How would you handle this car repair problem?
February 5, 2015 2:18 PM   Subscribe

My car was repaired for $2,000 in November. They took the engine apart. Today, they tell me the problem is a sensor. I'm out $2,000.00. Now, they want to also charge me for the sensor. How would you handle this?

In November, my car died in an intersection. I had it towed. A minor repair seemed to fix it. It died again the next day. I limped it to a dealership. They told me my timing chain had broken, and it would cost $2,000 to fix. My car is not new (2007 Saturn Aura), but it only has 75,000 miles on it. I said to fix it.

800 miles later, my car died in an intersection again. I was nearly hit by a semi. After 10 minutes, I was able to start the engine again and limp it to the dealership (the "reduced engine power" light came on in each instance. Same exact problem. They've had it for a week. Today, they told me they think it's a sensor. I'm out $2,000. They tore my engine apart for a bad sensor. Now, they want to charge me for the sensor - on top of the $2,000 for the unnecessary repair to the timing chain.

This is not the second - or even third - time this particular dealership has misdiagnosed/mishandled a car repair, but they are the only GM dealership near me.

Other than never buying a GM car again, how would you handle this?
posted by clarkstonian to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Your 2007 Saturn Aura has approximately nothing in common with current GM cars. It'd be irrational for you to avoid buying current GM cars due to a 8-year-old GM-owned company that doesn't exist any more.

I'd stop getting service done from that particular dealership. For a well-out-of-warranty car, you are not beholden in any way to getting service done by a dealership, and you'd be well-served by doing a search of available options. You should be looking for the best mechanic around - which may or may not be associated with a dealership. Without knowing further about your location, I'd suggest that mechanic will probably not be associated with a dealership.

If you want to pursue this further, you will have to make the decision whether you consider the original repair to be done out of incompetence. You should not be paying for incompetence on the part of a mechanic. However, if there was good reason to pursue the original repair, then the dealership has every right to request payment for both repairs. Car repair is not an exact science, and every hour of mechanic time has a cost to the dealership associated with it. I don't know whether this particular dealership has a good reputation or a bad reputation, but I will note it is particularly hard to prove in court that a particular car repair was absolutely not necessary.

You should either consider this pure bad luck or ask for a reduction in the cost of the sensor repair. The reduction in cost would be out of "good will", not out of any obligation on the part of the dealership. You should try to be nice to them when you ask, because they may honestly have pursued the original repair, even if the end result wasn't correct. It'd also be nice to get a second opinion, because if they are actually incompetent, then I wouldn't go back for future repairs.
posted by saeculorum at 2:30 PM on February 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

Get a 2nd opinion from a AAA approved shop.
posted by brujita at 2:34 PM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not convinced the timing chain repair was unecessary - it's pretty easy to tell if it's broken, after all. That seems like a high price for that repair - it's usually about half that, but my frame of reference is engines where that is a serviceable part. Did you ask to see the replaced parts ?

I'm sort of surprised that they tore your engine apart to find a faulty sensor. If it was in limp mode, then there was a code thrown. When you took it in, did they give you an estimate of work to be done ? Did they confirm an estimate over the phone or in writing ? Was there a warranty on the work that was previously done ?

At some point, they had to communicate what they were going to do and why and how much it was going to cost before doing the work. If they did work that you didn't authorize being done, you can possibly get them to eat the cost (varies by state).

But, it is unclear to me how exactly this all went down. And yeah, avoid GM cars - they are crap.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:36 PM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

That's hard to say. The timing chain clearly didn't break (they should have established that when they took it apart) but they could have concluded that it was stretched. In fact it may well have stretched. They could, in good faith, have decided it may have stretched, replaced the timing chain anyway (no point not if you are already in there). If they found an issue it doesn't necessarily follow that they would automatically validated the sensor. Note: timing chains stretching on that model is a known issue (and a big one) and your mileage is typical for the failure. So it's a reasonable assumption that the chain has stretched and possibly even a valid diagnosis. It may even have stretched AND the sensor was damaged. When timing chains slacken off (rather than snap in half) they tend to whip around the place. It is possible the stretch allowed the timing chain to damage the sensor and they missed it (intermittent fault) when they replaced the chain (possible and understandable error) and they did the correct job in good faith but there was an additional fault. It isn't often you have two faults for the same thing, so this is an outlier, to me.

Alternatively, they didn't need to replace the chain and they are idiots. The large number of complaints for stretched chains on that model suggest that this is the less likely option, I'd have thought. I think you're just unlucky. You had a fault (timing chain stretch) and a second intermittent fault (dodgy sensor). It's almost impossible to conclude they even did anything wrong, never mind whether they should have replaced the sensor initially.

I don't know that model or the testing process for the sensor (or the cost of the sensor) but if I had taken apart an engine for a broken timing chain and it wasn't broken, I'd suspect the sensor. I'd also have maybe considered replacing the crankshaft/camshaft sensor (I am assuming it is one of the two) when I did the initial repair as a precaution because nothing else seemed wrong. But if it was a model with a known issue with weak timing chains? Probably not. I think, as I say, you were just unlucky.
posted by Brockles at 2:36 PM on February 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

Which is to say - I think there is a strong case that you should pay for the repairs and jus be upset you were unlucky. Additionally, that car is a lemon, frankly, and bears no resemblance to modern GM cars. There is not overwhelming evidence that even the dealership did wrong here.
posted by Brockles at 2:37 PM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm sort of surprised that they tore your engine apart to find a faulty sensor. I

I read it as - they tore the engine apart when they could have just replaced the sensor *instead* of the timing chain, which I don't think is a valid viewpoint, given the terrible quality of that timing chain. They didn't do a $2K timing chain AND a $2k sensor change unless I am reading it wrong.
posted by Brockles at 2:39 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

You have to replace the timing chain and the water pump at around 75,000 miles. You try to do this before you have a catastrophic failure. I had one go on the freeway, no fun. So you didn't spend that money for nothing.

The sensor could have just been a coincidence.

By all means take the car to another mechanic, since there's no dealer that's actually a Saturn dealer, or Pontiac or Oldsmobile, anymore.

FWIW, I took my Mercedes to the dealer for a full overhaul after the check engine light came on. They charged me $4,000 to do it. 2 miles away from the dealer, the light came back on. They then thought it might be a seal or gasket, and it would cost another $4,000 to lift the engine. I said, bugger that, and drove to the Honda dealership, bought an Accord, and I haven't looked back.

But, yes, if the sensor is a relatively small cost, the timing chain was well replaced.

The car is eight years old. You may want to pay for a full diagnostic and going over by a mechanic, just to see what else is on the horizon. And there will be lots of other things on the horizon.

At this stage of the game, get AAA so you can call them for a tow. It's cheap at twice the price.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:00 PM on February 5, 2015

In my experience, dealers charge about 2x what a competent, independent mechanic would charge for the same repair. This is largely because dealerships have much higher overhead. I would never take a 7 year old car to the dealer except on a recall.
posted by mr vino at 3:00 PM on February 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's clear the timing chain hadn't broken (you wouldn't have been able to limp the car along if it had), but it seems logical that a car with a strong history of timing chain problems that presents with the typical symptoms of that problem is going to get the timing chain replaced. I would argue that they should have run a diagnostic to look for errors if only to make sure nothing else was wrong (or to see what else they could charge you for while they were at it), but it doesn't seem unreasonable to fix the obvious known error by default. $2,000 to replace a timing chain seems like a lot, unless other components had been damaged due to the bad timing chain.

It's not clear that this is the 'same exact' problem as the first time - 800 miles have passed and just because an engine stalls twice is not a guarantee that the same cause exists. In any case, you agreed to the repair knowing the cost and that's water under the bridge, but I wouldn't be taking the car back there if you have any choice in the matter. Dealerships are pretty much always much more expensive than other mechanics and more likely to find other things that 'need' attention while they have the car. Ask around about a reliable mechanic and ditch the dealer.
posted by dg at 3:01 PM on February 5, 2015

You say that you were able to limp the car along to the dealership the time they told you the timing chain had broken, but as noted, you would not have been able to limp the car anywhere if the chain had, as you say they specifically claimed, broken.

The most charitable interpretation here is that they were treating you like an idiot and instead of explaining the actual issue (presumably a stretched chain) they just told you, "shit's broke gotta fix it."

The incompetence interpretation is that your car came in with a bad sensor, but they went, "Oh, a 2007 Saturn Aura, must be the timing chain," and without actually checking, went ahead and "repaired" that. This is what my money is on because I don't know how a stretching timing chain would be a fine-then-sudden-failure-type thing, while a sensor failing intermittently may well be.

The malice interpretation is that they lied.

None of these interpretations leave any reason to be taking this car back to a dealership (or any mechanic) which you say has already screwed up many times. I don't know why you took it there this time, if you already know them to be incompetent. I'd find an independent mechanic and just never think of this place again.
posted by cmoj at 3:18 PM on February 5, 2015

With all due respect to the good people giving advice here, there is a SaturnFans website that appears to be well-established; especially you might want to look in the forums and/or ask for opinions and experiences there.

There may well be other Saturn-related forums and websites and owners-groups out there, too.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:20 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is what my money is on because I don't know how a stretching timing chain would be a fine-then-sudden-failure-type thing,

It's very easy (and a likely failure mode). The chain stretches and slowly affects the engine timing. At some point it is out far enough that the ECU is unable to adjust enough to compensate for the timing issue. Hence, the chain starts stretching and it suddenly affects the engine as the timing is outside a parameter the engine can deal with. Chains snap with no warning when they break without stretching enough to give external signs of the elongation.

I agree that 'stretched' = 'broken' when dealing with customers. To be honest, $2K for a timing chain replacement at a dealership is pretty good money. An aftermarket timing chain set is around $400 alone (from a brief internet search that I can find) so I suspect a GM one is $600-800. Changing the timing chain and all the tensioners is a lengthy job. So the cost of the repair is only excessive if it was done at a non-dealer mechanic.

Also: Do not take a 7 year old car (especially a non-complicated one like this) to a dealer. It is not at all worth it. Independents are fine for this.
posted by Brockles at 5:24 PM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

You have to replace the timing chain and the water pump at around 75,000 miles.

Cite please. You are possibly confusing a timing chain with a timing belt. Timing chains should last significantly longer than a timing belt if they are of good quality - BMW for instance usually don't even quote a service life for timing chains. They are expected to outlast the engine. The fact that this timing belt has often been replaced at a similar interval on this car is a sign of the component being problematic, not a standard service life.

There is also no service life of 75,000 miles on a water pump. It is often replaced at a timing belt change because it is minimal extra labour to 'do it while you're in there' but they do not have a '75,000 mile service life' as your comment suggests. Please don't repeat anecdotes as evidence if you don't fully understand the subject .
posted by Brockles at 5:33 PM on February 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

I would bet that the two issues are completely unrelated, just that in both cases it went into limp-home mode.

On the timing chain front, it may have stretched - it's a problem in those engines - and skipped a tooth, which would make the engine run very poorly.

Now, you've got a sensor dead.

All, you'd be better off finding another mechanic than the dealer. Dealers in some cases have model specific knowledge due to working mostly with one make, but at a cost of double the hourly rate and double the part cost.
posted by notsnot at 6:54 PM on February 5, 2015

Question...Have you or the dealer checked to make sure your Saturn isn't included in the GM starter switch recall? Your car dying like that is pretty similar to other descriptions of the switch problem.

As for timing chains...In my experience with cars equipped with them, timing chains pretty much never have to be replaced, except in extremely high-mileage situations, and not even then. Timing chains stretching then failing is one of those automotive tales that basically have no grounding in fact except in some very extreme cases, but it's a handy story to scare customers into an expensive job.

Anecdote: I've owned three cars over the years that were equipped with timing chains. Two of them went well beyond 300,000 miles (one over 400,000) with no service ever having to be done to the timing chains. The third car was close to 200,000 miles when we sold it.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:28 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

With timing chains, belts, etc, the issue is when do they need to be replaced for this particular vehicle? Normally you want to replace them before they completely fail.

But if this about the mileage where timing chains need to be replaced for this vehicle, then that is just part of the cost of owning/operating a vehicle like this.

A separate issue is, did you pay too much for the timing chain replacement? If you had it done at a dealer, most certainly you paid more than you would have at an independent garage. But I don't know whether I would classify this under "World's Biggest Ripoff" or more likely "Well Known Fact About Dealership Repair Shops". They're priced at the high end of the market. If that's not where your income level lies, definitely take your business elsewhere.

Also, in general, motor vehicles are well known for being money pits. Some are lesser money pits and others, greater money pits. Nevertheless, all are money pits; if you own a motor vehicle, plan and budget accordingly.
posted by flug at 5:37 PM on February 6, 2015

All of your advice was invaluable for a number of reasons. I was able to see both sides of the issue. In the end, the dealership agreed they had misdiagnosed the problem the first time, and they went ahead and fixed it. They apparently never pulled a diagnostic code from the car the first time.

The above poster who said the car wouldn't just work/not work/work/not work if it were the timing chain was correct - it was another dealership that initially told me this dealership had misdiagnosed my problem and told me to go back and ask them to fix it.

However, it is good to be reminded that two things can coincidentally go wrong at the same time.
posted by clarkstonian at 8:57 AM on May 17, 2015

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