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Great Car, Substandard Electronics
By: Andy Pargh, The Gadget Guru
Buying a car today can be as complicated as deciding which flat screen TV format is right for your home and wallet.
That's because today's automobiles are more than just basic transportation, they are more akin to an extension of our mobile lifestyle. It comes as no surprise that carmakers today are including more technology than every before ranging from communication and navigation devices to entertainment systems that keep the entire family entertained even on the longest of jouneys.
Like buying a flat screen TV or an entire home entertainment system, if you rely solely on the information provided at store level, you could end up being greatly disappointed with your purchase as many times the salespeople either don't know the product they are selling or don't take the time to assist you in selecting the product that matches your usage and lifestyle. Even with the abundance of information provided on manufacturer's websites, many of us don't take the time to do a bit of research prior to entering a retail establishment. Today, purchasing a car can be more complicated that purchasing a computer. Simply stated, that's because most buyers admit upfront they don't know much about computers and succumb to the information provided at retail. With cars on the other hand, it's difficult to find an individual who will admit they know nothing about what they are looking for in a new vehicle.
Complicating this matter, today's batch of automobiles contain more than just efficient engines and comfortable seats, they are loaded with more gadgets today than ever before. Trying to decipher all the offerings are made even more complicated as many of the tech offerings are offered in bundles, meaning that although there are some features you might not mind paying for, they are bundled with many gadgets you would never consider or have no need to purchase. It used to be that you would walk into a dealership, select a model, sit down with a salesperson and select the desired options. The car would then be ordered to your specifications and delivered in approximately six weeks.
This has changed as today dealers are trying to increase sales and most carry a heavy inventory of vehicles that fall into two classes: Base and Fully Loaded. The problem herein is that the dealership management is predicting upfront what features its customers will be demanding. Granted, few if any dealers in South Florida get request for features such as Heated Windshield Washers as this is a feature we will most likely never use.
Having spent as lifetime as a technology reporter, I am one of those buyers that enjoys automobiles loaded with the latest and greatest electronic features. I have to admit that I'm not the typical buyer as I truly do my homework prior to entering a dealership. Many times I find myself knowing more about an individual automobile than the person selling it as I enjoy spending countless hours performing research on new purchases.
Recently, I thought I found a diamond in the rough in Toyota's flagship Avalon. From information gathered from Toyota's well designed website, I was able to configure this car with the exact features and functions I desired. While I put more "seat time" in my golf cart than my automobile and drive fewer than 5,000 miles per year, all I was looking for was a smooth, comfortable ride and a lot of technology for a very competitive price. This car seemed to fit this bill. Available in four configurations, I decided to go with its top of the line Limited model and loaded it up with technology. The offerings that I consider necessities for myself are GPS Navigation, Bluetooth (for safety purposes, this should be a requirement, not an option on every vehicle sold as it allows for hands free, cell phone usage), Adaptive Cruise Control, Rain Sensing Wipers, Heated/Ventilated Seats, Satellite Radio, Park Assist and a Smart Keyless Entry System. Yes, many of these items are frivilous, but having spent more than 20 years as a leading technology reporter, these creature comforts were necessities for my lifestyle. After all, I'm not a hypocrite - I practice what I preach.
Another aspect that captured my attention after test driving the Avalon was that it delivered a smooth ride with very comfortable seating and carried a price tag, even loaded with all the aforementioned technology, around half the price of a comparable Lexus. (Lexus is owned by Toyota). All would have been perfect and I would have felt that I truly found the diamond in the rough, if only these features would have operated as promised. This is where my perfect "diamond in the rough" automobile purchase turned into the most sour of lemons.
Since the dealership did not have a test vehicle with many of these items available prior to purchase, I asked numerous questions about the performance of the tech items and was assured that all worked as promised. I can tell you upfront, this was not the case and from countless conversations with both dealer and Toyota factory personnel after the problems were identified, I was led to believe that less than 5% of purchasers of Toyota's flagship Avalon opted for its top of the line Limited model delivered fully loaded. Based on information from Toyota's website as well as information derived from the sales staff, I made the plunge and ordered one. While I was initially promised delivery in about two weeks, it was closer to five weeks when it arrived. It appears that while Avalon is a good seller for Toyota, the vast majority of its buyers opted for the base model and my selection had to come from the factory in Kentucky and make a stop in Jacksonville for further installations.
While initially the car looked perfect, other than a few blemishes that were missed in the "preparation detailing" process (that's what those exhorbitant "dealer fees" are supposed to cover), it was on my 45 minute drive home that I quickly realized all was not perfect when its GPS and Satellite Radio systems failed to operate properly. While I entered the information to route me to my home from the dealership using the quickest method (which should have been the Florida Turnpike), it wanted to guide me home via 441. I can only estimate the true time difference between these two routes to be around a half an hour. When you look at a map and see the road it wanted to send me (441) ran parallel to my desired road (the Florida Turnpike), it was a 45 mph route that had numerous stop lights. My desired routing would have me traveling at 70mph with no slowdowns until I reached my exit.
Upon arriving home, I grabbed the instruction book and read it cover to cover. Written in translated Japan/English (with numerous typographical errors), I tried other input methods for the GPS and quickly realized that for some strange reason, it consistently wanted to send me down those slow