Any recourse against a shady car dealer?
July 21, 2009 12:33 PM   Subscribe

A franchised, "legitimate" car dealer lied to us in order to get us to purchase a car. I know.. not really news and not really unique. But how can we fix this now?

We test-drove a new RAV4 from the local Toyota dealership in 2007. We had driven the model before and really liked it - and this was the only dealer in the Metroplex that had a leather model. During the test drive, we noticed a rotten-egg smell coming out of the vents of the car during times of high acceleration. The salesman was in the car with us at the time and said, "Oh, no worries, that will go away once the engine has been broken in."

We should have stopped at that point and went home and researched the scent but we were exhausted and frustrated after looking for a car for 6 weeks or so. We are primarily a Subaru family but knew Toyota was renowned for its service and the quality of the cars so we bought the car (with extended warranty). I know that I can be very naive and I swear, one of these times I will learn.

The rotten-egg smell has never gone away. Here in Dallas, one has to hit the gas - hard - quite often. The smell is immediate and nauseating.

In the 2 years since we purchased the car, we have taken it in for service 6 times for this problem, and it has yet to be fixed. The problem is documented elsewhere on the internet for similar models or older models and there have been Toyota Service Bulletins for it, but nothing for our year/model combination.

Last summer on one of our service visits I went to pick up the car after work. The service employee said that he would file [another] report with Toyota corporate and that in the mean time, "Buy an air freshener." I am just aghast that someone would suggest that to someone paying those exorbitant car payments. Since that visit, we have both brought the truck in and the service manager acknowledges the problem but doesn't know how to fix it (at least, that is what he says). They have escalated to the regional distributor who indicated we need to try another brand of gas (we have done this). The last contact from the dealer was, "We really don't know what to do next."

At this point I am more than a little emotional about this situation. I am angry every time I make a car payment. I thought the extended warranty and/or Toyota's legendary service would protect us from something like this happening. Granted - the car is still drivable, but it is irritating and nauseating to deal with this scent. I would love at this point to just give them the truck back and walk away entirely (but I understand that that is probably not going to happen).

Here is what we have done so far. Are we missing anything? Thank you in advance for any ideas. I just can't believe it's 2009 and we are still letting major car dealers lie to and abuse customers.

1) Contacted and filed a complaint
2) Contacted the North Texas New Car Dealers Association, who have initiated contact with the dealer
3) Contacted Toyota's corporate office who report they are investigating the situation
4) Contacted every Dallas news organization's "Watch dog" or "Consumer investigations" team, with little or no response
5) Called a lawyer who is ready to send a demand letter to the dealer, but is not very optimistic
6) Collected the necessary paperwork to attempt a lemon law claim - but the lawyer indicated that the remedy will probably not be to my satisfaction (they will either pay a sum of money to you, or allow you to trade out, and I don't want to deal with this company any longer at all).
posted by getawaysticks to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Focus on the franchisee-franchisor relationship. That's where the dealer must defend for fear of his life.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:45 PM on July 21, 2009

According to a previous askme, the smell comes from the catalytic converter. If you have exhaust gas coming into the car, that seems like a serious safety issue. Have you ever checked the car for carbon monoxide levels during a period of intense smelliness?
posted by nomisxid at 12:54 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

nomisxid - We have not, I will definitely give that a try. (I swear I searched AskMe for everything but "rotten egg smell", whoops)
posted by getawaysticks at 12:57 PM on July 21, 2009

Send your tale of woe to The Consumerist.
posted by kimdog at 12:57 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you had gone back to them within a week or so of signing the papers, you could "unwind" the deal. My dad was in the car business for decades and this happened with some frequency. I never heard of this happening two years later, however. In some sense, this is caveat emptor. My sympathies.
posted by mattbucher at 12:59 PM on July 21, 2009

I don't think you have a shady car dealer. I think you had a salesman who didn't really know what he was talking about, and a service department that is genuinely stumped. Seconding Ironmouth's suggestion, and adding that you could try another dealership or an independent shop.
posted by sageleaf at 1:00 PM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Calculate how much money you've spent trying to fix something unfair on a piece of property that is inexorably decreasing in value anyway. Estimate how much more time you'll have to spend to fix it. Figure out how much your mental health is worth at an hourly rate comparable to a therapy bill. Multiply the third number by the second. Subtract the result from the first. Look at the remainder long and hard. Sell the car and buy a cheaper one that doesn't make you miserable.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:04 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

At my dealer, we'll get cars in all the time that don't "technically" have certain TSBs apply to them. We'll attempt the prescribed solution anyway and it's typically the fix.
Honestly, every problem has a solution, no matter how disguised the malfunction can be. We've had cars in for 10 visits, had them apart for weeks, spent hours and days on them.
But, once we've verified the concern, we fix it no matter how much time we lose on the car.
These guys are clowns and are running a crap operation. Accurately verifying the concern is 50% of any diagnosis. If they can't do the rest, then take it to a different shop.
Lemon law is clear: If the same exact repair has been made three times with no success, they can buy the car back. For instance, if they put a new battery in three times to correct your concern, then it's a buyback. But, if they put in a new battery, a new starter, and a new alternator, all addressing the same electrical concern, there's no grounds for buyback.
Save your repair orders. They're legal documents and they are your best friend in this circumstance.

Sulfur/egg/ass smell can often be a fuel problem. Misfires or rich mixtures tend to stink.
Has your check-engine light been on at any point?
posted by Jon-o at 1:05 PM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

Calculate how much money you've spent trying to fix something unfair on a piece of property that is inexorably decreasing in value anyway. Estimate how much more time you'll have to spend to fix it. Figure out how much your mental health is worth at an hourly rate comparable to a therapy bill. Multiply the third number by the second. Subtract the result from the first. Look at the remainder long and hard. Sell the car and buy a cheaper one that doesn't make you miserable.

So what you're saying is either that the poster should be dishonest and try to sell a car he knows makes people miserable in order to reduce his laws -- literally making someone Else's life miserable instead of his for money or he should honestly sell the car at a HUGE loss (because how much would you pay for a car that stinks whenever you drive it fast?) and just pay a ton of money because of someone Else's mistake?
posted by delmoi at 1:15 PM on July 21, 2009

kimdog - Whoops, I did post to the Consumerist forums, too. I didn't try their tipline though so I will try that.

Jon-o - The check engine light has not come on. We just get the maintenance notice when it is oil change time (and we always do that as required by their manual).

Everyone, thanks for the helpful posts so far. A lot to digest :)
posted by getawaysticks at 1:23 PM on July 21, 2009

We used to have this problem with our Honda. It was the gas we were using, not the car. Try switching grades, or better yet, brands. Your problem may be solved, and your stress level reduced.
posted by turducken at 1:34 PM on July 21, 2009

The sulfur smell was a well documented problem with catalytic converters in Toyotas in the 80's. I had it in my '85 Camry, but it was never that bad, and it wore off after a couple of years.

Try the forums at the Toyota website.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:35 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Googling "Toyota rotten egg smell" turns up a ton of links, most of which do seem to trace the problem to excess sulfur being temporarily stored in the catalytic converter during steady state or highway driving, and then being released on acceleration, when the richer fuel mixture from the engine creates a reaction with the stored sulfur in the catalytic converter.

Shell Oil has recently launched reformulated V-Power premium gasoline with nitrogen cleaning chemistry, which might be worth a try in your vehicle. You probably need to run 3 or 4 tanks of the stuff through, to really see if it makes a difference in cleaning up excess sulfur being stored by your converter. Some people object to paying extra for premium gasoline when their vehicle is designed to run satisfactorily on regular grade gas, but in the case of Shell V-Power, I find that the difference in price is about $1.50 to $2 on a tank, and that the inclusion of 5x the normal amount of cleaning detergents helps make the fuel injectors of my older Dodge work much better, for smoother acceleration and idle. If such fuel makes a marked improvement in your smell problem after a few tanks, you may then also find that you can alternate 1/2 tank fillups with regular gas, and still avoid smell problems, but I would definitely give it 3 or 4 full tanks before reaching any conclusions. Gasoline does vary, a lot, in the amount of sulfur it contains, and with the continuing push for low sulfur diesel fuel and heating oil, a lot of crude oil that once would have been used for making these heavier distillate fuels, is now going into gasoline product, with the result that, on average, there is more sulfur in gasoline than there was even 5 years ago.

Another thing you might try, in addition to changing gasoline, is to change to premium platinum, multiple ground electrode spark plugs, like the Bosch BS4418. These type plugs create a much larger and more uniform flame front in the combustion chamber, reach operating temperature much faster (reducing partially burnt exhaust after starting to the converter), and last up to 3x longer than the OEM spark plugs. Although they cost 3 to 4 times more per spark plug than the OEM replacement version, they may go a long way to improving the driveability of your vehicle, and reducing its tendency to produce objectionable odors.
posted by paulsc at 1:46 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Jon-O, the Lemon Law varies from state to state. In some states, the requirement is that the car has been 'disabled' for a period of x days within a certain timeframe and as the result of the same repair. A blanket "three strikes" rule doesn't work for every locale.

OP, if you're not yet willing to have the lawyer send a threatening letter, then go with Ironmouth's suggestion. It's a good one. If that doesn't help, then run with the lawyer route. In the current economic climate, a lawyer's letter might get better results than you think it would. Surely that attorney can come up with some basis in law that would require the dealership to compensate you for this issue. Even if the result is a lump sum distribution, take the money and the truck and head to another dealership; trade out of your current truck into something else.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 3:16 PM on July 21, 2009

on the try to find the problem with the car front, maybe contact the car talk guys?
posted by defcom1 at 6:16 PM on July 21, 2009

My wife and I had a brand new 2003 Mazda Protege 5 that exhibited this problem.

We took it to the dealer, and they told us it would go away and that it wasn't a problem.

I was skeptical, but somewhere around the 10-12,000 mile mark, we stopped noticing it and it never came back. I don't know what caused it, or what fixed it - but it did go away on it's own.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:05 PM on July 21, 2009

delmoi: No I'm saying that he could sell the car to a big used dealer like Carmax and they would probably notice the smell and pay a bit less (but not nothing) for it. OP is going to take a huge loss on it at some point--it is a car.

My main point is just that it sounds like at no point did he consider giving up and letting the dealership "win" and that he should at least think about it. Sometimes preserving your sanity means letting injustice happen to you, when the cure is more costly than the curse.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:41 AM on July 22, 2009

The Better Business Bureau has a program to help resolve disputes between customers and dealers/manufacturers. Worth a try.

2nd Cartalk and going to a different dealership for warranty repair.
posted by theora55 at 9:32 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

theora55 - I had never heard of this BBB program and it sounded perfect, but Toyota appears to be the only major manufacturer that doesn't participate! But thank you for the suggestion.

Thanks to everyone for the help. Many helpful ideas and suggestions.
posted by getawaysticks at 4:29 PM on July 22, 2009

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