THE BLOG
05/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Customer Disservice Spotlight On: Toyota

I own a Toyota Corolla. It's a car that gets me from point A to point B, where those points usually refer to my house and my office. Occasionally, I drive the car to more exotic places (the grocery store and the gas station), but in all, I don't drive a whole lot. It took me a year and a half to get to 5,000 miles.

It took Toyota nearly that long or longer, depending on when you think Toyota engineers actually knew about the problem, to notify me that my car was being recalled for the infamous sticky accelerator pedal. (The dealership did send me a dubious Russian-spam style e-mail in blue type, full of typographical errors, from a person I'd never heard of, asking me to click on a link to a SurveyMonkey survey where I should type in my VIN to find out if my car was being recalled. "Dear Aaron you must be alarmed by recent news about Toyota recalls," it began.) What I knew already was that the car was being recalled for another problem, as well, or as Toyota called it, "SSC 90H - CERTAIN 2009-2010 COROLLA AND COROLLA MATRIX BRAKE SYSTEM VACUUM PORT SPECIAL SERVICE CAMPAIGN." I had apparently purchased a car that featured a broken accelerator and broken brakes. (Recent news reports indicate that the steering wheel may be next.)

After finding a day on which missing work to take my car in wouldn't be a major inconvenience, I scheduled an appointment and drove to Magnussen's Toyota of Palo Alto, where I purchased the car in September 2008 from a former investment banker. He worked in a trailer outside the main building -- the dealership's "internet department." I needed the car because the week before, my old one, a 2005 Corolla, had been totaled on highway 85 by a woman in an SUV who had somehow forgotten to use her breaks as she accelerated into bumper-to-bumper traffic. Though I owe Toyota credit for designing the 2005 Corolla well enough to keep me safe during the accident, I was never pleased about the way in which it was sold to me. The $1,000.00 instant rebate the dealership offered with a financing plan came with a serious string attached -- even if you wanted to pay off the balance, you couldn't. Though interest started to accumulate from day one, paying your bill required an all-important account number, and somehow Toyota Financial Services just couldn't figure out how to assign one to me week after week. I reported the company to the Texas Attorney General; the company reported my full payment to the credit bureaus as being "late," which I cleared up years later when it appeared as the only negative activity on my credit report, much to my surprise.

Six months after I purchased my new car, I found myself at the dealership because the car's indecipherable tire pressure icon would sporadically light up and then turn off again. After a while, it stayed on, which didn't seem like it could mean anything good. The service engineers insisted that I had run over a nail with my six-month-old car, and I insisted that I hadn't. No one could find a nail in the tire, and it took days of arguing about the cause of the problem before anyone could even find a leak. At that point, the dealership told me that the car's warranty didn't cover the tires and that I'd have to buy a new tire outright. This caused a minor firestorm involving calls to my insurance company, various tire dealers, a local Sears (which couldn't find the problem, either), and the dealership's service manager. Eventually, the dealership relented and agreed to replace the defective tire. Days later, as I was standing in one of the service manager's offices fuming and waiting to pick up my car, a brochure about tire protection caught my eye. In writing, the brochure plainly stated that every tire the dealership sold was covered under warranty. Both the assistant manager and the manager had lied to me.

Consequently, I wasn't expecting much when I took in my car to have both recalls addressed. I was told that the repair would take a couple of hours, but I had work to do and so rather than wait, I asked one of my employees to pick me up at the dealership on the way to work. It was a good thing, too. Far from "a couple," the repairs took nine hours.

When I got the car back, it took about a day before I noticed that something was wrong. Every time I pressed the accelerator pedal, the car let out a painfully high-pitched shriek. It wasn't the pedal making the noise, either -- something inside the hood of the car was clearly not working properly. The noise seemed to fade a bit as the engine warmed up, but it was definitely there. I called the dealership to tell them about the problem. They wanted me to bring the car in yet again, but since I had just been there to get to defects fixed that weren't my fault, I didn't feel like adjusting my schedule all over again. I told them to pick the car up.

"We can't do that," I was told. "Don't you have shuttles?" I asked. "No, we don't have any shuttles for that kind of thing," they replied. Of course, they were lying. I drove my car in once more, waited around for twenty minutes before someone appeared to help me, and then asked if they needed anything more from me beyond my description of the problem. Everything seemed to be set. As I was driving the liability-laden rental car I didn't want back to my office, I saw a clearly-marked Magnussen's Toyota of Palo Alto shuttle van turn the corner in front of me, heading the opposite way toward the dealership. Adding to my surprise, I noticed that my rental car (also a Corolla) made the same shrieking noise.

Around 2:00 P.M. I received a call. The service department wanted me to come back and drive the car with them so that a technician could hear the sound. "I was just there this morning," I said. "Why couldn't you have asked then?" The service department didn't have a good answer. Thinking I could swing by on my way home from work, I offered to come back later in the day to drive the vehicle, but because the technicians stopped work at 4:00 P.M., that also wasn't going to work, I was told. I finally offered to come by at 3:45 P.M. "We don't want you to just drop everything," the service representative said sympathetically. "I don't want to either," I replied, and indicated that we would work something out at a more convenient time.

At about 5:00 P.M. I received another call. The service representative wanted to know where I was, as he had been waiting for me since 3:45 P.M. Now doubly angry, I rushed to the dealership to drive the car with him before he left for the day. He heard the sound and verified that it matched my description -- but stated that because he wasn't an engineer, it didn't matter: I would still have to drive the car with an engineer. "It's clearly not normal," I told him. "Before you 'fixed' the car, it never happened." "You just have sensitive ears," was his response.

The following week I convinced the Toyota dealership to use one of the hundred cars on its lot to drive a technician to my office. We walked over to the parking lot where he instructed me to step on the accelerator with the car parked. The engine shrieked. I stepped again. The engine shrieked again. "I don't know if that's normal or not," the technician said. Because it was a Friday, I agreed that the dealership should call on Monday to come back and pick up the car.

Nothing happened on Monday. On Tuesday, the dealership called and another engineer appeared to drive my car away. I didn't bother with a rental car this time. On Wednesday, he called once more to indicate that my car was ready.

"What was wrong?" I asked him. "I don't know," he replied. "They just told me to call you."

"Well did you actually do anything to the car? Is it fixed?" I asked. "I don't know," he replied. I called the dealership myself and spoke to the service manager.

"Did you do anything to the car?" I asked. "Oh yeah," he replied. "That break vacuum port repair has a big warning in the instructions saying that if you install the plate a certain way the car will make a whistling noise. So we had the technician re-install the plate for you the right way." I couldn't believe my [sensitive] ears. "So you're saying that you guys just didn't read the directions, but you should have known about this all along?" His response was clear. "Yeah, there was the warning in the directions, but we had the technician secure the plate right this time."

I had confirmed earlier that the dealership had serviced the rental car, too. It's likely that every repair they made to a Corolla for the "special service campaign" was made incorrectly. I was told, of course, that I was the first to complain.

Suffice it to say that my car drives fine now, but without a doubt, it's the last Toyota I'll ever buy.

Aaron Greenspan is President & CEO of Think Computer Corporation and the author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.