The importance of a throat to choke!

I’m sitting at John Blair Alfa Romeo, responding to email, waiting for my Alfa 156 to be “inspected” yet again. Why is it being inspected? Because occasionally (well, four times in the past two years) it decides to “blue screen”. How does a car blue screen? In the Alfa’s case, it petulantly goes into Neutral, and won’t allow me to select a gear for 15 seconds! Is this a problem while I sit in my drive way? Not really. Is it a problem when I’m in peak hour traffic? Hell yeah!

So, back to my rant. Why is it important to have a throat to choke? Because, as with most things, if there isn’t someone to hold directly accountable for service quality, you pretty much end up wearing the cost yourself. In fact, it is from my dealings with Alfa Romeo Australia, John Blair Alfa Romeo in Melbourne, and Alfa Romeo Customer Care, that I’ve realised, you’re pretty much on your own as a customer.

Why do I feel this way? Well, I bought my Alfa Romeo brand new in August 2003, and it had 6 kms on the clock. I was like any good new car owner, I took pride in my car, and always had it serviced according to the service department (not the dealer handbook, which requires far less servicing), and expected that if something was to ever go wrong, I would be rewarded for my diligent care, with utmost service.

So when I was driving a client to a lunchtime meeting on Heatherton Road one day, 6 months after owning the car (Heatherton Road is an extremely busy section frequented by large trucks), and it decided to beep profusely and slip sensually into Neutral while I’m travelling at 80 km/h with a truck on my hammer, I was less than impressed. My only option was to take myself and my flustered client onto the curb to avoid being monster trucked by the semi behind me, and promptly called the Alfa Customer Care line, to demand a “please explain”. They said to take it into the dealer, where it would be immediately looked at, and the issue resolved. So off my little car went, on the back of a tow truck, where it disappeared for two days. After repeated calls to the service centre, I finally got the response, “Um, we’ve tested the car, and it’s fine, don’t know what your talking about, but please come in an get your car!”. Hmm, well, having been on my fair share of demo porkie pies, where things don’t always go my way, so I figured, ok, un-repeatable error. Scorecard was at 1 tow, 0 loan cars, 2 days absent without car.

Things went well for another 6 months (I started to get a pattern going), when the cars brake system would continually lament, “Your brakes need servicing”. 12 months in?? Jeez, I would have expected a few more km’s, but hey, I’m no mechanic, so I dropped in, and asked the service team to look into it. “Oh, your brakes are fried, looks like you’ve been working them hard. We’ll need to replace the brakes, and the rotors (these are the big metal hubs that the brakes rely on for braking with the callipers) too, cos’ they’ve been ground down!”. Wow I thought, that doesn’t sound good, must be covered under warranty though. “Nope, that’s just wear and tear” said my service buddy. Great….scorecard now, 1 tow, 0 loan cars, 3 days absent without car, $1200 outside of programmed servicing.

3 months down the track from that, I blow out a tyre. Take it into my tyre guy. “Dave, what have you been doing to your tyres?” he presses. “Driving” I respond. “Well, you’ve fried all four tyres, quite common with the Alfa” he leads. This was a statement I was getting used to. Four new low profile tyres later (turns out a common problem with Alfas is chewing through tyres because of wheel balance issues), my scorecard is now; 1 tow, 0 loan cars, 4 days absent without car, $2800 outside of programmed servicing (only up to 40K kms on the ODO).

So things were sweet again, new brakes, new tyres, 2 year old new car, and I’m content again. Anytime the car beeps, I have a light coronary, but other than that, all seems well. Until I’m driving home last week, and the car gets the beeps again, goes into Neutral, and this time, won’t do anything. Call up Customer Care, they send a tow truck, and my Alfa disappears for the whole weekend. Get a call on the Monday, “Hi Mr Lemphers, yeah, you’re Alfa blew a high pressure hose, that leaked all your transmission fluid. We fixed it, and it’s as good as new.” I’m a little doubtful of that, but I’m happy to be able to pick up my car. Only problem is, when I do, there are specks of concrete on the boot lid. Hmm, how did that get there? So I call Alfa Customer Care, and ask them what is the deal? Now, when the tow truck driver picked up my car, he was painstaking in his review of it, and noted every scratch and dent. No notes about any concrete specks. Service centre takes the car, agrees there are no specks. Detailer is cleaning up car ready for me to pick up, notices specks. So to me, seems pretty clear cut. However, after escalating the whole thing through Alfa Customer Care, I receive a call on the Wednesday, “Hi Mr Lemphers, um, we’ve reviewed your complaint, and regret to advise that the dealer is not accepting responsibility.” OK…, so they are clearly at fault, but can simply, “Not accept responsibility”. Noice! “So what are my options?” I plead to the customer care operator. “Don’t know.” says my customer care friend. OK..again. Scorecard, 2 tows, 0 loan cars, 6 days absent without car, $2800 outside of programmed service, concrete specs on boot lid.

So back to the present, I’m back at John Blair service, waiting in the service department for my car. They think this time it’s the “brake” switch, what ever that means. I’ve pretty much accepted that they take the car, stick some more chewing gum onto the transmission, grab a random fault description from the database, and it’s fixed until next time.

Final score: 2 tows, no loan cars, 6.5 days without car on road, $2800 spent on non-scheduled/non-wear related expenses, concrete specs on boot lid, two year old car, 51K kms on the ODO.

What’s my point!? Well, it occurred to me that this is much like the software game, you know, everyone talks about “the throat to choke”, and it isn’t until you go looking for someone to take accountability for your investment, that you realise it’s paramount. I mean, I’ve experienced now the feeling of going from pillar to post, with each party saying, “Well, it’s not our problem”. Either Alfa Customer Care didn’t sell me the car, John Blair Alfa didn’t build the car, and Alfa Romeo Australia only imports them. I can imagine it’s like being sold “free” software. Or, as it relates to my case, software built by “someone” who you are never in a position to deal with. I suppose it’s great while it’s working, but if it suddenly starts beeping, you better be able to take it back to the person who knows what the beeping means, and can fix it, otherwise, you get a quick patch job, until it breaks again. Hmm, sounds familiar to me.

Anyway, I’ve managed to trade my Alfa Romeo in for a 2005 Toyota Hilux, and got barrelled again by the old Snake and Cross (turns out a 2 year old Alfa Romeo 156 is only worth about $20K), but I’m glad I’m free of it. Mind you, the car I had before my Alfa Romeo, a brand new 2002 Turbo Diesel Toyota Hilux 4x4, only required one service in the year that I owned it, and that cost only $180. Bugger!

Phew, blog venting is better than therapy! All happy happy joy joy now :)