Alan Zendell, April 10, 2023
While my wife was running errands this morning, she side-swiped a curb, leaving a two-inch tear in her right front tire. The way her car came to rest, she couldn’t see the rip, so she thought she’d run over a nail. She made two phone calls, one to AAA and one to me to come rescue her. She told the AAA dispatcher she needed a tire changed. They asked if she had a spare, which sounded like an odd question. Doesn’t every car have a spare tire?
Being someone who never leaves details to chance, she opened the hatch of her 2018 Toyota Prius to look for a spare. There was none in sight, so she began to disassemble the tools that came with the car, but it was more than she could handle. I finished what she started; there was no spare. But there was a folded up jack and a sealant pump that can sometimes make a tire drivable for a short distance until it can be repaired.
With a gaping hole in the sidewall, that wasn’t going to work. I waited an hour for AAA to show up. The technician, a good guy, was genuinely distressed to learn that he’d been sent out to replace a tire in a pickup truck, only to discover the was no tire to replace the damaged one. He called his dispatcher and requested a tow truck. I’d given my car to my wife.
Three hours after I arrived to rescue her, I finally reached the Toyota dealer. My service rep advised me to replace two tires so the tread on both front wheels would be the same, but the matching tires were out of stock. Don’t you love days like that? I purchased two Goodyears to replace the Toyos. $400 and ninety minutes later, I got home. If you’re a fan of pyrrhic victories, you’ll appreciate that I was offered free coffee, popcorn, and a car wash.
Wasting an entire morning was annoying, but the real problem is that car manufacturers have been phasing out spare tires for years, and there seems to be a silent conspiracy to avoid publicizing that. My 2020 Camry Hybrid doesn’t have one, either. If you bought a new car within the past few years, chances are, neither does yours. The chances are even greater that no one bothered to tell you that, not your salesperson, the financial officer who took your check, or your service rep. Like most us, you probably never thought to ask. It’s like asking if the car has brakes.
But let’s not jump all over Toyota – they all do it. It’s industry policy, and it’s a dangerous one. I got together with the guy who sold me both cars and the guy who services them. When I asked why neither of them told us when we bought the cars, they seemed dumbfounded. I know both of them well. I like and trust them, which made it all the more surprising. Maybe the corporate executives chose to leave the lack of a spare tire out of their orientation training on features of new models.
It’s bad enough that the lack of a spare tire is a major inconvenience, but if you think of all the ways you can get a flat tire, it’s clear that many situations would put the occupants of the car at risk. If my wife had been driving alone in a remote area late at night, the consequences of not have a spare might have been catastrophic. The sales and service guys agreed completely, baffled that no one had ever raised the subject before.
This is particularly irking because of a similar incident we experienced twenty-five years ago. We were driving in my wife’s Nissan Stanza on a cold March night, with snow and slush piled up on the side of I-95 in Maryland, in one of the worst traffic mixing bowls I know, with cars and big trucks merging at high speed from two freeways into one from both sides. The perfect place for a timing chain to break.
Timing chains aren’t supposed to break, at least that’s what everyone thought. When one snaps under those conditions, it can be life-threatening, because everything goes dead – the engine, the power brakes, and the power steering. When I spoke to the service manager at our Nissan dealer the next day, he got a stricken look on his face. He closed his office door and took a folder from his desk, handing me a copy of a memo he’d received from Nissan headquarters in California. It ordered dealers not to mention the well-documented flaw in Nissan’s timing chain to customers unless it was clear that they already knew about it.
Nissan had made a corporate decision to maintain secrecy, putting drivers’ lives in jeopardy. I appealed to the Maryland Attorney General’s office for assistance. They contacted their counterparts in California, the only state in which Nissan had a corporate presence, and were obscenely told to mind their own business: “No one in this office f**ks with Nissan.”
If I were you I’d check my trunk.