Tuesday, September 05, 2006

So much for brand loyalty

I've had a transient problem with brand loyalty -- clothing, golf equipment, book publishers, trivial stuff, mostly -- but one that hasn't bitten me until my latest car purchase. I owned an Audi A4 2.8 Quattro for nine years and liked everything about the car. (I say "liked" because no one should love a car. If someone claims to love their automobile ask them if they would freely give a kidney or some bone marrow to save it. There are some who will answer yes to such a question, without hesitation, but to paraphrase Mark Twain: Suppose you were an idiot. Suppose, too, you would freely give a kidney to save your automobile. But I repeat myself.)

Back to my much beliked A4. An accident required the removal of the car's dashboard and other structural work, and left lingering questions about safety (did the guy who removed and reinstalled the dashboard and airbags really know what he was doing?), so in March of this year I traded it in on a brand new Audi S4. The car had everything I wanted save for good mileage, but as my commute is very short and I don't drive too aggressively I am fairly easy on the gas, week to week.... Now, how a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club rationlizes the purchase of an autombile that gets, optimistically, 15 MPG in city driving is the topic of another post.

So I get the S4 home and am basking in all the irrational joys of new car ownership until the morning after my purchase when, upon starting the engine, putting the 6-speed manual transmission in neutral, and letting out the clutch, I hear a high-pitched whine coming from somewhere under the beautiful black leather and aluminum stick shift. Thus began my transmission travails.

Suffice to say that a reverse gear bearing had completely failed in my transmission, probably before or immediately after I took delivery of the car. I called the dealer that second day, before driving anywhere, to report the problem and was told, "They all do that." I drove the car another two weeks and noticed that the whine was loudest when starting the car cold, but would disappear after a few minutes driving. Into the third week of ownership I took the car to the dealer for a complimentary detail, and once again mentioned the problem to the service rep, but was again told it was likely nothing and that I shouldn't worry about it. So I blithely drove on for four months and the whine never appeared to get worse, that I could tell.

Things did get worse on the evening of August 9th, however, when my wife took the car to the grocery store. She got one block from our home when she heard a loud clunk followed by a very noticable whine/rattle coming from the transmission, which had now become very difficult to engage. She limped home and parked the car in our driveway, where we stared at it in disbelief. We found out a couple days later, after the car was towed to the dealer and inspected, that the failed bearing had finally destroyed three gears and a gear shaft in the tranny, and that the car would be out of service at the dealer for at least two weeks. I demanded a new transmission. Audi's mysterious "field rep" decided against me, that the existing unit should be rebuilt. After innumerable calls to six different talking heads at Audi of America, including one supervisor, the transmission was still rebuilt, but I'll save that rant for another post. The car had just under 2,500 miles on the odometer when it failed.

The dealer had my car for just over one month, but was gracious enough to give me a loaner car while mine was in the shop (apparently something that Audi of America no longer offers, so the onus is on the dealer). But on the day the mechanic was moving my rebuilt tranny under the car for installation he noticed that the clutch slave cylinder was leaking like a sieve. Parts were ordered from Los Angeles and I was informed of further delays.

By this time I had, of course, investigated the California Lemon Law and had discovered that I qualify because my car has been out of service for more than 30 days during the warranty period. Handily, even. I called Audi of America and heard a new term when I mentioned the Lemon Law -- I was asked if I wished to "sever" my relationship with the vehicle. I answered in the affirmative, grudgingly, and was told I'd get another call in a few days. That call came the next day, actually, and the nice gentleman with whom I spoke offered me the following to stay with the car: a 1-year and 12,000-mile extension to the warranty plus $650, roughly one month's payment on the loan. When asked about a new replacement vehicle I was told the above was Plan A, and that if I decide against it we move to Plan B, the new vehicle.

And that's where things stand. I have my car with the repaired tranny and clutch and have been driving it for a few days, and to be honest I still really like it. But everyone I've spoken to about this thinks I should demand an identical new car and be done. What do you think? Keep the existing car with the extended warranty and cash, or get a brand new replacement vehicle? The decision isn't an easy one for me, for reasons I don't completely understand. Perhaps ... perhaps I love my car?!

Time to molder for five weeks in the dealer's service lot.


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