A tale of two car dealers

I could potentially sub-title this “Why I need to travel far to get good service on my car.”

Yesterday I had a frustrating, yet ultimately enlightening and positive experience with my car. I’ve written two blog posts about my Prius before: the first about my experience buying a used Prius (and how happy I was to pay for it with cash), and the second about how much I was loving the car after having it for about seven months. The car also got an honorable mention in another post because I had to call the complimentary road side assistance for a jump-start the day after writing about that seven month experience.

That jump-start was actually my first indication that there was a problem to address, but I didn’t realize it at the time. A month later, I was running about town with a friend and had the battery die again. I needed yet another jump-start, and that second time the road side assistance response wasn’t as great. We had to call another friend to stop by to jump-start the car because one gets very cold sitting a car in December when the heater can’t run.

Another month goes by, and I am once again unable to start the car. This time, when I called the complimentary road side assistance they were prompt in responding (thank goodness!) and I requested a tow. There was obviously something really wrong that needs fixing, so getting it towed to a Toyota dealer seemed to be the best thing to do. We ended up having to jump-start the car first just to get it out of the garage, but then the car was hoisted onto the truck and away we went to the Toyota dealership that is three miles from my house, Grossinger Toyota North.

*Just a note that I’m naming dealers here for a reason: I’m doing it because I want to clearly identify the good guys and the bad guys. Any Toyota owner who lives in the Chicago area and reads this: take note of my experience and stay away from the bad guys!*

I had taken the car to Grossinger for service once before. Back when I purchased the car in March 2012, I also purchased a pre-paid service plan for it. I got a reminder in the mail that the car was due for service, so I made an appointment at this dealer because it was close to my house. Yet when I checked the car in, I was told by the service assistant that since I had not yet driven the recommended 5,000 mile interval between oil changes, the service would be denied by the plan. I could pay for oil change myself, but I declined to do so and left.

Despite that experience, I didn’t think twice about having the car towed to Grossinger. I needed a Toyota dealer service department, Grossinger is only three miles from my house, and if they couldn’t give me a ride home for some reason, the cab ride would be fairly cheap. (They did drop me off at home. I’m not going to get all rah-rah about that, though, since it is standard practice in the dealer service industry to drive a reasonable distance to drop off a customer while their car is being serviced.)

The outcome of that service experience was that I needed a new battery. (Not the hybrid battery, just the regular old 12-volt battery that stores charge for the car to start and powers accessories.) Grossinger had the car for about three days because I asked that the service department try to get the battery replacement covered by the Toyota Certified warranty or the service plan. After all, I had owned the car less than a year and Toyota Certified cars are warranted for a full year. Unfortunately, neither the warranty or the maintenance plan covers items that fall under normal wear and tear, and that includes batteries.

While the car was there, the service department recommended that I have a recall service taken care of, no charge. That made sense to me, so I authorized it. Oh, but I when I asked about an oil change I was told to wait until I had reached the 5,000 mile interval. (Yes, I had owned the car for 10 months and still had not driven 5,000 miles. I don’t drive a lot.) After three days, I paid my $300 for a new battery (gulp!) and drove the car home. That was back in January, and while I was pretty upset at myself for buying this useless service plan I didn’t think much more about the experience.

Yesterday, I had a lovely day of leisure planned. I had taken the day off work and was driving up to the Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair for a knitting class and an afternoon hanging out with friends. But as I was driving the Prius on the expressway, a warning light appeared on the dash: a big, red triangle with a large, red exclamation point inside. I pulled over to the shoulder, put the car in park and got the owner’s manual out of the glove box. I turned the car off while I found the section about warning lights, then turned it back on to see if the light popped on again. (Yes, I kind of thought that “re-booting” the car may make a difference!) The scary triangle appeared, and I could also see another symbol on the Multi-Function Display (the little screen where many of the controls are activated) that I looked up in the manual: hybrid system warning.

The owner’s manual advised to get the car to a dealership for service right away (duh!), and so I thought about this for a few minutes. The car didn’t seem to be driving and handling poorly, so did I really need to call a towing service, or could I drive it to the nearest Toyota dealer? I knew that if I kept driving for another 10 or 15 miles, I could bring the car to AutoNation Toyota in Libertyville where I had originally purchased it. I would also be fairly close to where I was taking my knitting class, and perhaps one of the friends I was meeting there could pick me up at the dealer.

I took a chance and pulled back onto the expressway. The car was driving fine, except for these scary warning lights. I made one more brief stop at an oasis on the toll road so I could consult some maps to make sure I knew the exact route to AutoNation, and to call my friend about getting a ride. As I drove out of the oasis, the car was still driving just fine, and I happily made it to the dealership service bay.

Here’s where things actually start going great and the enlightenment and positivity begin. 🙂

I was stressed out when I walk into the service department, yet the service person was kind and calming. He checked in my car and looked it up in the computer system to view the service records and start a new service ticket. Meanwhile, I complained to him that I am not happy with Toyota and this stupid service plan right now. I told him how I had been denied an oil change at Grossinger because I hadn’t driven the recommended 5,000 mile interval (and for the record, I still haven’t!), how I had to replace the battery less than a year after purchasing this “certified” and “warranted” vehicle, and how I was on my way to a class and hoping not to miss it.

Carlos (I’m not going to give his last name here in respect for his privacy) apologized for the misinformation I had been given and told me that I should be able to get an oil change every six months OR 5,000 miles. He said they could take care of that service while they ran the diagnostics on my car, as long as I could leave it for several hours. He informed me that the diagnostics check was $99, though, and I’d be expected to pay it since it is not standard service. I wasn’t happy to pay anything, of course, but anxious about what the heck could be going on. He gave me his card with a direct number and told me that he would call me in the afternoon, although the earliest the car would be ready was about 1 PM.

I sat in the service waiting area for a bit as I waited for my friend to arrive and take me to my class. I connected to the free wi-fi, I drank some coffee, and I tried to call B, who would be on the road himself, for a memorial service with his family. I posted about my bad morning on Facebook, and quickly received a reply from a (currently car-free) friend that this Toyota dealership in Libertyville was the best in the area, and that she had regularly taken her Toyota there for service despite living more than 30 miles away from it.

My friend Adrienne came to my rescue and I only ended up missing about an hour of my three-hour class. I enjoyed a pleasant lunch with her and some friends that were visiting from out-of-town, and we prepared to re-enter the Fair for browsing and shopping. Before I did that, though, I pulled out Carlos’ card and gave him a call. It was about 2 PM, and I wanted to find out if they had figured out what is wrong with the car. Indeed, they had.

Carlos told me how Grossinger had essentially almost broken my car. He was much more diplomatic about it than that, of course, but he said that when they had performed my recall service back in January they had failed to complete it properly. The recall related to a water pump that cools the hybrid battery. Carlos indicated that Grossinger had, indeed, installed a new part that addressed the recall issue yet they had failed to connect the part to the computer. It was a warm day, I was driving at expressway speeds for much longer than I normally do, and because the computer couldn’t connect with the hybrid battery cooling system, the warning lights were triggered. (Without proper cooling, the hybrid battery can malfunction; needless to say, this is very bad to happen when driving because, as Toyota notes in their recall letter “[it] may increase the risk of a crash.”)

The good part was that the problem was easily fixed and the car would be ready soon. However, Carlos also had one more update to give me. While driving the car for the diagnostics, they had found that the left front strut should be replaced. This should be warranty service and wouldn’t cost me anything, yet he needed to contact the warranty office and they would need to order the part.

While I wasn’t entirely happy to hear they had found another potential issue with the car, at least it sounded like it wouldn’t result in more cost to me. I was glad that the warning lights were easily addressed and that my car had finally — after 16 months!! — gotten an oil change, too. Carlos suggested that I go back to Grossinger and ask them to refund me the diagnostic fee. Oh, boy would I ever do that!

The rest of my afternoon went smoothly. I browsed the Fair. I bought some yarn and some healthy chews for Hannah dog; I hung out with Adrienne and her friends, and hitched a ride with them to the hotel where they were staying so we could hang out a bit longer and have dinner. (And also so I didn’t have to sit in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic on a rainy Friday.) It was about 8 PM by the time Adrienne dropped me at the dealership again to pick up my car.

Carlos was long gone by then, but another service assistant was there to help. He seemed to be having issues locating my paperwork, though, and I started feeling anxious again. Adrienne was already gone and I really needed to get home to take care of Hannah dog. The service assistant suggested I sit down in the waiting area while he called Carlos. A few minutes later, he entered the waiting area with a phone and said that Carlos wanted to speak to me. Uh, oh.

He apologized for my paperwork not being closed out; he had been waiting for the warranty service to get back to him and they hadn’t done so. He then said “I’m not going to charge you anything for today’s service.” Wow.

I got my car back in great shape, with clean oil and no scary warning lights. I still have this strut issue to deal with, but I will gladly take my car back to AutoNation to get it addressed. I told Carlos about the comment my friend had made about their service department being the best in the area and he said that he heard that frequently; he had once helped a guy who regularly came in from Rockford, IL (that’s 80 miles away!) for his car’s service. As much as I loved the service at AutoNation, I do hope that I only have to go back a couple of times a year for my regular oil changes and maintenance since it is 28 miles from my house, and at least at 35 minute drive each way.

As I left last night, I told the service assistant I felt like I owed them all a big hug. Instead, I’ll do the more acceptable approach and write a glowing letter of praise to the service manager and dealership management. And I’ll also bring a big box of doughnuts when I go back to get my strut fixed.

Grossinger, on the other hand, will never get ANY patronage from me again, and will get a different kind of letter to their management.

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4 thoughts on “A tale of two car dealers

    • Ah, Yelp. I don’t entirely trust the reviews on Yelp for anything. When the business pays, the better reviews move up the list and the bad reviews move down. Grossinger’s reviews are mixed: some are glowing and some are not, and it’s hard to pick through them to find the ones relating to service rather than the ones relating to sales. But there are certainly some bad stories there, and I should probably add mine.

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