it turns out, is an incredibly useful feature in a car.

Before taking the car to any shop, I put my nerdy skills, which will not be at all useful in the zombie apocalypse, to work.  Oh, the Googling I did.  And in the Googling, found some interesting stuff.  Such as the hundreds of other people who had the same symptoms our car had:
  • Lunging/surging when the car was going less than 5 mph, on hot days, when the A/C is on;
  • 'Limping' after you've been stopped at a red light, stop sign, whatever;
  • Slowly responding to acceleration (i.e., you press the gas pedal, and the car ponders your request for awhile);
In some cases, the car owners had the transmission replaced, and it worked, and then the transmission died again.  Other folks performed much, much, much, much cheaper repairs, and those worked.  Things like cleaning the throttle body, replacing the throttle body, fixing a cracked motor mount, etc.

Anyway, when we took it to the second service repair shop, my husband explicitly asked them to diagnose the problem, but also to clean the throttle body.  They concurred with the first shop:  we should replace the transmission. The icing on the devastation cake was how they apologetically shrugged when telling us this information.  Like, $6,000, no big deal. Except it IS a big deal. A really gigantically big deal. That's daycare FOR A YEAR. That's groceries FOR A YEAR. That's comic books for TWENTY YEARS.

That last one is especially important.

I did not accept this diagnosis. Couldn't is probably more articulate.  I am not ready to face that reality.  So, more research.  It turns out that our Ford Freestyle's problems are so rampant among all Ford Freestyles that there's a class action lawsuit in California, and the NHTSA has an open investigation into the issue. But, there's no official recall yet.


I filed a complaint with the NHTSA because I have an uncanny understanding of bureaucracy, and a recall will never be issued unless the government has substantial numbers of people complaining about the same thing.  Shockingly, I got an incredibly cogent and thoughtful response from NHTSA employee, who supplied me with Ford's technical service bulletin TSB 11-10-21.

What's a technical service bulletin, you ask?

Oh, only the INSTRUCTIONS for how to perform the service required to correct the COMMONLY EXPERIENCED ISSUES.  Turns out, a dealer needs to download an update to the car's computer, and clean the throttle body.  Gee, where have I heard that before?  Oh, right, everywhere on the web.

Once I got my hands on the TSB, I called the service shop, and spoke to the shop supervisor.  I told him about the technical service bulletin, and asked him if he could detail what had been done when we originally took the car to them.  He pulled the file, and it turns out that they didn't really do much. The air filter box was not fastened properly, so they corrected that.  They looked at the throttle body, 'but it didn't really look like it needed to be cleaned.' Never mind that we explicitly asked for that.  I appreciate that maybe they wanted to save us money, and so elected not to perform the service that they didn't think we needed.  But, shouldn't we have gotten a call about that? I mean, if you take your car to get an oil change, they don't say, "Wow, you really don't need to spend this $40.00 with us today."  They do the work as requested, UNLESS it will cause other problems.


Lastly, they connected the car's computer to the diagnostic equipment they had, and it gave them a couple of error codes.  They 'didn't write them all down,' but they are 'pretty sure' it gave them  P0735, which is 'Gear 5 incorrect gear ratio.'  Further research indicates that there are all kinds of things that you can try to deal with this.  Checking fluids, replacing solenids, etc., ultimately leading up to replacing the transmission.

It seems like these computers are the auto version of WebMD.  All symptoms on WebMD lead to cancer, right? So I sort of figure that all of these error codes can lead to 'replace the transmission,' 'rebuild the suspension,' or 'just drive the car off of a cliff and claim the insurance.'

Now, I respect that these mechanics are experts, and they are suggesting the course of action that has the highest degree of success, in their experience, for this particular problem.  I am but a college grad who has a scary ability to ferret out information.  And I have a problem with the fact that they didn't:

(a) know about the service bulletin, or if they did, they didn't try the things it suggested;
(b) perform the service the customer actually asked them to do, and
(c) list out a menu of possible things they could try, with replacing the transmission being their strongest recommendation. 

I would've respected that.  Instead, I feel like they went straight for the overkill option, like a doctor telling you that if you really want to treat that pre-cancerous mole on your cheek, you should chop off your head.

So, I asked the shop supervisor to please perform the service listed in the TSB.  He gave me a flat price because we'd already paid for diagnostics, but stated that it probably wouldn't fix the car's problems.  Which was fine by me, actually, because the plan at that point was to do get the dealer to do the software download (those can generally only be done at the dealer), then take the car to my brother & sister-in-law's shop, Complete Auto Repair Service.

I know, I know.  If I have a brother who is a mechanic, why on earth would I go to the dealer, right?  Proximity, basically.  But for this?  For this I am willing to drive from southwestern Baltimore County to Harford County.  If my brother tell me the car needs a new tranny, I will believe him, and it will be a vindication of sorts for the dealers.  But I will be beyond certain that he and his crew actually did the due diligence required to come to that conclusion, rather than simply plugging it into a computer and offering up only the most extreme solution. 

No comments: