So I’m on vacation the other day, and I get a text message from my dad saying that he’s returning to the Lexus dealership service department for the second time in a day.
This surprised me. My father would never willingly go to an automobile dealership twice in a single day. The man will sometimes go entire years without setting foot in a car dealer. He is, when it comes to cars, my polar opposite: he doesn’t care. He drives 6,000 miles a year and religiously maintains his vehicles at the dealership, documenting every service, every oil change, every fuel stop in a little notebook he keeps in the glovebox. When I was a kid, his car-buying strategy was to purchase a new Camry with cash every ten years. Once, he waited 11 years. That was a big deal.
It was an even bigger deal when I finally talked Dad into deviating from his Camry loyalty and buying a Lexus, just a few months shy of his 60th birthday. But I couldn’t convince him to buy a new one. Oh, no: that would just be crazy. Instead, he bought a certified pre-owned 2005 RX330 in March 2008, ten years to the minute after he had purchased his last Camry. He sold his Camry through an ad in the paper. This is the kind of person we’re dealing with, here.
So I was really surprised when Dad told me he was heading back to the Lexus dealer for the second time in a day. And I was even more surprised to find out the reason. The first time, for an oil change. The second time, because the check engine light went on five minutes after he left the service department.
Now, ordinarily a check engine light isn’t really that much to be alarmed about. For example: the check engine light is currently illuminated in my Range Rover, which means the CarMax warranty claims people are going to be getting a call in about a week asking them to replace the Something-Or-Other Spindle, and it’ll cost eleven hundred bucks. I used to have a 2001 Audi A4, and the check engine light was a way of life. It came on for everything. The oxygen sensors. The gas cap. If it was raining. To remind you about endangered animals. When you were singing. When you were driving on dirt. When you had forgotten your grocery list.
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Once, as I was leaving a restaurant, I turned on the car and the check engine light started flashing, which – according to the owner’s manual – is a sign your vehicle is about to explode like the Hindenburg. My remedy was to turn the car off and right back on. Inexplicably, the light didn’t return for months.
But a check engine light when you’re on the way home from the dealer is a red flag. Especially in a Lexus. Especially in my dad’s insanely pampered, rarely-used, 6,000-mile-a-year Lexus. So I told him it would probably be traced to something minor and quick, like they’d forgotten to reset the battery or some stupid Japanese car crap, and he’d go back, and they’d do it in thirty seconds, and he’d be on his way.
When he got back to the dealer, they gave him a loaner car and told him they’d call him with an update. And a few hours later, they called: the issue was traced to a failed oxygen sensor, and the total cost would be more than $400.
Understandably, my dad was a bit suspicious. The very first time the check engine light comes on in seven years just happens to be on the way home from the dealer after an oil change?
So I spent some time researching the issue online, and I discovered two things. Number one, it’s tremendously unlikely that a mechanic could accidentally damage an oxygen sensor while a car was in for a routine oil change. And number two, oxygen sensor failure is common on cars of this age. Almost expected. Even more common, in fact, on this generation of RX: during my research, I discovered many online RX forums full of people complaining that their sensors failed during the warranty period or just after. So I told Dad to suck it up, pay the $400 – his first penny of unscheduled repair work during the seven years he’s owned the car – and move on. Dad agreed. The next day was Father’s Day, and we spoke on the phone for about 45 minutes. The issue never even came up. Dad was resigned to pay the money, fix the problem, forget about it, and chalk it up to a funny coincidence.
And then came Monday.
On Monday, the dealer called and told him the problem was indeed the oxygen sensor, and it would indeed be more than $400 to fix. But he wouldn’t be paying for it. The service advisor had talked it over with his manager, and they decided the dealer would cover the entire repair, on the theory that the problem might have happened during the oil change, however slight a possibility that was. In other words: the dealer had decided to cover a pricey repair on an 11-year-old car that was four years out of warranty because there was some small chance a part had gotten nicked during an oil change.
And this brings me back to the title of today’s column. You see, my dad is looking for a new car to replace my mom’s aging Ford Escape, and I’ve been trying to convince him to get something a little hipper than a Toyota or Lexus. Maybe a Land Rover. A Mercedes. An Audi. A Volvo. And up until this week, he’s been somewhat receptive to the idea. He’s over 65 now, he’s never had a European luxury car, and I think he wouldn’t mind spoiling himself a little.
And then: a check engine light. A $400 part. A free service loaner on an unannounced visit to the service department. And a Lexus dealer proving the brand’s well-earned reputation for the best customer service in the industry.
The only question now is what color Dad’s next RX will be.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.