06 August, 2012

A Journey Into One Car's Purchase and Repair

Somewhere around 3 months before writing this post, I pretty much stopped driving the 1998 Lumina I have had since about 2004.  As you may know, on Friday, 6-Jul-2012, I drove it for the last time to West Herr Used Car Outlet (which I'll reference as just "WH" later), and bought a 2008 Hyundai Elantra from them.  It was basically functional, but there were a couple of problems with it, each with workarounds.  For your entertainment (and to a certain extent making you a more informed consumer) I will write about my experience.

I had gone to WH because they had one of the less problematic Web sites of the ones I had visited (but still in need of work, mind you), and because one of my dear friends, Matt, had talked about his positive previous West Herr experience, although not specifically with the Used Car Outlet.  They had two in which I was interested; Plan A was a 2007 Corolla, and Plan B was a 2009 Focus...but I had to fall back on Plan C, which was the Elantra.  Plan A was sold by the time I got to WH, and Plan B turned out to be uncomfortable for me to sit in due to my height, and apparently seat height was not adjustable.  Besides....many Fords these days have this utterly annoying characteristic of locking all the doors once underway, as if I'm not adult enough to do it myself.  Also not in its favor was that the onboard computer's display showed an average of only 18 MPG, despite its EPA estimate being in the mid 20's.  So, looking around the lot a little, and primarily where the Corolla used to be the last time I saw it, I saw a similarly colored car, slightly darker, with a city MPG rating in the target I was seeking (the mid 20's).  So I figured, what the heck, give it a test drive.

I intuitively thought when I first opened the door, not even with key in hand (just trying it out for size/fit), and the warning chime came on, that this car could be problematic.  But I figured, let's soldier on. I saw the "door ajar" lamp in the dash light up and thought it was plausible this was normal behavior.  It seemed OK(ish) for feel, so I went inside to ask for a test drive.  They were a bit busy, and Ray Snyder, Sales Manager, assured me someone would be with me shortly.  Sure enough, within a few minutes, one of the most personable and knowledgable salescritters I ever met, Ron Slisz, was able to get a dealer-class license plate and the key for this Elantra.  We took it around E. Amherst a little, and while not as comfortable nor powerful as the Lumina I was used to, I thought, "this will do."

A downer in this process is the fact that WH only credited me $350 for what edmonds.com told me should have been at least $1000 for my Lumina.  But I just wanted it all to be over with.  I had no energy at the time to argue it.  In retrospect, I should have said "hold it right there, skippys," and taken it next door to Auction Direct USA.  They advertise on radio that they will write up a purchase offer good for 5 days.  They may have even bought it so that I could put the money towards this Elantra.

There was another particularly annoying aspect, the $75 fee I was charged which was essentially a convenience fee for WH acting as my DMV agent to register the Elantra and transfer my plates from Lumina to Elantra.  Well...what can I say?  Even the NYDMV site mentions this fee.  In the plate transfer aspect, salescritter Ron must have read my mind.  He got out West Herr plate frames, and had one or two near his desk, but none made it onto my newly purchased car.  I would have removed them anyway.

To WH's credit, they are foursquarely behind making this Elantra as it should be (mind you, not perfect, just major and minor functionality that one would expect).  It was sold as a "value car," meaning they don't intend to make it perfect.  For example, they purposefully didn't repair the paint blemishes/scratches, in order to sell this to me more cheaply.  We knew at the time/point of sale that the keyless remote entry was not working, and the working theory at that time was the transmitter (keychain fob) is defective; a new one would be ordered.  Of course, being a Friday evening, nothing would really be accomplished until Monday.

That pretty much ended my 4 or so hour day at a dealership.  I'm glad I brought my Android tablet with me; it provided lots of entertainment, and allowed me to change my insurance easily.  It also allowed me to post to Google+ to tell a little bit about my day.  I didn't think it would take as long as it did, and I kind of apologize to Kevin and Pam, who I did not send a "decline" for their invitation to their annual party.

After the deal was done, I headed south to the Aldi in the plaza near Transit and Main.  It was there that a kernel of an idea about why the chime was not silenced came to me.  I pressed on the switch to secure all the locks.  As a humorous aside, my first guess was wrong; it was exactly opposite the Lumina in that pressing the bottom of this rocker switch opens, not locks.  So, realizing this is backwards, I rocked the switch upwards.  Initially, all the locks locked.  But then about half a second later, the driver's door unlocked.  So I pressed the switch again, and this was perfectly repeatable.  Out of curiosity, I flipped the lock lever instead of pressing the switch.  Same thing; half a second later, it unlocked itself.  I held it.  The lock solenoid clicked a few more times, then the controller gave up.  It was then the chiming made sense; the most plausible explanation was that the ignition lock cylinder's sensor to know when the key has been removed is defective.  This would cause the chime to remind one to remove the key, and the controller programming is trying to prevent the (stupid) driver from locking him-/her-self out of the vehicle.  But having never owned an Elantra before I still was not 100% convinced I had the correct diagnosis.  It was not insecure, in that if the key is inserted into the door and rotated in the proper direction, it will lock.  This too was opposite the Lumina, in that for rotation towards the front, Luminas unlock, Elantras lock.

I also noticed while trying to put my Aldi groceries in the trunk that the key would insert, but would not rotate.  When I got home, I sent an email to salescritter Ron telling him about this trunk problem, and very much to my surprise, within very little time I got a message back, sent from his mobile phone, that I should just look on the driver's door for a trunk release button.  Boy, that made this complete; I had an easy workaround for everything until all could be repaired.

Also when home I went to the Hyundai Motor America (HMA) site to get a PDF of my owner's manual.  Who wants to search visually through a paper manual for something when a computer can search for me, and point right to it?  I have one for 1998 Luminas for that very reason.  The first thing you'll notice in this scenario (should you go through it yourself) is that they do not have PDFs available outright.  You must register with their site with a vehicle's VIN, and log in.  Then you may download a manual.  And I didn't actually know this until after I used their "contact us" function on their Web site, essentiallly asking, "where's your PDFs?" and they sent an email reply stating one will see this after logging in.  If they have this on their site somewhere, I didn't see it (point being, it's non-obvious).

Unfortunately, there is very little to gain by doing this either.  One would hope that if I provided something as specific as a VIN I would get documentation specific to my VIN...no such luck.  There are plenty of asterisks in this e-book with the obligatory explanatory asterisk at the bottom of such pages saying "* if so equipped".  I am very glad one of the (mis)features listed does not apply to mine, the locking of the doors after travelling over a certain speed.

The next  HMA slap in the face is their site has all sorts of JavaScript and Flash, which, of course, like wayyyyyyy too many sites, does not tell you JS needs to be enabled for it to work fully/properly.  There are many, many reasons utilities like NoScript and NotScripts exist, with which I will not bore you, but suffice it to say that it is just so exceedingly easy to do, it is pointless NOT to point out that JavaScript is disabled.  But that's not even the worst.  Of course, almost all users of these security tools realize this, and temporarily enable JS.  So what does the HMA site do then?  It uses styles to pop up a pseudowindow (as I like to call them...basically using visibility, opacity, and z-index tricks to render boxes in front of boxes).  This pseudowindow is telling me the site should be viewed in Internet Explorer such and such, or Firefox blah, blah, blah.  That's a frak of  a thing to tell your customers or potential customers, that you don't like their software of choice.  Gee, what a concept!  Just stick to Web standards, and then you don't have to care so much what their user agent (UA) is.  Also, don't try to lay out the page to the pixel, and by-and-large you also shouldn't have to worry about the precise CSS vagaries of UAs.  This is also not to mention Adobe themselves have stated that Flash is a deprecated product.  It's never been available for iOS (e.g., iPad), soon not to be available for mobile platforms (smartphones, tablets, etc) in general, and The Tech Guy Leo Laporte even mentioned this past weekend (5-Aug-2012) eventually not on desktops either.

So after downloading the documentation I started to skim over it, and then read  certain sections more in depth.  One of the things I eventually came across was that the fob is ignored if the key is in the ignition.  This solidified my diagnosis, as this is exactly the behavior I was experiencing.  So I sent another email to Ron the salescritter with a copy/paste of this from the PDF, and when we next talked about effecting repairs, he concluded the same as I did, that the likely cause was a faulty key sensor, and not a defective fob.  It turns out that despite Kia being part of Hyundai Motor Group, the West Herr Kia shop is not prepared to handle Hyundais, and a referral to a nearby Hyundai dealer/shop would be necessary. In this case it was Transitowne Hyundai (TTH).  They too thought this was a plausible explanation when Ron told them about that part of my email.

I called TTH to arrange for repairs, and was given an appointment for Thursday, 12-Jul at 11:20.  Wow, such precision.  Maybe I'm just thinking too much, but I would guess they tend to do this to steer expectations.  If given a time like 11:00 or 11:15, I would think most people would tend to figure around 15 mintues of slop might be expected, but with :20, it's probably more like 5 minutes or less.  I can tell you at least with my experiences so far,  any appointment times are folly.

Admittedly, I arrived a little late, around 5 or so minutes; let's just say my gastrointestinal tract didn't know anything about appointments and resisted my attempts to be on time.    When  I arrived, it looked as if every single repair bay in the garage was tied up.  And I spent about 4 or so hours there.

I did not know what to expect, so at the last minute, I left my tablet at home, but I brought a pocket radio and earbuds for my weekdaily dose of EIB.  In their waiting room, they also have this (what I would call a) "leader board" wall-mounted flat screen computer monitor, with a table of customer names, service advisor's name, status ("arrived," "in progress," "awaiting parts," "ready," etc.), and expected departure time.  At no time did anything like "Joe Philipps," "Ron Slisz," "West Herr," or anything else which would apply to me appear on this system.  And I must have been in the restroom if/when they came looking for me in the waiting room, because I had to go to the service counter to find out what the deal was.  I saw plenty of other customers who were fetched by the repair counter people.  Who knows, maybe they were just about to come my way when I went their way.

After their considered diagnosis, TTH concluded the trunk lock assembly and the body control module (BCM) would need to be replaced.  Again, I don't know specifics about Elantras, but that sounded like a plausible explanation.  Maybe the existing lock was just irreparably corroded internally.  And I don't know what things a BCM would control.  So, TTH tells me they will order parts and give me a ring when they arrive.

Even more interesting, when I was there that day, while describing my amateur diagnosis about the fob not working and why, the service counter person remarked that this was incorrect; the fob ostensibly would work, contrary to the Hyundai-supplied documentation.  Aw, heck...this wouldn't be the first time I've seen reality at odds with widely distributed documentation.  Take the configuration of OpenLDAP for Ubuntu 10.04 for example.  Many online references at the time would talk extensively about entries in slapd.conf whereas in reality this version's configuration is within the LDAP database itself.

An inordinate number of days pass, until Monday, 23-Jul to be precise.  So I called TTH service to see what's what, and to ask how long it takes typically to acquire a BCM and lock cylinder.  At this time they told me that the parts had arrived Thursday, 19-Jul--about one week; not bad.  But somehow the call did not go out.  I guess it's no big deal because I had very easy workarounds.  I understand; this sort of thing happens from time to time with service businesses, it's just that I was the not-so-unlucky guy that didn't get called.  So during that call I arranged for installation 11:30 Wednesday, 25-Jul.  This time around they knew this was going to take a very long time, and they offered to take me somewhere I might want to go.  I declined; I brought my tablet this time, and trust me, that can entertain me for hours, given WiFi access.  And TTH does indeed have a WiFi access electronic ticketing system good for 3 hours at a time.

So...five and a half hours later, having listened to EIB  via TuneIn this time, and watching the "Biggest Warship" episode of "Build It Bigger," and an episode of "MythBusters" ("Barrel of Bricks") via TTH's DirecTV, they came to me again to tell me they're done...for the day.  Again, except for feeling like I sat in a walk-in refrigerator, passing the time there was fine because I wasn't doing anything particularly different than I would have been doing anyway...that is to say, EIB, Web browsing, or watching something on my MythTV.  In fact it's arguably better spending TV watching time there, because they get channels (like Science that I watched) that I don't get at home.  The news isn't as perfect as everyone had hoped though.  They told me in order for the fob to work, they need to order an ignition lock cylinder.

The next surprise in this (hopefully compelling) tale is there were two keys resting in one of the center console cup holders.  Huh..."came with the new trunk cylinder no doubt" I thought.  I inserted one into the ignition; it will not rotate.  I get out, and sure enough, yes, it will rotate in (and actuate) the trunk release.  So I talked about this with the TTH people, and also asked them if, while they were at it, they could make the ignition cylinder keyed the same as the trunk.  Although of course this would be perfectly workable, if Hyundai shipped a cylinder which matched my VIN (ergo my door too), as discussed with the TTH folks, this would be unusual for something other than one key for the whole vehicle.  I would have hoped TTH would have passed along to the Hyundai parts folks some sort of specifications (oh, like perhaps VIN) such that the trunk lock assembly would be keyed the same as the original, but I guess that was a bit too much anticipation.

Now, of course, I will likely never know for sure...did I really need a new BCM?  I don't think so.  So far, seems to me my original diagnosis holds, that something is wrong with the sensor which determines whether there is a key in the ignition cylinder.  Based upon TTH telling me a new ignition lock cylinder is the needed fix for the fob to work, I'd say they should have tested that first, especially since I suggested it might be the problem.  I also think this is an implicit acknowledgement that the Hyundai documentation is correct, and that they didn't exactly know what they were talking about when they told me the opposite of what the docs say.

So what can I say, third time's a charm?  Indeed.  It was only a within a couple of days, and TTH called me to say the (second) lock cylinder had arrived, and to ask when would be a good time to return.  Once again, I asked about late morning on their next free day, which was 30-Jul; we agree on 10:50.  And once again this was merely a mythical time.

With an interesting yin/yang sort of reversal of fate, TTH actually called me twice to tell me the lock cylinder arrived.  Hey, as I said to them on that second call, far better to call twice than not to call at all, and I firmly believe that.

I realize it could take quite a lot of labor when dealing with either the steering column or the dash due to the number of gizmos in each.  Mechanics most certainly have to follow the Hippocratic Oath, at least the part paraphrased as "first, do no harm."  Yanking something the wrong way thus disabling the air bag for example could have catastrophic consequences, so being careful takes time.  However...it was somewhere around three and a half hours before they came looking for me to ask where my car was parked!!  This says to me they weren't even ready to start repairs until then.  The point is, why schedule someone to arrive in the morning when you can't even begin until mid afternoon?  To give them at least some fair treatment, it should be noted that TTH did not do the final lock work themselves, they farmed it out to a nearby locksmith.  However, one would at least hope that this would have been arranged ahead of time, and a locksmith who can keep his or her commitments would be chosen (as in, agree to be there around say eleven and actually be there).

Now that it looks like we're done, what do we have?  Let's take a look at the invoice.

Item A mentions the key fob inoperability.  It says (paraphrasing) that TTH performed a diagnostic, traced wires (which I would have hoped somehow they would find the wiring for the ignition switch, hopefully with a harness somewhere, and check the key insert/removal sensor).  They called Hyundai tech support, and Hyundai told them to replace the BCM assembly.  I'd hate to think they had unnecessarily replaced the BCM, but given that at least one of the TTH service people thought the documention vis a vis the key being in the lock and the remote control was incorrect, and the fact that the lock cylinder was eventually replaced, It kind of looks like it.  Again, I stress that I was not privy to the entire methodology and conversations, and can only comment as I see it, and it could have been bad.

Item B dealt with the trunk lock, which was swapped on the 2nd visit.  It's here that TTH chose to inject Bob's Lock and Key.  Heck, I don't know what keys they handed me, whether it was the ones handed to me on the second visit, ones that may have come with the ignition lock, or whatnot.  The end result is the same key rotates in the door, the ignition, and the trunk.

Item C talks about the driver door unlocking after hitting the lock button.  It says "No problems found."  Well, duh.  It's easy to find no problem, given the right conditions.  Either close the door or remove the key from the ignition.  But in my estimation, as related before, it was impossible for the BCM to sense key removal previous to the cylinder replacement.  If you're reporting "no problem" after all the other repairs were finished, yeah....I guess that's accurate.  Either I should have been more explicit and reported door unlocks right away if it's still swung open, or the report could more accurately reflect "issue resolved by other items."  It's just one of those niggling little things that the issue was dismissed, that the more prudent handling would probably be to ask, "really?  so show me what you mean, and we can look at it further."

So caveat emptor.  Consider carefully whether you really want to go to TTH, and I can at least partly recommend West Herr Used Car Outlet.  If you're intending to trade, it would be really convenient to ask next door at Auction Direct USA for an appraisal so you have at least another reference point rather than just West Herr's judgement.

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