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Veteran Of The Car Safety Wars Speaks Out

The Toyota safety and quality fiasco is an enigma.

by on Feb.22, 2010

Nader's polemic, Unsafe At Any Speed, a clear exaggeration, led to significant safety reforms.

Even as a grizzled veteran of the car safety wars that began with the publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed in the mid-1960s, I find it hard to fathom how Toyota has fallen into the mess it finds itself in.

Toyota has benefited from a carefully nurtured reputation for quality and reliability over the last three decades. Unlike domestic manufacturers, Toyota was one of the first to go to longer warranties as the Detroit Three – claiming equivalent quality – stuck with far shorter ones that were less expensive for them, but not their customers.

Toyota also went the extra mile for its customers, quietly fixing out-of-warranty complaints. Critics called these “secret warranties” – although Toyota never was caught at it – and indeed, they were, but they helped build Toyota’s reputation and enviable,money-making owner loyalty.

In Detroit, lawyers and quarterly-finance-report-driven bean counters ruled the roost, rigidly enforcing warranty limits, blithely enduring the wrath of owners who, feeling short-changed, fell into the arms of auto companies backing their products for the longer term.



This is not just speculation. My bride of 20 years ago owned a new Camry, an otherwise fine car that, however, eventually suffered from rusting quarter panels and failing $500 exhaust systems. We learned that Toyota had beyond-warranty “customer satisfaction” programs that covered these flaws. In the case of the exhaust system, we did not find this out until the second set of pipes and mufflers failed.

Well Publicized Safety Issues of the Past

Nevertheless, what about the big safety issues of those past decades? As noted, the first was Nader’s attack on the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair introduced in 1959. His legal argument was that the car handled differently than front-engine cars, therefore typical American drivers were unsafe driving them. Of course, VW, Renault and Porsche also were rear-engine, but at the time their manufacturers were far away, their pockets shallow and their numbers few.

Along with most other auto writers then, I loved the Corvair’s neat handling and fascinating features.   (more…)

Independent Shops Fighting Dealers and Ex-Dealers for Your Service Business

As new car dealerships close, some are converting to used car sales and general repairs. Consumers should benefit.

by on Jun.05, 2009

Electronic diagnostic tools are expensive and specialized.

Electronic diagnostic tools for computerized cars are expensive and often specialized by brand.

More than 130,000 independent repair shops are bracing for the effects of the closings of thousands of Chrysler and General Motors new car dealers. A study by consulting firm Grant Thornton says that 20% of car dealerships in the United States are projected to close in 2009.

An unknown number of closed dealerships are likely to continue in the business of servicing vehicles and selling used cars, with a new concentration on repair work now that the factory-financed warranty claims will no longer provide a source of revenue.

It is very unfortunate that so many dealerships will be closing this year,” said Rich White, executive director, Car Care Council. “Because a vehicle is the second biggest investment for most car owners, they want it serviced by someone they trust. It makes sense to take the time to select a new auto repair facility that will take the best care of their investment.”

In general, the effect on the repair market for consumers should be positive, since competition — in theory — will bring down the price of repairs. At a minimum, ex-dealers will have the latest service equipment and the residual effects of factory training going for them. As electronics and onboard computers have completely taken over the monitoring and control of critical areas of a vehicle – brakes, tire pressure, steering, air bags, fuel delivery, ignition, oil change intervals, theft prevention, emission controls, among others – a shop with the latest technical knowledge can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

Countering this need for up-to-date information, is the widely held belief that dealers charge much more for repairs than independent shops, which is confirmed by surveys.”

As we last reported, on average dealership repairs cost 34% more than at independent shops. If you aren’t careful, you could end up paying too much for their services for equivalent work. This comes from a study from the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association. It maintains that consumers paid $11.7 billion too much last year for parts and service. That’s a trend you don’t want to participate in.

Given such pricing disparities, it is not surprising that independent repair businesses account for more than 70% of vehicle service and repair, compared to 28% of non-warranty repairs by new car dealerships. Even before the accelerated dealership closings that started late last year, the number of dealerships and their share of the service and repair market have gradually declined each year since 2000, according to AAIA.    (more…)