Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Van Story (a Cautionary Tale)

I hate lemons.

But I have a new respect for after-market warranties.

Shortly after the youngest son was born, Jenn and I decided that between the strollers, wagons, car seats and diaper bags, we needed a vehicle substantially larger than the Toyota Corolla that we had.

We found a Ford Freestar. I had owned at least 6 Ford vehicles in the past and was dedicated to the brand.  My vehicles had served me well for many, many years…until the Freestar.

We loved our Freestar … at first. It had a DVD player for the kids on the long trips. It had all sorts of storage, and the back seat folded flat into the floor, which is where it usually stayed. Most importantly, I was able to transport my lawn mower and garage sale stuff, and other miscellaneous boxes and large objects at any given time to any given location. The van game me freedom that the Corolla didn’t allow.

That good feeling wore off after about two months, when, while driving more than 55 mph, the vehicle would begin to whine. And it got louder when I would turn.

So I turned to the Internet, and the Ford Freestar forums. There, I learned that the likely culprit was something called the wheel hub assembly. I scheduled a service appointment and took it in, complete with print-outs from the forums. When they test-drove it, however, they said they couldn’t hear anything. Typical. They never do.

Things get blurry at this point, because I was getting pretty angry. At some point, they said the bumper-to-bumper after-market warranty that I had purchased, which was supposed to cover everything right down to the floor hooks wouldn't cover whatever was wrong with it and causing the "phantom sound" anyway. So I got indignant and demanded to talk to the service manager. My basic message was this: I have done the diagnostic work for you. I am telling you exactly what it is, and what good is this warranty that your company is selling if you won’t stand behind it? What kind of crap did you sell me?

He buckled and we went for a ride. It finally made the noise, but nobody could tell what wheel it was coming from. His solution was to replace one, and if that didn’t fix it,  then make another appointment and get the other repaired. All I had to pay was the $100 one-time deductible. 

So that got fixed.

Two weeks later, it started making the same noise again, so I called the service manager directly and told him what was going on. He remembered me and got me taken care of quickly, quietly and no charge.

That’s two wheel hub assemblies so far.

Somewhere in there, we also replaced the brakes, one break drum, and the tires at our cost.

Then one day, when I was driving, I noticed that when I turned, it sounded like a couple of acorns were rolling around in the steering column when I turned corners. So I called again. And since I was there, I asked them to please check to see if they could figure out why the steering wheel shook whenever I came to a stop.

The thing that sounded like an acorn was easy. A par had broken off of some sort of controller assembly that controlled all of the blinkers, wipers and cruise control stuff and was rolling around in the steering column.

The shaking steering wheel was another story entirely. That resulted in the replacement of the steering rack (steering column, axles, etc.) all at no cost to me.

We got that work done just in time to take off to spend a week in Florida for Christmas. Everything was going great. We had a lot of fun on that trip. But then we became stranded. In downtown Orlando. At 4:30 p.m. On  New Year’s Eve. With a 2-year-old and Jenn’s parents along for the ride. Suck.

We were driving along fine, and all of a sudden the radio stopped working and the check engine light came on, followed by pretty much every idiot light on the dashboard. No problem, I said, figuring it was just a fuse. I told Jenn to pull in at the nearest gas station and I would change the fuse while we filled the gas tank.

It wasn’t the fuse.

I called AAA, and we waited. And waited. Luckily, there was a McDonald’s within walking distance that had a playground, so that is where Jenn, the baby, and Jenn’s mom spent most of the time waiting.

When the AAA guy finally got there, he determined it was the alternator, and the battery was probably shot, too. When we got the steering rack replaced, the guy told me that the battery wasn’t going to make it through winter, and I wrote that off, figuring they were just trying to get more money from me. After all, when I ran my own load test on it, I got a reading of “good.”

Now, I was kicking myself.

I hopped in the AAA truck and we drove around to two different auto parts stores looking for the correct alternator. One place didn’t have it, and neither did the second place. But the second place had another store on the other side of Orlando that had the part, and they could have it here and installed for us in the morning. I agreed, ordered the part, and made the arrangements.

Our van getting loaded on a flatbed around 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, 2010
to 20ll in downtown Orlando, Fla. Photo by Jerry Bruns.
We then returned to the gas station and met up again with Jenn, her mom, and the baby. The flat bed showed up, I relinquished my keys to the driver, who was a Turkish Army veteran, or something like that, and prayed that I would see my van some time again. I trusted the driver. I didn’t trust the city.

So we went back to McDonald’s and waited for my brother-in-law to come pick us up and take us back to the condo near Disney World. It was a very, very long night.

We got back to the condo and went to bed. The next day, we packed everything into the in-laws’ camper and the bed of their truck and went out to an orange grove, where they rented a camping spot, and we helped them set that up while we waited for the van to be finished.

At some point in there, I got a migraine. We weren’t having fun anymore.

I got anxious…we needed to get home because we had to go to work on Monday, and this was Saturday. We had to drive back to Ohio, get unpacked and settle back in. I called they shop, and the guy said he just started the paperwork and by the time we get there, he would have it done. So we left, got the van, came back to the campground, packed up, got a picture of me hugging a palm tree, and took off for home.

And then we got sick. I was sick, Jenn was sick, we could barely drive we were so sick. I COULDN’T drive. I think I drove maybe 5 hours of that 22 hour trip. It was bad. We had to stop at a strip mall, I don’t even know where we were, and sleep for a few hours. It was miserable.

We finally made it home, and went to work, and got on with life.

Then march came. We traded cars with Kyle (see previous blog entries about Kyle) one Sunday so he could hang out with the youngest son and take him places while he watched him for a couple of hours. When Jenn and I returned home from wherever we went, Jenn hopped in the van and went to a grocery store around the corner. It had started raining and it was really cold outside, so I knew the trip would be quick.

About 20 minutes later, my phone started ringing, which really didn’t surprise me. Jenn can’t leave the house without calling me at least once.

“We’ve got big problems. The car starts but it won’t move.”

I asked her what she meant by that, and she said that she could put it in gear, but it made a whining sound and didn’t move. So I packed up the baby and drove over to meet her. Exactly as she described.

“Should I call my guys,” she asked, referring to the service garage she uses on a regular basis for her company car. They came out and put the van on a flatbed for the second time in three months, and drove away. Luckily, I was able to borrow my grandmother’s car for about a week while they worked on it.

On Monday I got the car and the verdict: The transmission was shot and they were waiting for a call from the warranty company.

I hung up and started to worry. Yes, the warranty was covering it, but it was a 100,000 mile warranty, and the van was at about 86,000 miles. We were getting close to the point where we would have to pay for everything. Not good. And I didn’t want to put my family in harm’s way again. There were way too many break-downs in bad places with bad timing. It was no longer worth the risk.

I was worrying about all of this and trying to figure out how to approach the discussion with Jenn when my phone rang again.  Now, on my phone, I have all of the known numbers labeled. If it’s Jenn, I know it’s Jenn. If it’s mom or dad, my phone says who it is. I even have telemarketer numbers marked as “B.S. Call. Do not answer.”

I looked at my phone, expecting it to be the garage again. Instead, the screen showed the name of a guy I had purchased about four of my past vehicles from.  I picked up the phone, surprised to hear from him for the first time in about four years.

“Hey buddy. I just wanted to call and see how you were doing and let you know where I am working now,” he told me.

“It’s odd that you called at this very instant,” I answered, and explained to him what was going on. I didn’t promise we would seriously consider buying a car because I hadn’t talked to Jenn about anything yet. But I did tell him to start hunting for options and crunching numbers.

Our 2011 Nissan Sentra, purchased right before the earthquake and tsunami 
in Japan. Now these and Hondas are hard to come by.
Long story short, we picked a car, he came up and gave us a quote for trade-in on the van (which was a heck of a lot more than I expected to get for a van up on the rack with the transmission sitting on the floor), and we had purchased the car by the end of the week.

It’s smaller than we would like it to be, but it gets great gas mileage and it’s not a lemon.

That makes us happy.