Our family is now in the market for a new vehicle, preferably a minivan or something like it. Our current van has been having problems (as regular readers know well), and when we decided against a family reunion on the basis of the van’s reliability, we knew it was time for a change.
The reviewers seem to think there are three choices out there for new minivans: the Honda Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna, and lots of wrong choices. (See, for example, this typical review.) So, these two models were among the four test drives we had time for on Saturday. There are a few other brands we want to look at, and the brands we did see (Kia and Nissan) weren’t bad, but there’s no question that the best models we saw were by Toyota and Honda.
At least, that was the impression I had until Saturday night, when I settled in for an evening of online research. While the Honda search was about what I expected, the Toyota search was a different story.
The first really interesting review of the Toyota Sienna came from Phil Greenspun, a respected techie and dot-com gazillionaire. The review itself is mostly nit-picky, with some nostalgia for a simpler past thrown in for good measure, but the comments, over and over, complained of a serious problem with Siennas and Toyota’s heavy-handed treatment of the problem.
The claim was that Toyota V6 engines had a habit of causing oil breakdown much sooner than usual, causing sludge to build up in the oil. Oil breakdown and sludge are signs that the owner has been neglecting regular maintenance; Toyota was treating these cases as such, and refused to cover the resulting engine damage under the drivetrain warranty.
In and of itself, this isn’t all that strange. The Internet tends to magnify the message of motivated speakers, and people with $6000 repair bills have plenty of motivation. As a result, there isn’t a popular product made that doesn’t have some number of loud complaints. So what was different here? Quite a few comments, made over several years, contained the same basic story: relatively new van, often immaculately kept, develops engine problems, with the dealer accusing the owner of causing the problem. By contrast, Honda complaints seem to be fairly diverse: a transmission here, brakes there, a broken door handle there. This is more in line with a generally good manufacturer that occasionally makes mistakes.
A quick Google search confirmed the oil sludge problem. There is an online petition, with nearly a thousand signatures, organized by “Toyota Owners Unite For Resolution”, which has more information and many more cases, including photos. News reports from USA Today, Consumer Affairs, and two from the Center for Auto Safety (one, two) support the anecdotes further. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports on a possible class action lawsuit.
While Toyota has given ground to the complaints and no longer refuse to fix these problems, they continue to insist that the problem is caused by owner neglect, and that their new policies regarding sludge issues comes solely from the goodness of their hearts. In other words, they continue to blame the owners, even the ones with documented records. One wonders what evidence could possibly convince them to take some of the responsibility.
And this is why Toyota has effectively lost the ability to sell to me. Everyone makes mistakes; it doesn’t freak me out that Toyota has made bad engines in the past. And it’s only natural to assume customer neglect initially, since it’s the proper explanation for most cases. But now, they have nothing to gain by continuing to blame customers, since they’ve already provided an unlimited warranty against this specific problem, and the evidence is much stronger than it appeared at first. Yet they continue to insist on their own innocence. If they refuse to budge even with so little at stake and so much evidence against them, what will they do when there is more at stake, or less evidence, that some other problem I might encounter is their responsibility? Rarely do we consumers get such clear evidence of a company’s customer service performance; it seems foolish to disregard it when we do.
I am considering giving Toyota a last chance to explain themselves at the dealer, since their van is otherwise so good, and on the basis of a recommendation from someone I trust. But it’s not likely that they will be able to convince me to buy, regardless of what they say. After all, their edge over the Honda van is very slim; why should I take an extra risk with Toyota when I can get nearly as good without this risk?
UPDATE (2005-07-01): The choice is made!
UPDATE (2005-08-25): Comments are now disabled. It’s one thing to have a different opinion and argue for it; it’s quite another to impersonate people and lie about their work.