Category Archives: Cars

Why Toyota is losing its reputation for quality and reliability

Here’s a post from the “I wish I’d noticed this before I bought the car” file.

Under the hood on the driver’s side of my new 2013 Toyota RAV4 is one of the car’s computers, or engine control modules (ECM). It’s mounted on a bracket at an odd angle next to one of the relay boxes. Mine is labeled “Denso Engine Control” and is made in Japan. Encased in an a elements-resisting metallic case, you can’t miss it (although I did when I was shopping for the car). On the back (firewall side) of the ECM are two serious-looking (that is, large) electrical connectors that I assume deliver sensor input and transport engine control commands to the rest of the digital controls in the car.

Obviously this is a pretty important component, wouldn’t you agree? And it needs to be protected from the elements, especially the kinds of things that create electrical gremlins in circuitry — moisture, grime and exposure. Take a look at this photo, shot looking down into the top of the ECM with the hood open. The wiring from the bus connector is completely exposed. Any schnizz from the road that gets into the engine compartment is going to go directly into this connector.

Wiring harness in 2013 Toyota RAV4 exposed to elements — click to enlarge

So the question is, how could Toyota design, engineer and build for customer delivery a connector that exposes the top of the wiring harness of a digital computer to the elements? The answer is obvious: it was done cheaply. A few cents of electrical tape and a few seconds of assembly time are all that’s needed to protect this crucial component and improve reliability and dependability. Modern Toyotas seem to be built like 1980s GM cars — they could be well-built, but aren’t because of  “value engineering” in design and manufacturing. The RAV4 isn’t inexpensive — but now we have to wonder what else was done to make it cheap.

Anyway, you can fix this yourself without getting your hands dirty. Open the hood, apply some black electrical tape to the gaping hole at the top of the ECM connector and you’re done. Here’s a shot of mine after 30 seconds of effort.

An easy fix -- click to enlarge
An easy fix — click to enlarge

A day at the races

Who knew (or cared) that this weekend is the swan song for Grand-Am racing? They’ve merged with ALMS and next year will run a combined series. The BMW Car Club had an event this weekend for members today at Lime Rock Park and I figured, “Tricia’s at work…the weather is perfect…I’ve never seen Grand-Am races…and Lime Rock is BMW’s ‘home track’ in the US.”

So I drove to CT today — the color in the Berkshires is just starting — and had a blast.

If you like fast cars and the ear-splitting noise they make, today was an 11.

I thought this M3 was spectacular. Turner is based in Mass. and had a huge presence at Lime Rock — along with some tricked out cars, including an Alpine White F30 335i “project car” (like my car) that had me drooling.

Click to enlarge

This is the lone Lotus car on the first lap…

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Click to enlarge

And this is one of the Porsches on the second lap after the Lotus lost it on the esses and caused about three cars to pile up and smash into each other.

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Click to enlarge
Get a factory-fresh BMW in Munich

How to buy a BMW via European Delivery

Get a factory-fresh BMW in Munich
Get a factory-fresh BMW in Munich (click to enlarge)

You all know I am crazed about cars. Cars in the morning…cars at night…fast cars…faster cars. Cars I can’t afford. Cars I hate. Cars that I can’t get into or out of. Cars that aren’t green. Cars that don’t have red leather interiors. Black cars. Silver cars. Especially silver cars.

Ask my girls: the DVR overflows with recorded shows from Velocity. The, ahem, reading rack is full of brochures for cars I am dreaming about. Even Porsche sends me 911 literature because they don’t know we’re fans of private schools for our kids.

Still, my first love are BMWs. But I have to buy them in Europe. Trust me, it’s the only way you’ll ever get a car delivered new that has the tires inflated to factory spec at delivery. The urge to buy a car this way is so strong, I’ve even done it with Tricia’s Volvo.

It’ll be no surprise that I jumped at the chance to write about my most recent BMW European Delivery experience for the Boston Chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. Take a look and tell me if you think I have a second career coming up as an auto journalist — or tell me I’ve died and gone to heaven. It’s the same message.

Download (PDF, 5.19MB)

Beating back the BMW European Delivery re-delivery blues

Anyone who has ever ordered a BMW for European Delivery and eventual shipping home knows this part of the drill. You’ve gone to BMW Welt in Munich, picked up an amazing car, had a blast and dropped it off. You knew that waiting for it was going to be hard — everyone says so and besides, you’ve done this twice before.

But none of that makes a damn bit of difference. You can’t stand it. It almost physically hurts waiting for that ship to, literally, come in.

You try everything: more sports, more work, more time with the better half, more time at BMWCCA events. Nothing helps.

You are reduced to re-reading the manual and buying accessories as an excuse to go to the dealer to sit in a car like yours — which of course only makes it worse.

You know you have reached bottom — and are ready for the seven-step redelivery depression alleviation program — when the real-time ship tracking sites become the most-visited tab in your browser.

Nobody (except those as crazed as you who hang out in the Bimmerfest European Delivery forums) has any idea what’s going on in your mind — and if they had any idea, you’d get a lifetime prescription for Xanax.

Wanna know what’s in my head right now? How’s this: “Was scheduled on Asian Vision into Newark on 8/23/2012, but now the car is on Topeka also due on 8/23/2012. Two weeks and counting.”

Rinse, then repeat.

BMW M5 car porn

Apologies in advance. But I want to share with you my lastest fantasy: a lovely blue BMW M5. I had about 30 minutes of seat time in the previous generation M5 (the engine was a V10!) and ever since, to steal a phrase from Jimmy Carter, I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times with this car.

However, I am limited to watching YouTube videos of the car. Really, I don’t post that much car porn. But digital car porn is as close to verisimilitude as other kinds of, ahem, stuff you can get on the ‘net. And it’s G-rated. So, enjoy.

Yo, Limeduck! Do I get a +1 for “verisimilitude”?

Bye, bye solenoid — hello digital mobility machine

Today, I picked up Tricia’s Volvo XC60, which arrived at the local dealer this week after an “intensive examination” by Customs and Border Patrol delayed its entry into the USA.

I used the navigation system for the first time today because it was inoperable when we picked up the car in Sweden. (It comes pre-loaded with North American map data.) I input a destination, started it up and turned on the voice to hear it announce the route it had selected.

I put the car into gear and turned on the directional signal. While the system was announcing the route, I noticed that there was no turn signal clicking noise.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I gotta have my click. First, I thought it was some kind of manufacturing defect. The dash turn signal indicator was flashing and I assumed a brand-new car wouldn’t have burned out bulbs. Next, I thought, ugh, what a design miss. How could the engineers design out the clicking noise everyone relies on to know whether or not their turn signals are on?

In the time it took me to think it through, the voice announcement ended and voila! the clicking noise returned.

This astounded me even more. It means that the click must be digital…and it must be playing back through the sound system. As I considered this, I realized that the days of a fundamentally mechanical car are long gone. The old-school mechanical solenoid is obsolete. I remember when you used to have to fish up under the dash to find the turn signal solenoid when it failed. In the XC60, I’d need the source code for the infotainment system to find it.

This XC60 is a thoroughly digital device. It just happens to be an automobile. I suspect there’s more software is in this car than is in my DSLR or my iPad or my smartphone. Here’s a partial list of systems in the XC60 that are software-driven: radar and digital image processing to automatically brake the car if you get too close to a car in front, logic to permit the cruise control to automatically follow the car in front, ABS, DSTC, image processing to sense cars in blind spots and sensors in the shocks that can be set to deliver varying suspension rates. Clearly, the engine and transmission are digital, too (the car runs on regular or premium, so a knock sensor must be affecting the spark plug timing to prevent pre-detonation).

And I suspect my wife’s XC60 is to a Chevy Volt as an IBM PC XT of 1983 is to a Core i7 desktop of 2012. In short, as blown away as I am by this car, I’ll bet that hybrid and electric cars are even dependent on software.

So, bye-bye mechanical turns signals…hello, MP3 turn signal clicks.

Old school and why it can be so cool

If you follow my blog — and you know you should — you also know that I’ve been writing about cars a lot lately. It’s because I have mastered stretching the car buying process for as long as a year. Between research, taking delivery overseas and waiting for the car to be shipped home, that’s how long it can take me.

While that may seem like waterboarding to those of you who just buy one off the lot, and thank God that’s over!, I actually enjoy the elongated process because I learn so much more about the car that way. Plus, I can wait for the best price and, most importantly, making the process excruciatingly long means I’ll never become an impulse car buyer.

By the time we took delivery of Tricia’s new XC60, I’d learned that the car’s engine is made in a Ford plant in Wales, the transmission comes from Japan and the steel body parts are stamped at Torslanda, Sweden (pronounced in English, I think, like “tush-lander”). These and other useless bits of information plus a cover-to-cover reading of the online owner’s manual really do help cement the decision to buy a car.

For me, cars cost so much — and you keep them for so long — that it’s almost inexcusable to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a car that you haven’t become an expert on. After all, you can keep some cars almost as long as you keep your children. (I do realize how unfortunate that simile is, I really do. You try coming up with clever analogies. Post your alternatives as a comment and we’ll see which one(s) are more apt than the one I came up with.)

Anyway, Volvo has been doing overseas delivery for a long time. Long enough that in the distant fog of non-Internet time they felt it would be a good customer service idea to send a letter to a buyer letting him or her know when the car shipped from Europe and when it might arrive at the local dealer.

I received such a letter this morning. (Interesting, it came via email, so this customer service process has been updated somewhat for the Internet age.) You can see a redacted copy of the letter by clicking on the link at the end of this post.

Why is this old school? Well, for one thing Volvo generated a letter, not an email. That makes me think Volvo used to actually snail mail these out. I almost wish I’d gotten a letter postmarked Tushlander, Sweden. The footer is pretty interesting, too, eh? C’mon, how often have you gotten a letter from a car manufacturer with the bank wiring instructions for different currencies in the footer? Quaint.

But a letter like this is old school because it’s outdated. There are bazillion ways to track your car minute by minute as it crosses the ocean. For one, the shipper will give you a status update on its website, using your VIN as a tracking number. After all, if UPS can tell you where that package of gum is, why can’t a logistics company tell you where a freakin’ car is just as easily?

But the ne plus ultra of tracking is the many sites that combine cargo ship satellite transponders with Google Maps to give you the minute-by-minute location of a cargo ship. For example, the Platinum Ray, which has Tricia’s car on it, is in Southhampton in the UK at the moment. That’s its last stop in Europe on this voyage before it travels to Newark; Baltimore; Brunswick, GA and Charleston, SC on this side of the pond. By the time you read this, it may be on a completely different voyage. Still, you ought to check out this link, then click on “current vessel’s track” to see how precisely where this ship is. You may think me odd or impossibly geeky, but this is just too cool for words. I’m sorry; this is the balls.

But even though I can run technological rings around Volvo’s letter with up-to-the-minute news of where Tricia’s car is as it makes its way to her, I am even more impressed with the letter. It’s a nice touch, trying to keep the customer in the loop, not assuming the customer is technologically equipped to find the ship’s callsign and input it into a tracking site.

It may be old school, but it’s cool, too.

Oh, how my BMW mortal coil fails to fire

Well, it’s come to this: cheap, tawdry misappropriations of poetic metaphors.

Yesterday, something happened in my car that made it run rough and have no power. Come to find out today (thanks to an emergency visit to my pals at Village European) that the #4 ignition coil is dead. Prudence dictates that if one coil needs replacement, all should be replaced. And, since we’ve got the engine cover open, it’s advisable to replace all the spark plugs as well. (After all, who wants to spark a nearly dead plug? [And if you don’t get that joke, I can’t help you.])

Oh well…since you have the car, you might as well replace the front pads and rotors; there was only a few millimeters of surface left. All right…go ahead and change the oil, too, while you have it here. You know what? After the dealer aligned the car last spring, I couldn’t stand the way it drove, so do you mind also putting it on the rack?

To accurately describe the feeling one gets contemplating the cost of repairing a late-model BMW, I am forced to (mis)use the poetic term “mortal coil.” Usually, the term refers to the stress and frustrations of daily living.

Today, however, all I can think about is my BMW’s mortal ignition coils — they live fast and die young.

We pick up Tricia’s new car in Sweden

Greetings from Gothenburg, Sweden.

I’m writing this as Tricia catches a nap – she’s a little jet lagged. How jet-lagged? Well, she fell asleep in a tram while touring a car factory today. A very LOUD car factory. That, my friends, is jet-lag.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

It took us longer than we expected to get to Gothenburg. That’s because Tricia’s friendly travel agent (me) decided not to risk a short layover in Copenhagen. That added four hours sitting in an airport to the trip time. We arrived yesterday in a blinding, driven rain to discover that southern Sweden looks like (wait for it)…Portland, ME. Of course, we didn’t see much of the terrain because we arrived at about 1pm and it was already dark. OK, so I am exaggerating…but only a little.

In December, lights out is at about 3:30pm. And sunrise is about 8:15am. So, it’s a short day. However, today the rain ended and the sun came out. It was clear, brisk and cold – again, it was a lot like a nice winter day at home.

We got up early – for the first time in travel memory, I showered first so Tricia could sleep in another 30 minutes – had breakfast next to some Swedes complaining (in English, which everyone seems to speak) about their wives, their mothers-in-law, their teenage daughters– in fact just about everyone who’s female – and then were driven to the Volvo plant.

Before we get to the good stuff a word about Swedes: they’re tall (though not as tall as Finns, I think), many of them are blond and, among younger women, those that aren’t naturally blonde seem very much to want to be blonde, so there’s a plethora of platinum blondes walking around – something I suspect those practical Swedes think is useful. Is it that blonde hair reflecting more scarce light at night is desirable in a country with nearly perpetual darkness? Are blondes preferred so those guys from breakfast can find their women in the dark more easily? BTW, did I mention it gets dark early here?

[Update: Over dinner, Tricia mentioned that a woman sitting near us might be wearing a blonde wig. Later, we went for a walk, where, I kid you not, we saw these long, stringy blonde wigs for sale in the city’s megamall. I can’t believe the blonde envy thing going on here. Click the thumbnail to see these platinum fantasies full-size.]

Back to the narrative. Pelle from Volvo greeted us at precisely 8:15am and presented Tricia her car. The car is quite nice – and I breathed a sigh of relief after seeing the interior. We ordered, sight unseen, an interior that isn’t available on cars that dealers import into the US. I did it for two reasons. I couldn’t stand how monotone the US interiors are and it makes Tricia’s car a unique souvenir of this trip.

Tricia got to drive the car on the delivery center’s “test track,” which was a muddy stretch of earth about 700m in length. Volvo takes its history seriously — they claim one of the reasons the company was started in the 1920’s was to build cars that could take what were at the time poor paved roads in this country. So I suspect that even though highways here today are better than at home, this “test track” was built to demonstrate the spirit of the original Volvos.

After the test drive, we visited the Volvo Museum. There were some nice P1800’s in the collection. But what stood out is how the company’s history — and the depth of its collection — stops abruptly at about the year 2000. Why? It’s obvious — the company was nearly dead when Ford bought it in 1999 and today it’s the first major Western brand to be owned by a Chinese company nobody in the occident has ever heard of. As a monument to Swedish industrial prowess, the museum just couldn’t find a way to integrate its current history into the exhibition. I really looked hard for something that hinted at the company’s last 20 years; in fact I searched the entire museum. I found one reference to Ford (on a time line that stopped in 1999) and none — nothing at all — about Geely. The visit turned out to be a fascinating lesson in the power of museum curators.

Back to the delivery center for lunch — Swedish meatballs…surprised? — and then to the sleepy-time factory tour. I was disappointed because the stamping shop was idle. I wanted to Tricia to experience the earth-shaking pounding of floor-to-second-story metal presses stamping out car body parts. It’s my favorite part of a car factory tour because it’s the ultimate metaphor for a pounding headache — and the worst, I repeat worst, industrial job one could have. My heart goes out to people working in car stamping plants.

Anyway, Tricia must have known she got the quiet version of the tour and promptly fell asleep just as the Volvo tour guide got excited describing the marriage of body and powertrain. This was my second car factory tour and in the first one the tour guide was also hopped up over this “marriage” process.

I guess you just have to be there. But I don’t get why it’s so cool. It’s just another step in producing the car. In Volvo’s case, it’s done by robots; in the BMW plant I was in, it was being done by two mädchen who, at the time, looked marriageable. I assumed that in BMW plants, only young single women performed this task, so that’s why it is called “marriage.” However, it appears to be an industry term — and those Swedes have ruined the metaphor for me by using (German) robots.

After the tour, we came back to the hotel, where I sat in Tricia’s car until it got too cold (and dark. Have I mentioned that it gets dark early in December in Sweden?) reading the 400-plus page owner’s manual.

Tricia went to our room for a nap…and I as write this, she’s happily catching up on her sleep, counting white Volvos in her sleep.

BTW, here’s a little video of stills from our day. Looks like we had fun, doesn’t it? We sure did.


Having done both BMW and Volvo deliveries in Europe, I gotta say that Volvo’s program is better, with two exceptions. First, they gotta replace their US travel agent. Second, I’d trade the two free map updates in the US for a pre-load of Scandinavian maps when the car is delivered. I brought an old GPS I’d loaded with Scandinavian maps (you really need it), but using an add-on GPSs in a new car cheapens the experience.

Biggest, most pleasant surprise? Volvo delivers the car with a full tank of gas, something that costs a small fortune with petrol costing about 14kr/liter.

It’s OK to suck a tailpipe or yet another moment of Jungian synchronicity

In today’s Boston Globe Magazine, Clifford Atiyeh’s “The Crusade Against Cars” tackles car lovers’ central dilemma today:

“Social responsibility” is the media topic du jour, the latest feel-good narcissism of those leading government, corporations, and other big-mouth organizations. Part of the idea is to give an appearance of top-down restraint – that it’s not OK for the CEO to upgrade his Gulfstream V while downsizing his company. In the auto world, social responsibility comes with good intentions – tougher federal fuel economy mandates, tighter emission controls – but for car lovers like me, it’s a sucker punch in the face.

In other words, it’s hard to be both “authentically” green and also love cars that aren’t.

Reading Atiyeh’s piece created a moment of synchronicity for me.

Just yesterday, I was at an undercarriage session of the Boston Chapter of the BMW Car Club. An “undercarriage session?”

Simple. You take your car to a BMW dealer who allows you into the shop to go over the car with one of their master mechanics. If, like me, you own a car that costs a fortune to maintain, the opportunity to have a master technician take a look at your car for free is like Prozac for budget anxiety.

The session was held in a newly reconstructed BMW dealership and, to put it mildly, the shop was beautiful. Brightly lit, spotless and odor-free, even with cars’ engines running.

I mentioned this to the tech who was giving my car the Nth degree and he said, “What don’t you see here?”

I was stumped. Turns out there were no exhaust hoses to connect to the tailpipes of running cars. None. Cars that are run in the shop empty emissions directly into the shop, which must have had 36 bays.

The tech explained that today’s cars are so clean that the building’s architects were able to design a single airflow system that moved enough fresh air through the shop to obviate the need for separate exhaust hoses. He also mentioned that OSHA and other government regulators had been there to verify the system was working and there wasn’t enough airborne pollution to harm anyone.

His explanation for how this was possible was simple. He told me that cars today — at least the new and late-model BMWs they work on there — just don’t produce enough pollution to necessitate a separate exhaust system.

Maybe instead of Atyieh’s defiant rejection of social responsibility all we need to do is lock a few greenies in a garage with 36 running BMWs.