Foxy takes her daughter to school every morning in a 2013 Kia Optima. She has to stop, then turn left across one lane of traffic diving downhill around a blind curve, into a stream accelerating uphill from the right, cars coming fast in each direction.
It wasn’t working too well.
“When I step on the gas, the car starts to go, but then just stops! I took it back to the dealer, but the guy in the service department said it was part of the traction control, and I was just pushing the gas too hard.”
I took the wheel for a few days. It didn’t seem that bad. I could make it happen, but not without being pretty aggressive. So the service guy was probably right, it was just traction control.
Then it rained.
We were in a busy intersection with about five lanes in each direction, counting turn lanes. I was first in line at the red light, on a slight uphill grade. Green. Step on gas. Car goes… maybe two feet. Suddenly stops. Another few feet. Stops. By now, I’m well into the intersection starting and stopping my way on through.
“That’s really ugly,” were the first words out of my mouth. I hope. Followed by, “That’s not right.”
“See?!” said Foxy.
“It acts like it’s driving only one wheel, and when that one slips, the traction control hits the brakes,” I say. From then on, I turn the traction control off so I can at least predict what’s going to happen, and wonder if Kia will then say it’s my fault if there’s an accident.
The Optima is a front wheel drive car. When a front wheel drive car accelerates, weight shifts to the back wheels, reducing front wheel traction. Okay. The tires aren’t new, but they’re not bald. Okay. That’s the end of excuses, as far as I am concerned. I’ve driven front wheel drive cars before. This is wrong.
Next stop, Internet. Turns out, a number of people have complained about this, including reports to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I take notes.
Coincidentally, a few days later, Foxy gets a call from the dealership, asking how she likes her car. She mentions the problem, and sales guy points out that even though she bought it used, the car is still under warranty. That’s all I need.
I drop Foxy off at work and head down to the dealership, wait for the manager on duty to get off the phone.
“I’ve never heard of this,” he says.
“I’m surprised. There have been a number of complaints, they’re easy to find online, and some reports to the NHTSA. Here’s where you find them, and here’s the part number needed to fix it. Would you like to write it down?”
I may not be much of a wrench, but I can go online.
Sales manager says he has to talk to service manager.
“Would you like me to come along?” I ask.
“No, let me see what he’s doing, first,” sales manager says.
Ten minutes later, he takes me back to the service manager. We all sit down.
“Not really heard of this being a problem” says service manager, who seems like a very nice guy.
“Well, here’s a couple of places you can find records of complaints,” I say. “And here’s the part number that solves the problem.” That part number had been posted by a guy in Louisianna, who I now want to buy a bowl of jambalaya: 1 58920 − 2T550, Hydraulic Unit Assembly, or an HECU, which I’m told stands for hydraulic electronic control unit.
Somewhere in that conversation, the term, “one wheel peel” comes up. Exactly what I felt at the rainy intersection.
“I’m willing to be flexible,” I say to the two managers. “She can give you this car back, and we’ll look for a car someplace else, or you can put her in a different car, or you can fix it. But we can’t let her take her daughter to school in a car that isn’t safe. We just can’t do that,” I say, making sure that all three of us understand this isn’t just my problem, and especially not hers.
The sales manager leaves the room at that point. Service manager says he has to make a phone call. When he comes back, he says there is a part that might make a difference, he can’t guarantee it. But he has authorization to install it under warranty. He’ll keep the Optima, and gives me a loaner.
Foxy picks her car up a week later.
“It doesn’t spin and stop! It drives like a normal car!”
Cool. I get to be a hero for… a few minutes. That’s good enough. I appreciate the dealership stepping up and taking care of this, finally, once confronted by hard evidence. They were polite, friendly, professional, and surprisingly, I liked the drivable little box they gave us as a loaner car. It’s got soul.
But how many Kia’s were sold with this problem? Just the 2013 models? Just the Optimas? How many women, and men, who don’t have decades of experience with all sorts of drivetrains at all sorts of speeds in all sorts of conditions, were told, “You’re giving it too much gas. That’s a safety feature.” What will these cars do in the snow? How many of these cars will go out of warranty, and how many customers will be stuck with what could be a $1,500 bill?
Or get hit by a truck in the middle of an intersection because a car they could not afford to fix just wouldn’t GO!
Kia, the company, should do more. It should not be left to owners to individually resolve this problem. Kia needs to recall any car with this issue, and Kia knows what cars are affected and who owns them. Vehicles with this design flaw should be repaired and drivers should not be charged. Kia the company should accept this responsibility.