Major problems with my Mini.
April 26, 2010 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I've had a problem prone 2007 Mini Cooper S which is now in the dealer's shop after a major (potentially fatal) failure. Not being a mechanic, I'm really curious if I'm being fed a line of bulls**t.

The backstory: this car was bought new in '07, and since has had lots of nickel and dime problems, including: a clutch that went out fairly early on; electrical system faults; and weird sounds from the engine and to the right that were never diagnosed. I've struggled with the professionalism of the dealership, from hard selling an "extended service plan" that didn't actually cover repairs, to outright lying about labor and installation costs after selling a discounted accessory.

In January of this year, I got a tank of bad gas. Long and short of it was that the gas had high ethanol and water counts. The system was flushed and lots of money was spent to correct a bad idle as a result of the gas (the gas station refused to pony up; by the time the state inspected their tanks, they got a new load in). The idle continued on- the service department said that it would take $1000 to $2000 to *diagnose* the problem, let alone fix it. They said that I could indefinitely drive it until I began to notice changes in performance at higher speeds, at which point I'd have to get the engine taken apart to correct the issue. I used fuel injector cleaner additives regularly, and the idle remained but only when at a stop. The weird engine noises referenced above continued unabated and I was trying to save up for the eventual service.

Last week, I went to start it, and no dice. There was a strong electrical smell and every warning light lit up in sequence. I naturally expected this to just be another weird electrical issue. The car got towed down (80 miles to the closest dealer) and I waited. Today they called and said the timing belt slipped off, and that the tensioner failed as an end result of the bad gas (somehow effecting the oil). To repair this falls around $5000 (and I owe more on the car than its trade-in value, so I'm screwed as far as getting out of the car). I called a tech who lives in my area for also works on Minis and he said that there had been a recall on timing belts and other front end issues in the recent past. I confronted the service department with this and they said it was a "service bulletin," and the responsibility falls on me for getting the bad gas, as if I did that intentionally. They say that they are in a "gray area" of responsibility but that the repairs fall outside my extended service plan anyway, so it's my five grand to shell out. When I asked them how this could have been prevented, they came up blank and hurried off the phone. They offer no financing on major repairs, no installment plans, and this is way beyond my affordability; times changed a lot since I first got he car. Mileage is 77k.

So I need some advice on how to proceed, being a novice in mechanic-speak and also smelling a potential rat. A friend informed me that a tensioner has no relationship to the fuel system... so I'm obviously suspicious. If this were your car, what approach would you take with the dealership? Is there any connection between the bad gas and the tensioner? Does the "service bulletin" throw enough of a red flag to legally question ultimate responsibility (manufacturing defect versus owner fault)?

Thanks in advance for your help. I'm gobsmacked and missing the car I've loved and struggled with for three years.
posted by moonbird to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't know how to help you, but I would recommend you post here
North American Mini Cooper Forum

I'm planning on buying a mini and these guys are ENTHUSIASTS. They know all the repairs you should expect and the one's you shouldn't. Post this over there and see what they say.
posted by lakerk at 9:06 PM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

They are definitely lying to you. Your friend is right: No way does a tank of bad gas take out your timing belt tensioner. I mean, that's hardly even actually trying to tell a respectable lie.

I was in a roughly parallel pickle once and solved it by calling a half dozen competing mechanics to ask what they thought of the responsibility-dodging diagnosis my shop had given me for a problem they'd created. The other mechanics all said the story was preposterous. So I returned to my mechanic and told them what I'd learned. Loudly and clearly, in front of all their other queued customers. The shop quietly agreed to fix the mistake they'd obviously made.

The one-billable-hour, one-page letter from your friend the lawyer might also help (s/he could use your calling-other-mechanics research to make the intervention stick).
posted by gum at 9:09 PM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Wow, what a saga. IWhat does your extended service plan cover if it doesn't cover this sort of thing?

I'm not a professional mechanic but I am a pretty fair amateur one, and I can tell you that when people talk about "bad gas", they usually mean that the gas absorbed water, just as you said. Since water doesn't combust, bad gas will cause your car to run very poorly, but once you remove it the car should be no worse for wear. It is vaguely possible you could have damaged an oxygen or air/fuel (lamda) sensor, but even the greediest dealership would have a hard time charging you more than a few hundred dollars to replace one of those. And there is no way bad gas is going to cause a timing belt tensioner to fail; that's just pure bullshit.

I did a quick search for TSBs (Technical Service Bulletin's) for 07 Mini Coopers and didn't see any. >a href="">This site seemed to have a good aggregation of recall and TSB data for Mini's.

Question: when you say, "The idle continued on...", what do you mean? All engines idle -- idling just means the engine will run at a constant (low) speed without any input from the throttle. Do you mean the car continued to run after you shut the key off (aka, "dieseling"?) Or something else?

I think at this point it's time to bring in a hired gun. Does your local newspaper or one of the local news channels have an ActionLine or other ongoing consumer protection column? If so, I would forward this posting to them -- by the sound of things, you are being screwed by this dealership, and you need an advocate who a) knows cars better than you do and b) knows how to get the attention of the dealership. This dealership sounds pretty unethical to me, and based on what you described I wouldn't trust them to do any further work on any vehicle that I owned.
posted by mosk at 9:16 PM on April 26, 2010

If this were your car, what approach would you take with the dealership?

Call the manager and ask for the name and phone number of their insurance company. If s/he doesn't give it to you (although s/he probably will), dial up the chain to the owner, regional manager, etc.

You need to file a garage liability claim. Garage liability is what protects customers from errors made by mechanics. (For example, my insured (a dealership) let a $40,000 SUV fall off a lift, so I bought the claimant a new $40,000 SUV.)

Their insurance company will take documentation from your past repairs and possibly recorded statements from service techs, manager and you, and may send an independent mechanic to inspect your vehicle (or the mechanical expert - not the adjuster - will compare the narratives to the work done and work proposed to determine what the problem was.). Then, if the expert decides in your favor, the adjuster will pay you to take your car to another garage to be fixed properly.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:19 PM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well, it's certainly possible for a really violently bucking and coughing engine to throw a timing belt. But it's not probable, and for sure not provable.

However, it would have to happen while the car was actually having its attack. Weeks later is just not plausible.

Even less plausible is the couple of grand to correct an idle problem "caused" by bad gas. Drain the tank, fill it with fresh gas, and a bottle of IsoHeet and drive it for 15 minutes is all it takes. Maybe a week or so for the idle to relearn.

(Actually, now that I think about it, it IS plausible: the bad gas caused the belt to jump a tooth. Now the engine isn't in time with itself and running poorly. Causing the belt to be under more strain than normal which eventually shredded it. Why $5000? *IF* it is an interference engine, when the belt snapped lots and lots of damage could occur.)

((BUT. It's on them, because if that's the issue, they failed to diagnose it properly the first time and specifically told you it was OK to drive. It sounds like you are getting hosed. Call Mini-Of-USA or whoever is the manufacturer and tell them you are getting hosed by their dealership.))
posted by gjc at 9:26 PM on April 26, 2010

You can definitely try contacting Mini of USA, or whatever the parent company is. I had a situation where my 4-year-old Honda CRV with barely 40,000 miles needed a $2000 repair -- entire AC system went kablooey -- and was out of warrantee. I wrote to the company, said I was a faithful customer, told them I expected more from a Honda, and a couple of days later they phoned to say they'd cover it. YMMV, but it might just be worth a try.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:41 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

In January of this year, I got a tank of bad gas. Long and short of it was that the gas had high ethanol and water counts.

How do you know? Did the dealership tell you this?
posted by zippy at 10:08 PM on April 26, 2010

I've struggled with the professionalism of the dealership, from hard selling an "extended service plan" that didn't actually cover repairs, to outright lying about labor and installation costs after selling a discounted accessory.

I'm very curious why you've continued to bring it to this dealership. Is it still under some kind of warranty? Surely there is a trustworthy mechanic closer than 80 miles to you...

Here is what I would do: Use all available resources (the Mini site listed above, word of mouth, etc) to id at least three or four reputable mechanics near you. Call each of them, and explain your story. Explain the car is 80 miles away and that it will need to be towed to them. Ask them to give you a theory on what is wrong with the car (don't prompt them), and ask them to give you an estimate over the phone of cost to fix that problem (if that does turn out to be the problem).

Then remove the car from the dealership, and have it fixed by someone else. At this point, possibly anyone else.

I'd also contact Mini of the USA (which is really BMW, yes?) and let them know in writing of the issues you've had with their dealership, using a lot of the same words you've used here ("outright lying", etc). The parent company WILL want to know how you've been treated.
posted by anastasiav at 10:59 PM on April 26, 2010

In January of this year, I got a tank of bad gas. Long and short of it was that the gas had high ethanol and water counts.

This omits a few important details. How long did you drive the vehicle when it was misfiring? How long did you drive the car with the Check Engine light on before you brought it in to be diagnosed.
When a car misfires, it's a situation where the fuel in one or more cylinders is no longer being burned. That fuel exits the cylinder through the exhaust and also by dripping down the cylinder walls into the oil sump. The fuel will act like a solvent and dilute the engine oil, resulting in increased friction on the engine internals. It's a stretch, but it's not completely bogus.

What you need is independent verification. You need to find a good independent technician who's familiar with Minis, tow the car to them, have them check the car over, and then explain clearly what's happening with the car.
When you go to a dealership as a mechanical novice, you'll more than likely leave with virtually zero ideal about what's going on with your car. The technician working on it has to explain it to the service writer (a mechanical novice) who then has to explain it to you, so it's like whisper down the lane. It's pretty routine for a service writer to completely fumble an explanation and the customer gets the wrong idea about what's happening with their car. And many techs don't have good communication skills since they're not forced to interface with customers routinely.

Go on and use their shop finder resource to find you a good shop in your area that is experienced with Mini Cooper or other European makes.
posted by Jon-o at 4:13 AM on April 27, 2010

As a MINI owner, I have to second the recommendation for NAM. There's an unbelievable amount of information there and people who can get into specifics.

Personally, I've been rather anal about where I get my gas (Shell 93 only, keeping paper receipts, etc.), partially due to this thread.

I've also been following this thread which talks about the tensioner issue. I experienced it in my car (loud rattle upon start in cold conditions) and brought it into the dealer and had the fix done and that was that.

I can't see how the two are related, but the guys at NAM will be able to give you a more definitive answer.

I know it can be tough finding a MINI dealer, but if you can find another one within driving distance, it might be worth it. If you can't, see what others say about your dealer on NAM. There are some sketchy ones and others may have had bad experiences as well.
posted by Tu13es at 5:15 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ha, I see that you just posted on NAM. Best of luck!
posted by Tu13es at 5:17 AM on April 27, 2010

(Actually, now that I think about it, it IS plausible: the bad gas caused the belt to jump a tooth. Now the engine isn't in time with itself and running poorly. Causing the belt to be under more strain than normal which eventually shredded it.

I have never, ever, heard of a belt jumping a tooth through a misfire. The belt would have to be extremely worn to jump a tooth, and I have certainly not heard of this with a modern car. I deal with engines that have considerably closer tolerances and more power than road cars generally have, and even those never jump a tooth, even using stock belts under some pretty hideous misfires and flat out running during.

I think Jon-o is being pretty generous with his thoughts of how the bad fuel could affect your car. You'd have had to drive a badly (I mean, knock your teeth on the wheel bad) running engine for a good proportion of time - by 'a stretch' I think he means 'not theoretically implausible' at best. The fuel would have either caused a slight misfire for a very extended period (in which case I can't imagine it doing any noticeable or lasting harm) or a heavy misfire which would be bad enough that anyone that claims not to know about cars would be most likely terrified to drive more than a minute before the engine fell out of the car.

You don't describe that sort of occurrence. You describe a situation that resulted in a bad idle - I don't think ethanol or water content would permanently damage an idle controller. I certainly don't think it would be damaged (or even functioning poorly) beyond the reset at the dealer after the fuel flush.

I think either your dealership is clueless or fraudulent. If your presentation is a truthful and honest (And complete) account, then this does not at all sound genuine to me. I think there is either something else fundamentally wrong with your car (and unconnected entirely to the 'bad fuel') or the garage is having a great time emptying your pockets.
posted by Brockles at 7:12 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everyone, thank you *so much* for your thoughts. This is giving me a sense of hope in what has felt like a hopeless situation. I've been slammed at work and am checking this from the ER (lull). I hope to get back on here soon and follow up to some of your questions.
Again, my thanks.
posted by moonbird at 9:03 AM on April 27, 2010

Mini USA was of no help, unfortunately. They said there were previous service tickets related to shaking as the result of low or poor quality oil from "between July '08 and January '10" that I'd never heard of. At all. Sounded downright fictitious or like someone else's car. FWIW, the only oil that ever touched that car was from from their dealership. On those grounds, they said because of external factors, there was nothing they could do to help, referring me back to the dealer. I'm really wanting to go public with the dealer's name at this point...

I spoke with a Mini certified tech who echoed all of the above concerns, saying that he had the service bulletin for my exact model with the exact fix. The dealer's mechanics obviously don't read them and this now leads to my car being toast.

As to the garage insurance, the dealer's people had no clue about it. Clever, eh? So what's next?
posted by moonbird at 1:27 PM on April 27, 2010

Does your state have lemon laws for new vehicles? I'm totally shooting in the dark here, but it may be worth looking into it with this much trouble on such a new vehicle.
posted by owls at 7:02 PM on April 28, 2010

Update, and answered. After going through a crazy amount of rigmarole around trying to lawyer up, contact the dealer's owner, and all other possible explored avenues, Mini USA caved. They acknowledged their burden of responsibility and are shouldering 80% of the repair cost. A regional Mini rep happened to be inspecting the facility, got a hold of my case and voila, all was corrected. This couldn't have happened without the research and support of the Mefi community. Thanks so much.
posted by moonbird at 10:43 PM on September 11, 2010

wow, great to see that! I'm sorry I just got back in here and saw you had no luck with the garage liability claim. I know many small garage owners don't carry such insurance, preferring to take their chances in court, but most dealers that I'm aware of do carry it because of the huge volume of work they do.

I'm glad you were able to get the right ear at the right time. OTOH, Mini does not look very good for trying to take advantage of their customers. Not everyone has the resources of money, time, lawyers, a knowledgeable community, etc.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:06 PM on September 12, 2010

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