Fault Code Fiasco

I've been having a little problem with my car that may sound familiar to some of you. A while back the "check engine light" came on, and I cannot find a technician in my town who can find the problem.

A little background: I drive a foreign car in the twilight of its warranty period. This car has been pretty trouble-free, and I do much of the basic maintenance myself.

But when the check engine light comes on, all bets are off. In the five years I've owned this car, the check engine light has gone on and off of its own accord several times, and I confess I've learned to ignore it because it always goes out again on its own.

This time, however, the engine light stayed on, and the engine developed a habit of hard starting. The trouble is, the light wasn't staying on all the time, and sometimes the car started right up!

So when I took it in to my trusted neighborhood shop, my trusted neighborhood technician didn't have a whole lot to go on. He told me a horror story about a customer who brought her Jeep in for hard starting and ended up with a $1,500 repair bill because so many things were wrong with the vehicle. With an uneasy feeling, I left the car at his shop, biked to work, then biked back to the shop at the end of the day.

His verdict: the gas cap wasn't screwed on tight enough, and that was setting off the check engine light. This wasn't just his opinion; he had hooked up his scan tool and that's the fault code he got from the car.

And about that hard starting? The car started up just fine for him (and he said he had started it up several times during the day, just to be sure). Then for my own peace of mind, he came out with me to where the car was parked, I turned the key, and... it started up with one crank. What's more, the check engine light had decided to turn itself off that day...

Needless to say, I wasn't very satisfied with the results of this visit with my trusted neighborhood technician, especially when I got the $60 bill. But because the loose gas cap fault came up on his scan tool, my trusted neighborhood technician had no reason to doubt it. I insisted that the gas cap always gets ratcheted on as tight as it can go, and that there must be some other problem.

That's when he said it:

"Well, the manufacturer doesn't share all their technical data with us. It could very well be that there's another problem, but our scan tool can't read it."

"A-ha!" I thought. "Right to Repair! The OEMs give out the most basic service information to the independent shops, and save the good stuff for their dealers."

It seemed like an ironclad case against the OEMs, and I was all set to write a scathing column denouncing the OEMs for their stinginess with technical information.

But the problem with the car kept recurring, and even though my trusted neighborhood technician offered to take another look at the car for free, I decided to take it to my other trusted neighborhood technician (I live in a good neighborhood, trusted technician-wise).

He hooked up his scan tool, which told him that a $180 sensor had gone bad. But he couldn't guarantee that that was the real problem, because the scan tool had also picked up another sensor fault. And anyway, he couldn't fix it that day, because he would have to order the sensor. But he charged me $50 for the opinion. Meanwhile, a call to the local OEM dealer confirmed that it would cost me $90 for them to hook up their scan tool (which would be credited against the bill if they actually found a fault code and I had them repair it).

That left me with a decision: do I take my chances with trusted neighborhood technician #1, trusted neighborhood technician #2, or only somewhat-trusted OEM dealership?

I was due to go on vacation, so I put the decision off until this week, and guess what? The check engine light seems to have shut itself off for good, but the engine still has a hard start about 50 percent of the time.

I decided to call trusted neighborhood technician #1 to take him up on his offer to look at the car again for free. It's been three days, and he has not returned my call.

So much for trust. And so much for scan tools. Good thing I have a bike.

CORRECTION: In our May story "A New Twist on Turbos," we incorrectly labeled the photos on pages 14 and 16. The photos were provided by BorgWarner Turbo & Emissions Systems. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.