When Squirrels Attack

It was two days before Christmas. December 23, 2020. The Wife went out to run errands like she does pretty much every day. I can’t convince her to stay home, not even with contagion everywhere around us. Nope, she has to go out and do things or her day is wasted. I’m awake, which is unusual for me this early in the day. We had been out early the day before, which meant I slept early the night before, and it was going to be awhile before I could slouch my way back into sleeping well into the afternoon and pretending to be annoyed about it.

She called me from the road. “There is something wrong with the car. There are lights on all over the dash and the transmission isn’t shifting properly. I think I better bring it back home.”

I told her to be careful and then I poured myself a cup of hot tea and stood inside the front door waiting for the car to reappear over the hill in front of the house.

When it finally did reappear it was definitely limping and she barely managed to get the car up the driveway. I motioned for her to pop the hood and it only took a few minutes of inspection to reveal what the problem was. The wiring harness was visibly chewed right at the point where it plugged into the engine manifold.

We had experienced a version of this problem before. A few years previously the Daughter had left the Leaf out on the back driveway and something had gotten into the engine compartment and made a nest right behind the driver’s side headlight. She just thought the headlight was out and bought a replacement bulb, but when we opened the hood and looked at where the wires went into the back of the headlight, there were no wires. There was only a nest made of some kind of chewed fabric that we couldn’t identify but hoped wasn’t also from inside the vehicle, and the stubs of wires sticking up out of the the place where they merged with the rest of the wiring harness.

I had never heard of creatures nesting in cars before, but when we took the Leaf to be estimated and fixed, the mechanic said “Oh, yeah. We see that pretty regularly.” Little did we know that we were leaving the new Nissan Versa to be vandalized by the same rodent that had struck the Leaf the day before. We parked the other car in the same spot on the driveway, and while we were gone the saboteur came back, and, apparently mistaking one vehicle for another vehicle parked in the same place, proceeded to make an identical nest in the same place in the Versa.

We must have interrupted her, because the nest wasn’t finished when we checked why that car’s headlight was also out. The Versa was still under warranty at the time, so we played stupid and just took the car in complaining about the headlight, and we let them fix the wiring that the rodent had chewed in that car, without ever asking about who was paying for it. As it turned out, they paid for it. We made a point of never parking cars on that driveway again. We instead parked on the front driveway, since this lot has the rare attribute of two curb cuts and driveways onto the property. We parked on the front driveway because it was more open and less prone to rodent traffic.

Or so we thought.

As we stood there looking at the damaged wiring harness, I knew that we were facing the same enemy. The varmint had struck again, crippling our mobility and probably costing us thousands of dollars.

I called the insurance company. Two days before Christmas, in the time of COVID, meant that I didn’t get a live person for quite awhile. When I did they were less than helpful about the problem. I had already logged onto our insurer’s website to try and start the claims process, but neither avenue was giving me the options that I wanted. Finally I just called Nissan and had them come tow the vehicle to the dealer’s shop so that Nissan could get started estimating the damage while I took the necessary time to argue with my insurer.

The Wife hitched a ride to a car rental place and secured replacement transportation. We were going to be without a vehicle for quite some time. I don’t think we understood how long, but we knew we wouldn’t be getting the Versa back until well after New Years. We’d be lucky to even get the car inspected and an estimate on repairs before New Years Day.

As it turns out, I never saw that Nissan Versa again. When Nissan finally got us an estimate for the repair, the price stated was more than what the car was worth. My insurance company insisted they could get the repair done for less money, and then fumbled about for weeks trying to find a place that would give them a lower figure, only managing to find a shop in their network that was hamstrung by deals with Nissan that required them to duplicate estimates that Nissan shops offer.

The price to replace both damaged harnesses was about $14,000.00. This was only slightly less than the car cost when it rolled off the dealership lot, straight off the delivery truck with 24 miles on the odometer. Mind you, they would have had to pull the drive assembly to replace one of the harnesses, which required a full shop and several days work to complete, but that just tells me the car was worth a lot more than they charged me to drive it off the lot in the first place. If the two harnesses installed was $14,000.oo, how much were the seats worth? 50¢? The body must have only been worth $100. What an unmitigated crock of shit! Is what I thought.

It is entirely possible that every car on the market in the United States is rolling rodent buffet in waiting. The manufacturers have to roll out these new harnesses for years after the cars are delivered:

Some believe the culprit could be modern car wiring or, more specifically, the soy-based insulation used to wrap it. This insulation can be an irresistible treat for rats, mice, squirrels, and even rabbits. The issue has become so widespread that several class-action lawsuits have been levied at automakers, with some of the highest-profile cases involving Honda and Toyota.

caranddriver.com
I miss this car.

So here we are. Versa totaled. Totaled because of squirrels. Driving a rental car. Looking for another car to replace the car that we both thought would be the last gasoline vehicle we would purchase, just two years after we purchased it. This is not how we normally change vehicles. Normally, we buy a car and it stays with us like a member of the family. We grow old together, gain scars together, etcetera. Our cars stay with us for at least a decade, generally. The green Saturn wagon we special ordered has been the only other car we’ve owned that we didn’t hang onto until the bitter end, and we traded that one in for a bigger Saturn sedan that we hung onto until there wasn’t an automotive brand called Saturn anymore.

This hurt. It hurt financially, because the car had depreciated by over half its value since we had bought it, and that came out of our almost empty pockets. It hurt physically, a gaping hole in our lives in the form of a car we had just come to accept as a replacement for the Rav4 that had eaten it’s own transmission two years previously (another car that we drove for nearly a decade. It’s even in a movie) now taken from us by a squirrel. A SQUIRREL for fucks sake! Not a deer or a cow or some unavoidably tragic accident involving an 18 wheeler and a greased roadway. A fucking rodent the size of a football killed our car.

How do I know how big it was? Because The Wife found the bitch. Under the hood of the rental car. In a McDonald’s parking lot. The Wife was just driving along, getting her morning cup of iced tea, and the dash lights started flashing again just like in the Versa before it died. So she jumped out, popped the hood, and the squirrel and The Wife stared at each other in surprise.

The squirrel decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat. The Wife said “Oh no you don’t” and grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and flung it as far as she could make it fly. Which was about the distance between the McDonald’s and the neighboring auto repair shop. Which is where the squirrel landed. In the towing yard of an auto repair shop.

She had taken the wire-eating monster away from it’s morning snack, and flung it square into the middle of a smorgasbord of automotive harnesses. Which is probably where it still is to this day. Eating wiring harnesses to its heart’s content. Unless the mechanics found it. I personally hope they did. The pelt would make a nice hat, I bet.

The Wife nonchalantly whistled her way onto the rental company’s nearest yard and pretended to not know why the dash lights were all flashing red on her rental car’s dashboard. “Can I have another car, please?” and proceeded on her quest to find and buy a replacement vehicle. One that would now probably be safe from wire-eating varmints, unless there were two of them near the house. The other one was not coming back over the distance she had taken it.

We ended up at First Texas Honda where we bought a used Honda Fit in February, almost two months after having the Versa chewed to death on our own driveway. The insurer paid for the rental, at least. It’s too bad we didn’t have insurance that replaced the car. We fixed that this time. Having a car destroyed like that, costing us about $10k in the process, with no visible sign of harm, seems almost unreal. But that is what happens when squirrels attack.

Postscript

I scare the Honda Fit. It doesn’t like the way I drive. No one likes the way I drive. It talks back to me. Flashing me messages. Sounding alarms. pulling on the wheel or activating the brakes. Slow down! Not so close! Brake. Brake! BRAKE! It’s worse than a side seat driver. It keeps yelling at me when I straighten curves out too. Lane departure is now a thing I read pretty regularly on the dashboard. I’m beginning to realize how bad a driver I am.

Ever since The Wife went in for her open heart surgery, I have been forced back into my role as a driver. I don’t really mind driving her to and from her appointments (really honey, I don’t) It is just that driving drains all my attention and mental energy, leaving me with almost nothing to utilize for other things during the day. This is part of the reason why I haven’t written anything for several weeks. This article took months to complete. It wasn’t the wife’s fault. No really. I needed the separation time from the events described here. I’m finally not as pissed about loosing $10k. I think.

Battery Problems

Both my wife and daughter have given up on this process, so now it falls to me to get this rectified. For clarity’s sake, I will start from the beginning. We own a 2011 Nissan Leaf that we bought used from CarMax in 2016, as I mention in this post on my blog. CarMax lead us to believe that we could get the batteries for the Leaf replaced through them if we paid them for an extended warranty, which we subsequently purchased. We knew that the process would be an uphill battle if it turned out that we needed to replace the batteries, but we never realized how impossible it would be to get the batteries replaced at all. From anyone, not just Carmax.

When the battery health meter dropped by four bars, the critical level described to us by the salesman who sold us the car, we promptly took the car to the Carmax shop and started the long argument that you are just hearing the tail end of now. Carmax at first made the argument that they didn’t replace batteries, as was waived explicitly by the extended warranty. When we countered with the valid argument that this was a critical part of the car and not something that should be replaced by an end-user in regular maintenance, Carmax then said that we had to go to a Nissan dealer to get the batteries replaced since that wasn’t something that they did in their own shop.

Most of the warranty work that Carmax is responsible for is apparently sent out to third-party repair shops, so we didn’t argue too hard and took the Leaf to Round Rock Nissan, having had bad experiences with Maxwell auto group in the past. Maxwell owns a good percentage of the car dealerships in and around Austin including both Nissan dealerships. They even own Round Rock Nissan, although we didn’t know this at the time.

Round Rock Nissan told us that the batteries were not showing enough wear to qualify for being replaced under the vehicle warranty. We pointed out that we had an extended warranty from Carmax, but they insisted that even then the batteries were just fine, but to bring the Leaf back to them if the range dipped too low, or if the battery health took a nosedive. Six bars down is what they told us. So we drove the Leaf for the next few years, keeping an eye on the range and the health meter, occasionally taking the car back in only to have Round Rock Nissan insist that the batteries were still not bad enough.

In December of 2018,  we decided we’d had enough. We took the car to Happy Hybrids here in Austin (Excellent shop. Highly recommended) and asked them to replace the batteries that Round Rock Nissan and Carmax refused to replace. We knew the replacement cost would be expensive, but we wanted to get the driving range back up to distances that allowed us to make round trips within the city of Austin comfortably. 

Happy Hybrid told us that the batteries were still under the ten year manufacturers warranty, and that we should call Nissan to try to get the warranty on the batteries honored. It was at that point that my wife called Nissan corporate to explain the problem, as well as determine where in this process we had gotten off track and how we could get back on track, so that the car could be repaired. She was livid when Nissan corporate told her that the batteries should have been replaced before the car had even been sold to us, much less when we took it in for service. They also told her that Round Rock Nissan had been less than truthful about the warranty. When we looked over the paperwork from the maintenance visits we discovered that the service records showed the recorded battery health as being higher than the level they were at the time. So Maxwell had been forging the maintenance documents to show that they didn’t need to do the work that they should have already done.

We tried over the course of the next few months to get Round Rock Nissan’s attention. We made several calls and even a visit to the shop in person, all to no avail. They were not interested in replacing the batteries, or even discussing replacing the batteries. They have yet to ever return one of our phone calls.

This is the point where I stepped in, because I could see we were just going in circles, and the batteries still needed to be replaced. The battery health bars are now less than four, and the range is generally about twenty miles when fully charged. So I called Happy Hybrid back and asked them if they could replace the batteries even if they were under warranty. We just wanted the car repaired. After a bit of embarrassment on their part, since they had initially told us that they could replace the batteries, they explained that the refurbished batteries that they had been relying on were not performing as expected. So they couldn’t install them into our Leaf.

They further explained that they couldn’t get the new batteries we had authorized them to purchase if they needed to, because the battery manufacturers who had made replacement batteries for the Leaf had been blocked from selling them by Nissan, who has exclusive rights to manufacture and install batteries for their cars. This meant that my preferred shop couldn’t even get the batteries from Nissan to install for us themselves. I would have to take the Leaf into a local dealership and submit to whatever prices that Maxwell wanted to charge us to replace batteries in an electric car that should have had the batteries replaced for free several years previously.

2011 Nissan Leafs Start Losing Capacity Bars: Should You Worry? and What four bars down looks like. (ours are eight bars down)

That brings this narrative to today. I still want the batteries in the car replaced. I’m not interested in doing business with Round Rock Nissan again, or any other Maxwell owned dealership. I’ve been burned too many times working with them. I’d like to get Happy Hybrid to do the install, but they can’t get batteries. This puts the problem into the current warranty holders hands. Both Carmax and Nissan have issued warranties for this vehicle, warranties that include the battery packs that drive the electric motor in the car. I don’t really care who pays for the replacement so long as acknowledgement is made for the faulty manufacture of the original batteries, along with some amortized reduction in the cost of replacement.

I would like you to arrange for the repair with some shop that isn’t Maxwell owned. I will happily drive the car there if it will make it on its own power, although I don’t think it will make the drive to another town or city now. It is regrettable that my initial joy at buying my first electric car has turned sour, and that this quest to get clearly required work done on the vehicle looks to turn me away from doing further business with both Carmax and Nissan at this point. It is up to you to make this into an experience that we won’t end up regretting.

Sincerely,

(Letter sent to CarMax and Nissan)

Postscript

When we confronted CarMax with the warranty problem, they said “All good” and handed us back the money we paid for the warranty. I will be doing business with CarMax again if I need another used car. Any business that hands you back several thousand dollars and says “we’re sorry” while doing it is a business that is at least honest in their dealings. I like that in a business.

Nissan didn’t do that. Nissan said “the batteries are now out of warranty, you have to pay to have new batteries put in the car.” Since the Maxwell dealership had destroyed all evidence that we had reported the failure while the batteries were in warranty, we were forced to agree with this assessment and we paid out of pocket to replace the batteries for the Leaf. It now has the kind of battery life it should have had when we bought it. Better battery life, even, because they are the new Leaf batteries and not the old versions of them which were clearly riddled with manufacturing flaws. The Leaf is probably the last Nissan we will own because of the way the entire process was handled.

I will never consciously do business with the Maxwell auto group again. Their behavior has finally convinced me that the dealership model in Texas is dominated by fraudsters and criminals (I’m coming to believe that pretty much everything in Texas is a fraud) and I applaud Tesla’s decision to build a manufacturing plant here rather than have to do business with the gangsters who run dealerships in Texas. I’m thinking it is time to revisit the reasoning behind creating dealerships in the first place.