UNDER WARRANTY - PART 3

There was a weekend in October 2016 that I will not forget anytime soon. I had just wrapped up a particularly stressful week and was about to drive to Western Michigan for a vacation with friends. I was running late. Except for Dewey, the rest of the group was ahead of us. We departed the Chicago suburbs late Friday night and made time on the highway. When we stopped for gas, I made an offhanded comment to Dewey. I don't remember what I said, but I remember his response: "There are far worse cars to take on a road trip than a pair of STIs. That's living the life." We got back on the road with a shout from the boxer engines. A few more hours of pitch black road evaporated behind us, punctuated by the rare pair of head or tail lights. A duet of rumbling, winged vehicles burning through vast space and time. The red glow from the gauges made me feel like I was in a fighter jet. I relaxed and enjoyed the drive.

A weekend with friends is my idea of a good time. The car brand may bring us together, but it's the people that make the memories.

6E4D5E77-4D98-42A0-BBFB-2C141992512F.jpeg

Without context, you would not know what brings these people together. In this photo I see many good people doing what they love. This is the Chitown Subarus community to me.

The weekend in October was full of friends who knew cars better than I. It was a convenient place to have an issue. When I turned on the car, it made an unholy rattling noise. It sounded like a jackhammer. "I don't like the sound of that" quickly morphed into "Turn it off now!" At first, I felt nothing. Then, as fear sunk in, I opened my mouth. I said things I shouldn't have said. The harsh words were met with knowing faces and murmurs of reassurance. This group of car enthusiasts had been through far worse before. This was not the first time they had seen a motor fail. I was fortunate to secure a ride home for myself and the stricken car. It was a long trip back. Thankfully, it was not also expensive. Meanwhile, it rained. I hope I never see my car on a flatbed again.

IMG_3202.JPG

I had the car towed to the dealer on the following Monday. This time the loaner car was a silver Outback, again brand new. Despite my frustrations with the WRX STI, I was not ready to give it up yet. An Outback just doesn't feel the same. It's too comfortable.

"The call" came and went. Rod knock. A bearing had failed which caused a piston to vibrate along its path of travel. It is a fatal flaw, and can be catastrophic (read: explosive) if ignored for any length of time. The fix was to replace the motor, specifically the short block. The component that failed was small but hard to reach. That meant all of the undamaged parts nearby were thrown out and replaced. The bill was over $4,000. Once again, it was covered under warranty. I was relieved, to say the least. This time I didn't ask the service adviser what it would take to make sure it didn't happen again. Instead, I said I was disappointed.

My view of the car was influenced by video games. I wanted a blue WRX STI from the time I was 12 years old. At that age, buying a car is a lifetime away. By the time you can afford it, you are a different person. We all grow up. Cars are not invincible. There is a certain sadness when you learn Santa isn't real. It doesn't last long, but the loss of magic stings you. After the two motor failures in 2016 my view of the car has permanently changed. The Subaru WRX STI is no longer my dream car. It is a dead metal sculpture.

That said, I don't want to overlook the good memories. I succeeded at a lifelong goal. I became a better driver. I learned about cars and made friends in the process. For that, I have Chitown Subarus to thank.

After the car was repaired, I went back to my old habits. I asked a lot of questions. I like driving the car slow. The motor is smooth. Below 3,000 rpm I swear I hear that rattle again. It's always in the back of my mind. Every few days I use the turbo, to fly again in a short burst of speed. Before the motor failures, full throttle felt like borrowed time. Now it's a small reminder of the magic that's been lost. Warranties don't cover magic.

UNDER WARRANTY - PART 2

If you enjoyed the cliffhanger ending from last week, imagine living through it. It was awful.

My butt of smoke happened on a Thursday morning. The dealer was able to diagnose the problem the following Monday.  Fortunately, they gave me a loaner car for the weekend.  If I recall correctly it was a white Outback, brand new. It didn't look nearly as good in my garage as the WRX STI. I cursed myself for ever taking that fast car for granted.

Monday afternoon I received "the call". The bad news came first: ringland failure. Oil was leaking into the combustion chamber and compression was low.  The good news couldn't come quick enough: the failure would be covered under warranty. I was upset at what happened. At least I didn't have a thousand-dollar bill to pay. I did have to drive the Outback some more. It was comfortable and had a good stereo.

A quick word about warranties: it's all business. A warranty is an insurance policy. The cost is baked into the price of a new car. None of the parties involved fix your car out of goodwill. Vehicle manufacturers weigh the cost of repairing the failures versus redesigning the flawed part. Auto dealers want to keep customers happy and to sell more cars. (I'm sure a dealer's sales figures has an influence on warranty claim outcomes. Similarly, small R&D budgets at vehicle manufacturers. That's not a story for today.) Also, investigating the claim has a price. The cost of labor to diagnose the vehicle, and the cost in time to snoop on Facebook for evidence of sins. Sometimes it's cheaper to pay for an iffy claim than to pay to investigate it. In the world of insurance this is called paying a "nuissance" claim. In other words, you're not getting something for free when a modded car receives warranty work. You're just getting lucky.

IMG_3336.JPG

My car wasn't modded, but I was worried nonetheless. I asked the service adviser what it would take to prevent ringland failure from happening again. The answer (unofficially) was to rebuild the motor with forged pistons. Though, the official response was reasonable, too: "The car is under warranty, so keep it the way it is." The implication was clear: don't jeopardize future warranty coverage. The conversation reminded me of all the questions I asked over the previous year: what would it take to build a more reliable car?

Option 1: fix all of the obvious flaws. Swap in a free flowing turboback exhaust. Plug in an E85 flex-fuel kit to keep cylinder temperatures down and knock resistance high. (This requires a new fuel pump and bigger fuel injectors.) Add a boost control solenoid and an external wastegate for precise turbo control. Perhaps include an oil catch can to prevent inevitable oil blow-by from reaching the combustion chamber. Finally, the highly motivated WRX owner could rebuild the motor with forged pistons. The list goes on and never stops, even if you aren't chasing after big power figures.

If you do all of the above, you may run into two issues. The first I call "Schrodinger's Warranty": your warranty is simultaneously void and intact until you try to use it. While I have seen such vehicles repaired under warranty, you will never convince Subaru that the modifications were done in the interest of reliability. A vehicle manufacturer with thousands of engineers knows more than you. Granted, sacrifices are made in the name of cost savings and fuel economy standards. The same interest in cost savings is what helps your case here. Like I said above, you may get lucky. If you are an adventurous soul with a healthy wallet, go for it. You will not be disappointed! A "Stage 2" WRX STI is a rocket ship. You will cover ground at warp speed. In the rain and the snow and on the track and on the highway and ...

The second issue is called Irritable Wallet Syndrome. I have met some enthusiasts that are living a life they can't afford.

IMG_3593.JPG

But that's none of my business. I have observed far too many people mod their car, break it and be unable to pay for repairs. This sometimes leads to selling the car. While modding your car is cool, selling it is not. Keep your car goals modest and you'll have fun for a long time. If you're at risk of Irritable Wallet Syndrome, go with Option 2: keep your car stock (ish). Pay off your car! Come to meets, go on cruises, and enjoy your car as is. You can break the law in plenty of ways with 300 horsepower. But don't do it. Sin lightly.

So that's what I did. I went to a lot of meets. I asked a lot of questions. I cruised to St. Louis for Scoobapalooza*. Most of all, I enjoyed the car. As I said in my first post, a big part of my enjoyment is a result of the Chitown Subarus community. If it wasn't for their moral support during both of my motor failures, I would not be driving a Subaru today.

Wait a minute, what do you mean "both motor failures"? That's right, dear reader. This was not the last time "Warranty" had to make a warranty claim. When you're 250 miles from Chicago and your motor makes an unholy rattling noise, you're in for a long trip back home...and a whole lot of soul searching.

* While cruising with 10+ friends was fun, the event was not. Though, I'd take another vacation with CTS friends in a heartbeat.

UNDER WARRANTY - PART 1

As Nick said in his first Behind the Wheel post,

"A car is more than top speed, acceleration and looks. It is a hub of life experiences, culture and personality."

I've owned my 2015 WRX STI for nearly two years now. I've learned a lot about myself from driving that car. A big part of the experience comes from the Chitown Subarus community. I'm an analyst by nature and by vocation. I overthink everything. Soon after I bought the car, I showed up to a meet and started asking a lot of questions. Many of them revolved around what modifications I could make without "voiding the warranty". So many questions that the nickname stuck around.

IMG_1210.JPG

The answer, if you're curious, is both "a lot" and "a little". The uncertainty makes me twitch.

My intentions were good. I wanted to build the car to last forever. It was my dream car, after all. If I could just hit on the winning combination of aftermarket parts, I could finally relax and enjoy the car - doing donuts! Big launches! Sliding through corners! I'd drive it like a rally car, bro! Only...that's not how cars work, and that's not what happened.

I didn't know how to drive a manual when I took delivery of the vehicle. I had a three hour lesson a few weeks before, but I had largely forgotten it. A friend drove behind me as I limped and jerked the car home, 36 miles from the dealer. I stalled the car ten times that day, and discovered a flat tire the following morning. I was not the Batman, but I sure felt cool.

Soon after the break-in period ended I drove to another state to visit family. My cousin and I went out playing Ingress (by car) one night. As we were chatting and merging onto the highway, I gave the car full throttle for the first time. He stopped talking mid sentence. For a brief moment I was the Batman, and I sure felt cool.

Fast forward through many months of driving to work (boring), weekly meets (fun), and a whole lot of asking questions: I found myself running late to my first track day! I almost didn't go. The car had less than 4,000 miles on it, and I was nervous about committing my first warranty-voiding cardinal sin. The event was put on by the dealer that sold me the car. I thought this was surely entrapment, so I decided to take the risk. I called a friend and made up time on the highway. The WRX STI is an excellent car for going places in a hurry. The track day ended up being a blast. The car was meant to be driven fast. The three differentials in the WRX STI make for a unique situation: you can round a corner faster if you're on-throttle. Typically if a car isn't cornering enough, you slow down to make the turn. In the WRX STI, you succeed by accelerating through the corner. It's thrilling, but the commitment required is daunting.

I'd like to say I drove the car like I did in my dreams, but I didn't. I drove it to work some more (boring) and sometimes with friends on the highway, cruising home from CTS meets. There were some minor sins committed along the way. On one such occasion I decided to pass a friend and make my exit in style. I downshifted and sped away, but felt a little pop. It was so small I may have imagined it. I exited the highway, parked in my garage, and smiled. I sure felt cool.

The next morning, I turned on the car to see a butt of blue smoke in my rearview mirror. The odometer read 16,000 miles. My mind started racing. 

There are no motor failures in your dreams.