Lemon aid: Can Toyota stop the bucking?

Ads for Brown Toyota end with a woman crooning, "You'll love the service." Henry Pritchard begs to disagree.

Pritchard's parents, Henry Sr. and Viola, bought a 2003 Toyota Camry from Brown at the end of January. We'll consider Henry Jr. this week's consumer, however, because he was actively involved in the purchase, contributed a quarter of the $23,000 purchase price, and, when problems developed, took on the job of dealing with Brown.

Pritchard chose Brown, in part, because he'd been quite satisfied with a Toyota truck he bought there several years ago. His parents, in turn, were pleased with the Camry they'd been driving since they bought it in 1994 in Massachusetts– so getting another Camry, this time at Brown, seemed like a good plan.

Because Brown didn't have the exact car they wanted, an "aspen green pearl" LE V6 automatic, it had to be driven down from a dealer in Pennsylvania.

In a letter of complaint Pritchard later wrote to the Virginia Motor Vehicle Dealer Board (VMVDB), he claims that the saleswoman, Michele Le Picq, assured him that "the new vehicle we were purchasing would be flawless... We were promised that Brown Toyota would, unconditionally, stand behind the vehicle."

In February, the Pritchards noticed what they describe as a "'bucking' sensation" when the car is being driven at 38-40 mph, the RPMs are approximately 1200, and the vehicle "attempts to shift from overdrive into lower gear." When they attended a reception for new car owners the following month, Pritchard notified Brown of the problem and made an appointment to bring the car in on March 14.

At that time, after searching through Camry Technical Service Bulletins and finding one that seemed to describe similar symptoms, the service department sent master technician Peter Hemmingway on a test drive. Hemmingway reprogrammed the Camry's computer as directed in the service bulletin, but the Pritchards claim that the problem was not solved.

After that, relations between Brown and the Pritchards began to deteriorate.

For Pritchard's blow-by-blow account, with links to relevant documents and websites, you can read his weblog at users.firstva.com/heppnet/2003Camry (but bear in mind that this is Pritchard's version of events).

Pritchard's log includes a link to the website for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), where several complaints are posted that describe a similar problem with the 2002 Camry. In these cases, however, the symptoms are more extreme: The various writers describe "a forward and backward rocking motion," abrupt jerks, and "a loud clunking noise." Two of the posters claim Toyota told them the phenomenon was "characteristic" of the model.

On March 25, according to Pritchard, service department manager Tim Riley suggested that they "take the vehicle out of overdrive when we anticipate driving at the affected speed"; one of the posters on the NHTSA site alleges that the same suggestion was made to him. Both owners consider this a less than satisfactory solution.

Pritchard took me for a drive so that I could experience the car for myself. As a passenger, I felt the "bucking" was subtle; both Pritchard and his mother, who accompanied us, maintain that it's more pronounced for the driver– who's not only feeling the "stutter" through the car seat, but also in the steering wheel.

Pritchard has now filed for arbitration under the Virginia Lemon Law. Before taking that step, he claims that he spoke with three Brown employees, called and emailed Toyota's National Customer Assistance Center, and called and wrote the NHTSA and the VMVDB.

I spoke with Jay Malone, Brown Toyota sales director, who said, "I'd like to think we followed the [appropriate] process to the letter," and added, "Our hands are tied." He went on to explain that the arbitration is between Toyota Corporate and the Pritchards; the dealer only gets involved "voluntarily" and is not considered a party in the arbitration.

"No matter what happens," Malone asserts, "we're still going to help [the Pritchards] through this process."

The next step, an oral hearing with the National Center for Dispute Settlement, will take place within 30 days; I'll report on the process as it unfolds.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.