04 June 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

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A Scary Recall

Perhaps I've mentioned once or twice that I drive the hybrid Toyota Prius.  I might even have mentioned that I like it, and that it can power my house in an emergency.  I don't think I've mentioned that it might have killed me if I were a bit less fussy.  As of this writing it hasn't done so; if it had you would be reading a previous blogitem, as I have made no arrangements here for an epitaph, an obituary, or a depreciation.  Perhaps it's best, at least for the RIKLblog, that I am OK.

The story begins with a routine safety recall...

I sustained a postal missive from Toyota advising me to bring my car in for replacement of the "intermediate steering shaft."  Apparently it was strong enough to work normally, but also weak enough to break spontaneously if previously subject to excessive mechanical abuse such as hitting a curb or some other insult.  I was casual about this since I knew the car had suffered no previous damage, and the steering was fine.  In fact, I waited for three service intervals.  For the first of them the dealer didn't have the replacement part, and the second would otherwise have been just for an oil change, for which the dealer was unwilling to provide a loaner.  The third service interval involved tire rotation and other activities which would take longer and qualify me for a loaner.  This was a good opportunity to get the steering campaign taken care of.

I took their loaner, tried to find my way to work without a GPS, and returned hours later to pick up my Prius.  Heeding a caution I had read in the Priusonline internet group, I was careful to confirm that the steering wheel was properly aligned and that the bar was horizontal when the car was heading straight.  No problem.  I drove away from the dealer, content that I could now hit the curb at whim.  It took a couple of days of driving before I realized that something was bothering me about the car's steering.  I'm your basic slow and steady driver.  I use cruise control and get my entertainment from the radio rather than trying my luck with the traffic police.  But I found that it seemed to be a little harder to stay on the right side of the right lane.  Instead of just aiming the car, I found myself making a lot of little corrections.  As soon as I realized I was doing this, I tried to analyze the reason and discovered that the steering wheel had a certain amount of "play" or what would be called "deadband" in a servo system.  It wasn't precisely that, though.  The car would correctly follow the wheel, but the resistance of the steering wheel was much lower for a fraction of an inch in either direction before it felt normal.  The effect wasn't noticeable on curves or turns, but when trying to go straight it was just noticeable enough to be annoying.

One major difference between banks (to which I hate going) and my car dealer is that the latter offers free donuts.  In addition, there doesn't seem to be an Official Baked Goods Monitor, so if I have to wait for my car, I can bring a straw and pith a jelly donut or two.  Additionally, the car dealer is conveniently located on a road I travel every day, so stopping by is not a big deal.  I made an appointment, waited a week, and drove in.  The service guy tried the wheel, said "I see the problem" and asked me to wait.  My question, of course, was, could they fix it right away or did I have to come back later when they had time, ordered the part, or whatever.  None of the above:

The answer was "Take this loaner."

Apparently the problem was rather more dire than I suspected, as I found out after a three-quarter hour and two-donut-dejellification wait.  I must have looked surprised and nonplussed.  (I was surprised and nonplussed.)  The service guy explained to me that (for whatever reason) another part of the steering mechanism had apparently been damaged.  Presumably due to some error performing the safety recall, something had been done wrong, and they didn't want me driving the car until they fixed it.  I asked what could happen, and although he replied in a long and somewhat complicated car-guy manner, the word "binding" jumped out at me.  "Binding" is not something you want to hear that your steering mechanism might do.

While I was thanking him for finding the problem and thanking myself for discovering it, he led me to a loaner.  Explaining that they didn't have the part and it would take some days to get it, he handed me the SmartKey to a brand-new, 2007 silver Prius, with all the options!  My fear of death quickly overcome by "new toy" anticipation, I again thanked him and drove off.  When I arrived at work, I explained what happened to another car guy.  He told me how the steering mechanism worked and that what had probably happened is that the "spline" between the two shafts wasn't doing its job, and I had been living by the grace of a potentially-unreliable set screw.  Either way, I was alive and, lest there be any doubt, glad of same.

The "2007 silver Prius with all the options" review

The best part of this potential near-death experience is that I got to drive the newest Prius.  It had only about 200 miles on it when I left the dealer's lot.  But I don't have much of a review to offer.  I made an effort to drive it exactly as I drive my own, even despite the fact that I wasn't responsible if I actually had to use the brakes.  Checking the gas mileage, the ride, the handling, etc., I can only say two things, and only one with confidence.  The first: It seemed to handle a tiny bit better, but that could easily be ascribed to the factor of 200 more mileage on my car.  The second: It was definitely cleaner.  The real difference was in the navigation and display option package.  The display had better resolution and seemed brighter in daytime.  There were some improvements in the mapping function.  The back-up camera was nice, and would have been especially useful if I did any backing-up.

With regard to gas mileage, it seemed to me that my car was slightly better, but that could be an apparent difference only or perhaps the differential radius between new and mid-life tires.  In other words, the 2007 Prius is a wonderful car, but only with generic Prius wonderfulth, and not any great improvement over my 2005.  I turned it in after replacing the five or so gallons of gas I used, and received my car, no longer a mechanical death trap, in return.  Whew!

No blogitem involving potential death would be complete without a "lessons learned" conclusion.  As you have discovered (and are perhaps now regretting due to the length of this item), neither I nor my Prius suffered as a result of this potentially destructive event.  It could easily have turned out differently:  The problem that I noticed was fairly subtle.  If it had developed during the life of the car instead of immediately after the steering recall repair, I might well have ignored it.  So, I think I'll end with a second addendum to my usual injunction to "Be Careful."  (The first addendum, of course, is "Be Lucky.")  The new one?  "Be Fussy!"

NP:  "Silent Sea" - Kt Tunstall

Richard Factor

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