No wrench required
Bad throttle in your Volvo? Oil sludge in your Saab? Audi won't start? Car owners are using the Internet to investigate and share their cars' ailments, and, in some cases, prod manufacturers into addressing problems that might otherwise be dismissed as isolated incidents.
A woman from Milburn, N.J., was fearful of her new car -- and said so on the website ConsumerAffairs.com.
"We got a new 2007 Camry in August. From day one the car does not shift properly," the woman wrote. "Sometimes when you push the accelerator it hesitates . . . then jerks. It can be dangerous if you think you have enough time to cross a street and car does not move."
The first hint of a widespread problem? Apparently.
Other Camry buyers chimed in and, somewhere in the depths of Toyota Motor Corp. USA, someone noticed. By September, Toyota had issued a "fix" order on certain 2007 Camrys. The Internet had helped deliver consumer satisfaction.
Website owners and car manufacturers say the Internet now plays an integral role in exposing chronic automotive problems --from rain leaks to stalling engines to critical safety issues -- much faster than they might have been brought to light in the past.
"It starts out with, 'I've never seen this,' " said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the independent Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., referring to the copious posts by frustrated car owners on a growing number of automotive websites. "But it opens the closet door and there's a thousand of them."
The resulting feedback is fast and sweeping, and it benefits both car buyers and the people who build the cars.
"There's no doubt that blogs and forums are very powerful tools for consumers, and ready-made intelligence for manufacturers," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor for autos at ConsumerReports.org.
A manufacturer who is not paying attention to websites, chat rooms, and blogs, said Mike Michaels, a vice president of corporate communications for Toyota, "is either clueless or it doesn't care."
Ditlow adds that, for consumers, having hundreds of electronic sites dedicated to specific models of certain cars means that "It's no longer easy to sweep problems under the rug."
It can be a challenge to separate the often anonymous cranks from truly aggrieved customers, said both independent critics and auto industry officials, but both owners and manufacturers frequent the hundreds of sites dedicated to autos.
Many manufacturers will not acknowledge that they formally track complaints on the Internet, but George Achorn, partner in Vortex Media Group, which operates sites dedicated to Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo, BMW, Subaru, and Mazda, along with a pair of generic sites, said he sees the screen names of auto executives popping up on his sites routinely. "I see them post," Achorn said.
Sometimes, the complaints involve safety -- the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has a site to log such complaints -- and other times they are matters of quality or reliability.
On a site called weirdlittlebiscuit.com, for instance, the discussion of what has been a widespread problem with water leaks in Volkswagen Passats and Jettas begins with this posting: "I have constant water in the driver's well."
Clean the pollen filter, the author is told -- information that a dealer did not provide the writer.
Other postings referred to Volvos with faulty throttles, stalling Mazdas, and this Ringsurf.com entry from a Jaguar owner: "I have a 2000 S-Type and have now had three warning lights related to the transmission and occasionally the transmission disengages for a brief time when shifting. The service manager told me they have replaced a lot of transmissions in the 2000 model."
Two large problems that reached critical mass on the Internet involved an oil sludge buildup in Toyotas, and ignition coil problems in certain Volkswagen and Audi models.
After the word spread electronically, the weekly magazine Automotive News linked the oil sludge problem to Toyotas, Volkswagens, and Saabs. The Globe first reported in January 2003 that ignition coils were failing at a rapid pace in certain Volkswagens and Audis, and after the story was reposted on global websites, VW and Audi announced "customer service action" to replace the ignition coils in 530,000 cars.
"Manufacturers are moving faster . . . before anything turns into an official review as more and more people post problems on the Internet," said Steven Witten, executive director for the digital marketing group at California-based J.D Power Associates, an independent marketing information firm.
For consumers, Witten said, electronic information-sharing means that "when they do go to the dealer, they can be comfortable being aggressive," armed with the backup websites provide them. "It's also a heads-up on quality issues" for manufacturers.