Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray crashed this car after falling asleep. He likely has no right to privacy since the vehicle is owned by the state. It is nonetheless chilling to know your car could testify against you, if compelled by law. The black box in the vehicle betrayed speed, time traveled, throttle position, and seatbelt status of the driver [via Jalopnik].
Jalopnik has been asserting that the rampant runaway Toyota crisis – which they tag as ‘Beige Bites Back’ – is due to the dull, isolating, appliance-like experience that the manufacturer’s products deliver. Theodore Frank in the Washington Examiner points out something else from a quick non-scientific inquiry into the demography of the drivers:
The Los Angeles Times recently did a story detailing all of the NHTSA reports of Toyota “sudden acceleration fatalities, and, though the Times did not mention it, the ages of the drivers involved were striking.
In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89 ”and I’m leaving out the son whose age wasn’t identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger.
These “electronic defects apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them. (If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators).
As a marketing metric, average buyer age is critically important. Positive owner experiences translate into buyer loyalty. The younger the buyer, the more likely they are to make subsequent purchases. The older they are, the greater the likelihood that there current vehicle might be the last car they ever own. Toyota’s average age of buyer has been steadily rising. Older drivers are far more likely to experience “peddle misapplication”, resulting in the periodic report of senior’s cars going “out of control at the farmers market”.
By the time we were back in the market (late fall of 2008 through early spring 2009), leasing was no longer an option, with the price of a lease on a comparative van being $150 higher than the expiring lease. The Sienna was by far a superior vehicle, in terms of performance and fit and finish, but the negotiated price between similarly equipped new vehicles (when considering 2009 and 2008 left-overs) was VERY substantial, to the amount of $10,000. Knowing that we would have to purchase and finance this vehicle, the purchase price became more important than the payment. The Toyota may have been nice, but it wasn’t $10,000 nicer. The experience was relatively painless (note that I sold cars for Saturn for some years, as well as being a Finance Manager). The owner came over to make small talk. Having always had a soft spot for American cars, and especially for the Chrysler minivans (my father has bought 4 of them through the years), I was sold.
The Grand Caravan is deficient compared to the previous-generation Sienna (which was redesigned for the 2011 model year and available as I write this) in several areas. The fuel economy may be marginally better, but it is noisier, rougher, full of design compromises, and has an interior that looks to be made of Rubbermaid. Design wise, these are problems that up till recently have been found in most American cars. Both Ford and General Motors have since recognized the folly of skimping on the area driver’s spend all of their time and are finally building world quality interiors. Hopefully Chrysler will catch up.
My first hint of those design compromises was tail-lamp bulbs. I know, it seems like something trivial to complain about, but it is representative of Chrysler’s philosophy with regards to quality. We had our Sienna for near-40,000 miles (we leased for 36-months and extended it by 3-months while we car shopped). We never replaced a headlight or tail lamp the entire time we owned the Toyota. Before 12-months had elapsed, BOTH tail lamps (4-bulbs total) on the Chrysler had failed.
Now, bulbs are no big deal, about $5 per pack of two bulbs. For someone who considers himself very technically capable, replacing them was a trivial act. For the average automobile owner, not so much; replacing those bulbs might require a trip to the dealer.
Now, I suspect that the OEM specification bulbs are of lower quality than replacement bulbs “ how else to explain them falling before 12-months of time and within a couple of months of each other. Now, Chrysler may save $5 or so dollars per vehicle (they sold several hundred thousand vans, resulting in a not-insignificant savings), but at what cost? What’s the effect on the perception of quality when the owner has to replace bulbs so soon into the ownership experience?
Enter the brakes. As I type this, I am sitting at the dealership for state inspection, fully aware that I am going to be told I need new brakes, at only 12,500 miles. The Sienna required front brakes at about 20k, and rear brakes around 30k. A cursory search on Google for “2008 Dodge Grand Caravan brakes problem results in numerous results containing owner’s tales of quickly-consumed brakes. The technical explanation is that Chrysler designed the van with soft rotors and hard brake pads, often resulting in premature squealing and occasionally, due to the design of the brackets that hold the pads, total consumption of the pads and metal on metal contact of bracket-to-rotor.
This ‘design compromise’ might save Chrysler several hundred dollars per car (replacement OEM pads and installation are approximately $200 and rotors another $200), but again, at what cost? Note that for owners who do not have adjustable pedals (we do), there is a technical service bulletin (TSB #05-006-08) which addresses the problem.
What if I own this van for 5 or 6 years and 12k/12-months I need to spend $400 on brakes? $2400 is still less than the $10,000 difference in purchase price comparative to the Toyota, but what about quality? Does Chrysler realize that decisions such as this degrade the ownership experience and the perception of quality?