Monday, April 19, 2010

Toyota's Ongoing Recall Woes

In the past day or two, Toyota Canada has issued a voluntary recall for somewhere in the neighbourhood of 270,000 first and second-generation Sienna minivans.

This one is for spare tire retainer cables, which may corrode and fail, causing the spare tire to fall out of its stowed position beneath the vehicle, potentially causing damage or loss of control for the affected vehicle or others following behind. All-wheel drive Siennas, which do not have a spare tire (the rear driveshaft needs the same piece of underbody real estate), are obviously not included in this recall.

OK, I agree that this is a potentially serious safety concern. I'll even agree that it warrants some kind of fix (like using chains, as nearly everyone did prior to adopting cheaper, lighter cables).

Clearly, Toyota, having just paid a large fine (and suffering much public humiliation) for not reacting quickly enough to potential safety issues - and facing another, embarrassing situation with Consumer Reports trumpeting a handling issue with its 2010 Lexus GX 460 - is going all-out to deal with anything remotely concerning as fast as possible.

What bugs me here is that other automakers will seem innocent here because Toyota is the only one presently addressing this issue. They're not. Countless hundreds of thousands of minivans and pickups from nearly every automaker are currently plying our streets with the same kind of frankly crappy design as that used on the Sienna, and I speak from experience that they can - and do - fail in exactly the same fashion. I can't count the number of minivans I've been beneath where the frayed end of a rusty cable is all that remains where the spare once resided.

Spare tire on a (new at the time) 2005 Buick Terrazza

I've actually been hit in the face by a spare tire falling off the bottom of a GM minivan, disturbed when I bumped it with the heel of my hand to see if it was tightly secured during a safety inspection (the cable broke and it fell on me while the van was up on the hoist).

There are ways around this problem. Chrysler vans have had a mushroom-shaped plastic safety catch since their 1996 revamp, and I've yet to see one of them so afflicted - not to say it's foolproof. Honda Odysseys store their spares inside; that's about as close to foolproof as you'll find in this industry - at least until you get a flat with a full load of stuff inside - then you might wish it was externally mounted.

I'm sure that the popular media will take this latest Toyota recall and run with it until the next hot news item comes along. Maybe the pro-domestic crowd can come up with another clever bumper sticker to place alongside their newly minted "Toyotas - keep 100 metres back!" decal to commemorate the occasion.

In the meantime, I will continue to believe that Toyota's products are among the best and safest available, and will hope that the company's way of dealing with these problems improves vastly over the train-wrecks that have occurred so far.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Shameless Self-promotion

You can read my Wheels review of Ford's 2010 Taurus SEL AWD here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

(Somewhat) New Technology

Accessory drive belts are nothing new, and neither are V-ribbed belts. What is new - the past couple of years new - are "Stretchy Belts".

As you can see in the above photo, which is of the 2.3 litre "MZR" four cylinder in a 2006 Mazda5, there is no tensioner for the outermost belt.

Normally, if you didn't have a dedicated tensioner, you'd have some provision for using one of the driven components as a source of adjustment. 

Perhaps not entirely obvious in this photo is the fact that the one and only component driven by this belt (the upper pulley is the crankshaft) is the air conditioning compressor, and it's bolted firmly to the oil pan. No adjustment is possible.

So what gives? Well, as the name implies, the belt is stretchy - stretchy enough that it can be coaxed over the pulleys to get it into place, but not so stretchy that it fails to transfer power to the compressor, which can require several horsepower to function.

Actually, you might be surprised at just how strong a Stretchy Belt is. This particular Mazda5 is on engine number 2 - engine number 1 suffered catastrophic internal damage when the A/C compressor seized, and - instead of slipping or breaking - the Stretchy Belt hung on tight enough to spin the keyway-less crank pulley and the crankshaft's timing gear on the end of the crankshaft, resulting in the smashing of pistons into valves. Stretchy Belt 1; Engine 0.

Mazda isn't alone in using Stretchy Belts; Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors also use this technology, and it's not hard to imagine other quickly following suit once they realize that they can eliminate the expense, space, and potential warranty replacement of a tensioner by using one.

The downside? It's a bit more expensive than a conventional belt of equal size, it's not possible to reliably determine wear or health by just looking at it (there's a little plastic gauge available), and it requires special tools and/or creativity to remove or reinstall - your mechanic will curse the first one or two they have to change.