Dear Tom and Ray:
My wife drives a 2003 VW Passat GLX 4Motion Wagon with just over 47,000 miles on it. She took it to a local dealer for service last May after smoke began billowing from the right side of the car and sweet-smelling liquid was dripping out. The dealer replaced the heater core and coolant bottle, and all was well ... until the next warm day, when my wife noted that her air conditioning (which had worked prior to the heater-core replacement) would not blow cold air. The dealer admitted that they had not properly shoved some hose in some opening, and fixed it at no charge.
A few days later, while my wife was chauffeuring her elderly mother around, her steering completely failed. This happened as she was changing lanes, so when the steering failed, she was pointing directly into oncoming traffic. She managed to stop the car before colliding with any of the oncoming cars as she crossed the center line. When the police arrived and interviewed the parties, they noted a threaded bolt, about 1 1/2 inches long, lying on the driver's floor mat. Everybody was OK, but my wife was very shaken, and she refuses to drive her car ever again.
The car ultimately was towed to the dealer, and we have a rental (paid for by the dealer) sitting in our garage. The dealer called this week and acknowledged that they were negligent and did not tighten down a bolt in the clockspring to VW specs. They swear it's fixed. Should we believe them? — Robert
Tom: Well, we have to give them credit for owning up to their mistakes, Robert.
Ray: But that doesn't nearly make up for the debit we have to take for them being careless morons.
Tom: Here's my reconstruction of what probably happened. When your wife went in for the heater core, they had to take off the dashboard, which is a big job. That required removing the steering wheel and lowering the steering column.
Ray: While they were replacing the heater core, they created a leak in the AC evaporator. That's what caused the AC to fail.
Tom: When you brought it back, they forced the guy who had replaced the heater core to take apart the dashboard again and fix the AC problem he caused. I'm guessing he was none too happy about this, since they probably made him do it on his own time for no pay.
Ray: So he was cheesed off, zipping the bolts off with his air gun, grousing about having to do the job again, and working quickly and carelessly. And he forgot to tighten something crucial. I doubt it was the clockspring, since that doesn't hold anything on. I think more likely it was the nut that holds the steering wheel to the steering column. But regardless, this guy was eager to be done with you — and he almost was!
Tom: The question is, Is it fixed now? I'd say it probably is. But here's what I'd do: I'd send the general manager of the dealership a certified letter, reminding him of the sequence of events, and that your wife was almost killed due to their negligence. And then I would insist that he have a senior mechanic (not the guy who left the nut loose) inspect the entire car and have the dealership certify to you in writing that it's now safe to drive.
Ray: By doing this, you're letting them know that, should anything else go wrong and be traceable to any work they did, they will be held legally responsible for any death, dismemberment or temporary loss of bladder control that occurs in the future. They should take that very seriously and inspect the car carefully.
Tom: That still may not be enough to soothe your wife's concerns. In which case you'll have to drive the car for a few months and allow your wife to see that there are no further incidents (I'd up the value of your life insurance before doing that, just in case).
Ray: And you have to accept the possibility that your wife may never feel safe driving this car again. She may just opt to keep your new Porsche Cayenne Turbo and make you the new owner of an '03 Passat Wagon. Congratulations, Robert!
(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)