Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Prius update: Broken computer

Bad news about my Prius. The multi-function-display, the touch screen in the middle of the dashboard that has all the goodies on it such as the navigation system has failed, and the dealer has just told me that it will not be replaced, even though many Prius owners have reported this failure. Here is my letter to the local Toyota dealership, explaining my chagrin over the lack of coverage. The failure occured shortly after the 36,000 mile warranty expired. A new unit if $4000. A refurb unit is $825+tax.


RE: My 2004 Prius MFD failure

ATTN: Tim Southwick Jr., Toyota of Berkeley, CA

Dear Mr Southwick,

In August of 2003, I reserved and paid in advance for a new 2004 Prius that I have been very happy with, for the most part. I was an early adopter of a new technology, buying even before the car was available. I took possession in October, 2004. Having previously driven a Honda EV+, I was all in favor of electrics and hybrids. I am an author of over 40 books about computers and technology, and have written over 100 magazine articles about high technology, and have promoted the Prius actively since happily purchasing it from Marty Zeitman at your dealership. I have sent numerous people to your dealership to look at Priuses, and probably am responsible for a few of your sales. I myself purchased the full package #6 with all the bells and whistles. It hasn’t been perfect, with the navigation system sometimes leading me astray, for example, but that is to be expected.

At about 35K miles, the multi-display unit began to malfunction. No navgation, no radio, energy system not showing battery level, etc. I’m sure you are aware of this issue. I thought it was a glitch and would clear up, as the car is basically a computer on wheels, and we all know that computers lose their minds sometimes. Since I write books about computers, I know all about that! I just waited and hoped the problem would clear up, but it did not. I Googled about, read the Prius forums, and found that lo and behold I was not the only person with this problem! In fact, it's happening on 2004 Highlanders and Land Cruisers with the navigation system, and on 2004 Prius with or without the navigation system. I even hear there a TSB #EL002-05 which identifies this problem, which means Toyota is aware of this issue, so most likely it is an inherent design flaw meaning it was there from the beginning, including before the 36,000 mile mark was passed. In any case, the owner’s manual clearly describes the MFD as being part of the hybrid system, so it shouldn't even be an issue. This failure should be covered up to 100,000 miles!

After realizing this was not going to clear up, I was about 5K miles past the warranty. I brought my Prius into your dealership today for reprogramming (since I received a TSB recall, called SSC 50P), and had it all checked out. Repair team captain Ray Prasad told me that it was indeed defective and I would not be covered, and I could have a refurb unit installed for $800 or so, plus tax. I was not happy about this, and so I then had a long conversation with Dave, your shop manager, who explained that because I had not come in for regular service at your dealership, I was not favorably looked upon for an out of-warranty repair of the MFD. I said I did not understand this policy, since I had already given the dealership quite a large sum to purchase the car. He explained that this was essentially irrelevant. He said that good will was dependent upon bringing a car into the dealership for service. (Apparently the good will of brining you $28,000 has very short legs.) Oddly enough, he then went on to explain that actually the dealership lost money doing oil changes because of the labor costs. I explained that I was getting my oil changes for $15 when I supply the Mobil 1 5W-30 that I like to put in my cars, and that even includes a filter, so we were both better off if I got my oil changes elsewhere. I also said that last time I asked for a tire rotation, his shop refused to do it because there was not enough tread on the tires. At that time, I felt pretty rudely treated by Ray, who grilled me about where I was getting my service done, which is another reason I had not returned for regular service, by the way.

I feel I came to Toyota of Berkeley in 2003 in good faith, and paid MSRP for a car I had never even seen before. I did not haggle, or even try. I paid $28,000 cash. This was the first new car I have ever bought. I sold my Nissan 300ZX and Audi 5000 to be able to afford this. Now this car seems has a known defect that was not recalled by Toyota. Maybe Toyota was hoping most failures would happen after the 36K warranty expired. Yet many people seem to be getting a pretty good deal from some Toyota dealerships who admit this manufacturing defect. (I can quickly find more than a few examples on Prius-chat of owners saying they got replacements for either no charge or a few hundred dollars.) But not me. I now have a state-of-the-art hybrid with no navigation system, intermittent radio with limited tuning ability, limited climate controls, and no energy readout.

I currently have a blog online at talking about the Prius mostly in positive terms. My 45 technology books are available in over 15 languages (see under Robert Cowart) and have sold over 1 million copies worldwide. I would love to continue to praise the Prius to my readership and those who read my blog. However, this recent development has me wondering whether Toyota’s reputation for reliability might be falling into question. While I applaud Toyota for taking the leadership to research and produce the Prius (which I realize has been a loss leader while the demand for hybrids heats up), I also feel they must own up to electronics design errors, just as computer manufacturers such as Dell and Lenovo have done recently around defective batteries that were well out of warranty. It appears the MFD in the early 2004 Prius was defective from the outset and should be replaced without making disgruntled owners jump through hoops at their dealerships.

I look forward to your reply, and will await it prior to contacting regional or national Toyota Customer Service.


Robert Cowart