General Meltdown: What My Bid To Help America’s Carmakers Got Me

Anybody who has read my commentaries on the economy knows how concerned I am about the decline of American manufacturing. It upsets me to find only Asian electronics in the Best Buy, or to see a row of German cars sitting in the parking lot at the McLean Giant. In fact, it upset me so much that when the odometer on my old Toyota 4-Runner topped 100,000 miles, I resolved to buy a new American vehicle. Like everyone else, I had heard that Detroit was closing the quality gap with foreign cars, and I had long thought that General Motors sport utility vehicles looked better than the imports anyway. So I forked over nearly $40,000 for a shiny new General Motors SUV, and I loved it — not only did the vehicle look sharp (at least to me), but I was finally doing something concrete to help American manufacturers. My wife, who had just bought an Acura, told me I was making a mistake, but what did she know about cars?

What followed was the automotive equivalent of the four stages of grief. One day I noticed that the left side of the vehicle in the back was lower than the right side, so after waiting patiently a week for the “Airmatic” computerized suspension to adjust itself, I took it in to the dealer, who fixed it. Then he fixed it again. And then he fixed it again. The mechanic kept finding problems with the sensor that told the vehicle where to level the suspension. At that point, I was still in the first stage of grief, which is denial. I figured there was some sort of problem with that particular part of the car, and eventually the technicians would figure out what it was. Well, they sort of did. They got the car balanced but the rear suspension would periodically subside on both sides, so that the body seemed to be riding only a few inches above the tires. That makes you nervous when you’re driving to Cape Cod the next day.

Then parts started falling off of the car. First the plastic panel on the door side of the driver’s seat snapped off. Still in denial, I decided I needed to lose some weight. Then the center console between the driver and front passenger seat broke off, and GM couldn’t get a new one for months because the supplier was in financial trouble. Then the cupholders for the rear seat broke. Then an 11-year-old girl managed to snap off the lift for the door to the rear cargo compartment. Then the newly replaced driver side seat panel snapped off a second time. At this point I was no longer completely in denial, but I concluded the plastic that GM used — all the parts that snapped were plastic — wasn’t as strong as the metal they used elsewhere in the vehicle.

As time went on my chronicle of troubles progressed from disappointment to disillusionment. The knob that allowed me to shift between two-wheel drive and four wheel drive snapped off in the midst of the biggest snowfall in living memory. The rear suspension subsided again (“bad connection at the compressor,” said the mechanic), and then yet again (“short circuit”). The gas gauge stopped working, requiring a costly removal of the gas tank. The “Stabilitrak” sensor on the steering column that assured traction on wet pavement stopped working and had to be replaced. The air conditioner ceased operating during the hottest week of the year. Did I mention that all of the problems in this paragraph occurred in just the last eight months?

I can’t say exactly when I made the transition to the second and third stages in the grief cycle, but I can tell you when I arrived at the final stage of acceptance. That was on July 31, when I traded in my GM for a Japanese SUV. The GM vehicle still looked sharp. I’d had the mechanics go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Everything was in perfect working order, and many of the parts were new. It even had new Michelin tires, filled with nitrogen (the latest thing in fuel economy, I’m told). As I drove away from the dealer in my new, non-American SUV, I looked back wistfully at my old General Motors vehicle. It was the first really nice vehicle I’d ever owned, and after four years of use I still thought it looked better than my new Japanese SUV. But I didn’t love it anymore. My wife again said I should have bought an Acura. But what does my wife know about cars?