Thursday, February 21, 2008

Car Woes

After a day off to rest, we got up Monday morning, February 11, planning to head back to the slopes. We decided to go to Keystone since we’d been to Breck a lot recently. On the way, we made a quick stop at the grocery store in Frisco. Frisco is a small town about 10 miles from Breckenridge. It offers more services than the resort towns do, but it is still mostly a tourist town.

After our quick stop at the store, Sarah was driving through the parking lot when our car died. It just shut off while she was driving. Since we were in a parking lot, it was easy to stop, but the car was in the way and wouldn’t restart. Brian tried pushing the car by himself, but he was pushing uphill and the pavement was coated in ice, so he couldn’t get any traction. Eventually, Brian and a couple of other guys in the parking lot pushed while Sarah steered and we moved the car off to the side of the gas station parking lot.

Now that it was out of the way, we had the problem of what to do with the car. We haven’t been here that long, so we didn’t know a reliable mechanic that we could call. The guy working at the gas station recommended either the Shell station across the road or High Country Auto, about a mile away. We walked to the Shell station and they said they could tow the car, but they couldn’t spend time diagnosing it for several days. That wasn’t going to work. The person we talked to at Shell recommended calling High Country. They could work on our car immediately, but they didn’t offer towing services, so we arranged for Shell to tow the car to High Country.

A friendly tow-truck operator appeared shortly and took us back to our car. He loaded Caroline (our Honda CR-V) onto the flatbed truck. Then he drove us back across the road and a few blocks down the street to High Country, where we hung out waiting for our car to be diagnosed.

After only about a half hour, Warden, the mechanic, came out and asked if we wanted the good news or the bad news. The good news was that the car was running, and they’d driven it into the garage from the parking lot. How annoying – we’d just paid $90 to have the car towed across the road and now it was starting! The bad news was that he couldn’t find anything wrong with it. He suspected the distributor, but distributors are expensive so he didn’t want to replace it without proof that it was really causing the failure. He said he was going to leave the car running for a little while in the garage, but if it didn’t stop, there wasn’t much he could do but send us on our way. He also mentioned that he thought there was a recall on the ignition switch for our car, and maybe that was related.

Awhile later, Warden came back out, excited to tell us that the car had died. He gave us an excellent, detailed explanation about the ignition coil and how with this type of car you can’t replace just the ignition coil; you need to replace the whole distributor. We groaned, because this wasn’t a cheap proposition, but at least a shiny new CR-V distributor could make it to Frisco the next morning, so we’d have our car back the next afternoon. We gathered up a few of our things and off we went to the Frisco transit station and caught a bus back to Breck.

Back at home, Brian turned on the computer and started searching for information on similar car problems. He found out that the ignition switch recall had the same symptoms as we were seeing – the car would just die but after cooling off for a while would start back up. We called Honda’s customer service number and determine that our car was, in fact, affected by that recall. The recall was from 2002, before we bought the car, and apparently the previous owner had never had the work done. Brian also found out that the ignition coil can be replaced separately from the rest of the distributor. This didn’t make sense based on what we’d understood from the conversation with Warden. Brian called Warden back, and this time he said it wasn’t the ignition coil that was the problem, it was actually another part of the distributor, and the entire distributor needed to be replaced. The fact that the story seemed to be changing didn’t give us confidence.

Since it seemed possible that the recall work would fix the problem, we decided we should have that work done before replacing the whole distributor. Honda customer service told us to call the local Honda shop to get the recall work done, so we called a Honda dealership in Denver. They told us to have the repairs done locally and submit the bill for reimbursement – this made sense, since towing the car to Denver would cost hundreds of dollars.

So we called Honda customer service back to find out how to submit our bills for reimbursement. Next we called High Country to tell them to do the recall work. They suggested that we should confirm with Honda that they would reimburse parts and labor, not just parts.

So we called Honda back again. At this point, we got a different customer service rep (CSR) who said that the car needed to go to a certified Honda service center for the recall or we wouldn’t get reimbursed. This completely contradicted what the previous CSR had told us and what Denver Honda had recommended. Sarah pointed out that there was no way to get the car to Denver in its current state. The Honda customer service rep said she’d open a case for us and we’d hear from a case manager in 3 to 5 business days.

At this point, Sarah was getting pretty annoyed and pointed out, yet again, that we only have one car and waiting around for 3 to 5 days for someone to get back to us was not going to be acceptable. Eventually, the CSR found a case manager and promised we’d hear back from him by the end of the day. The case manager called back shortly and said that they were going to tow the car to a Honda dealer about 75 miles away in Golden, Colorado, for the recall work. This couldn’t happen until the next morning, so in the meantime we should get a rental car and Honda would pay for it. This seemed better than any of our other options at this point, so we agreed.

In the morning, Sarah spoke with Honda customer service again and made the final towing arrangements. Then we hung out at home and played Scrabble for much of the morning, while waiting for the car to get to Golden or a rental car to become available. Eventually after lunch, we called Hertz again and found out that they had a car available. So we walked 2.5 miles to the free Breck gondola which would take us down to the Breck transit center where we could catch a bus back to Frisco to get the rental car.

On the way to the gondola, Planet Honda called to confirm that our car had arrived. Unfortunately, when their tow truck driver had picked up the car, he noticed that the left rear control arm (part of the suspension system) was badly bent. Given the damage, he said it could have only happened during towing. Ugh! Now the car was inoperable for not one, but two different reasons! And it was 75 miles away, so we couldn’t show the towing company the damage.

We made another round of phone calls to try to decipher what exactly the damage was, how the towing would have caused it, and whether there was any other way it could have been caused. We eventually made it to Frisco at 4:40. Brian went to get the rental car while Sarah dashed over to the Shell station that had towed us to talk to them before closing.

Shell had already heard about the issue from High Country by the time Sarah got there. The owner of the Shell station seemed skeptical that his driver had caused the damage, but said we should have Planet Honda get them a quote for the repairs.

When we got home, we wondered if High Country had towed our car around with their four wheeler, so we called them up to find out – we didn’t want Shell to pay for the damage if it wasn’t their fault. High Country said that the car had started every time they needed to move it, so they hadn’t towed it at all. So we were back to the previous explanation, that it had been damaged during the original tow.

Wednesday morning, Planet Honda called to say that they’d done all the recall work on our car. When they’d taken it on a test drive, it had promptly died again, so they had a mechanic investigating why. Bummer – the recall didn’t fix it.

In the meantime, the Shell station owner had talked to Planet Honda, and it was apparently clear to him that the damage was caused by a towing job. His driver swore he couldn’t have done it, but if it had happened prior to them towing the car, the driver should have noted it as preexisting damage, so the Shell owner agreed to pay for the control arm replacement. We were grateful that this part of the car troubles seemed to be solved.

Planet Honda called back later and said that the stalling issue was caused by a bad ignition coil that needed replacement – now we were back to Warden’s original diagnosis! They also said we should have our valves adjusted. They’d have Caroline ready for pickup near the end of the day.

In mid-afternoon, we headed to Golden. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the views from the highway were truly amazing. We got to Golden around 4:30, talked to our customer service rep, got a half-dozen-page printout of all the work that had been done on our car, and forked over $600. We also found out that they’d replaced the ignition coil but that didn’t solve the problem, so they’d ended up replacing the igniter unit instead. Hmm…

Sarah went out to start Caroline and thought the engine sound odd. The odd sound while idling turned to a loud clunking as she accelerated enough to drive through the parking lot. Back to the service center we went. The mechanic who had worked on the car came out and tried to convince us that this was a normal sound for an older car when the valves were correctly adjusted. He insisted they were too tight before and he’d had to loosen them. If we really wanted him to, he could tighten them back up, but we’d be risking engine damage. We weren’t happy about the noise, but it wasn’t a big deal if it wasn’t going to hurt the car, so we got ready to drive off.

At this point, the service manager quietly told us that we should shut off the car and leave it for further work – no matter what the mechanic said, it shouldn’t sound like that. Off to the waiting room we went. It was getting close to closing time, so we weren’t sure if they could get it running right that night, but an hour later, the customer service rep came back to let us know that they’d had a “master technician” readjust the valves. When we turned the car back on, it was back to sounding normal.

We had an uneventful drive back home and finished packing for a backcountry hut trip, which is another story. On Thursday, we drove twenty miles or so to Copper Mountain where we parked our car overnight, and on Friday we drove back to Breck.

Saturday was the start of President’s Day weekend. Knowing that the slopes would likely be packed and given that the weather was good, we decided to ski at A-Basin for the day. The weather was bright and sunny all morning, with very little wind. It was entirely different than the last time we’d been to there, when there had been whiteout conditions. A-Basin is really high so the views of the surrounding mountains were spectacular. Around 2 pm, it clouded up and we decided we’d had enough skiing for the day.

As we left the parking lot and got back on the highway, the car died again! Luckily, Brian was able to pull the car safely off the road. A-Basin is located on a two-lane windy mountain road through avalanche country with a lot of traffic on a day like this. Had the car died any further down the road, this could have been a real nightmare.

Cell phone service is really spotty at A-Basin, but we finally got through to Planet Honda. Jason, our service rep, said we should bring it back to Golden and they’d take a look. Sarah again found herself stating the obvious – the car wasn’t running so we couldn’t just drive it down to Golden. Then he said that we should have it towed, and if it was their fault, they’d pay for the towing. This was a bad option, too, since towing is $350 for a trip that long, and there was a chance that we’d get stuck with the bill. Finally, after a bunch more arguing from Brian, Jason agreed that they would pay for towing and a rental car. He mentioned a couple times how inconvenient the timing was for him, given that it was the end of the day on a Saturday. We weren’t very sympathetic. Having the car dying repeatedly is more than inconvenient for us – it’s downright dangerous.

Brian left A-Basin right away to try to get to Frisco in time to get a rental car. He ended up hitching a ride back down the mountain to Keystone where he caught a Summit bus to Frisco. Sarah stayed with the car and waited for the tow truck driver. When he arrived, Sarah politely noted that we’d had a bad towing experience recently and if he could please not hook to the control arms, she’d appreciate it. He laughed and said “oh – that was you”. Apparently, word gets around in a small town…

Nothing was open on Sunday. We drove our rental car (a sweet Hyundai Sonata with XM satellite radio) to Keystone to ski. Despite the holiday weekend, the crowds weren’t bad. There hasn’t been a lot of snow in the past week, so the conditions weren’t great, but it was another sunny day.

On Monday, Honda pretty quickly got the car to fail again. This time a different mechanic was working on the car. He performed a set of tests to determine whether the problem was the fuel system or the distributor. We thought they’d narrowed it down to the distributor days ago, so this was discouraging. Since they’d seen the car fail several times already, you would think they’d have been able to figure out what was wrong with it.

After determining that the problem was indeed the distributor, the new mechanic disassembled the distributor and found a loose wire. Apparently, when the first mechanic had erroneously replaced the ignition coil, he hadn’t reconnected a wire correctly, and that was causing the failure. By this point, it was near the end of the day and we weren’t all that confident that the problem was really fixed, so we decided to leave the car there for another night. That way, it would have another chance to fail. In this whole process, Jason had gone from sounding annoyed with us to being very apologetic, since it was his mechanic who had caused the problem.

Tuesday morning, we picked up the car bright and early. It has run fine for the past two days but we are still nervous that it’ll quit again. We have our fingers crossed that we’ve finally put this hassle behind us.


famousthecat said...

sheesh! what a nightmare! i'm glad it seems to be holding on this time, but be careful, okay? those roads can be muey dangerous in the best of conditions!

love, yo sistah

twoinatent said...

Tell me about it! We were lucky our car died where it did -- first in a parking lot and then by A-Basin, where it wasn't too difficult to get help. We could have been on I-70, or down an icy dirt road somewhere! It's scary when every time you get in your car, you wonder if it's going to continue running to your destination.