Dear Tom and Ray:
I have a 2003 Toyota Prius, which has gone 67,000 miles. I always take it to the dealer, and recently had it there for its 65,000-mile service. After a fairly long wait, the service manager came to me to tell me that there had been an accident. They had driven the car crooked onto the oil-change rack, and "the wheel fell off." I have to admit that I really didn't know exactly what that meant, except that it didn't sound too good. He took me into the work area, where they were already doing a front-wheel alignment on my car. He said that the realignment was being done because of possible damage when the car's wheel fell off the rack. There was no charge, and he admitted they were at fault here. They also are replacing some rubber thingie under the front bumper that has had a rip in it for about four years. So I do not have a problem with the dealership in this respect. My questions are these: Could there be further damage, such as hairline cracks and bent or dented pieces under the car, as a result of this accident? Is this something that may show up later as a serious problem? Thanks.— Mary
Ray: I don't think there's anything more to worry about, Mary. If they were able to align the front wheels, that means the parts are all working as they should be.
Tom: Here's what happened: There are certain "ramp lifts" that have two tracks that you drive the car onto. My guess is that some kid who was trying to send a text message at the same time drove your car onto the lift crooked, and one of the front wheels dropped off the side. That's not easy to do, by the way.
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Ray: There were two reasons why it took so long for the service manager to come and tell you about it. First, he wanted to assess the damage himself, so he'd know what to tell you. Second, he had to chase this kid around the shop a few times with a tire iron.
Tom: When a car falls down like that, what breaks its fall are the front suspension and steering components. And it's certainly possible that a lower control arm or a tie rod got bent. But those pieces are pretty tough.
Ray: And if a tie rod, for example, were bent, they would not be able to align the front wheels. So if they successfully aligned the car, that suggests that either no damage was done, or they were able to fix it before bringing you into the service area.
Tom: But if you're worried that they missed something, or that they're covering something up, there are two things you can do. The first test is the easiest: Just drive the car.
Ray: If you feel it no longer tracks straight, or the steering feels unusual in any way, then they may have missed something. And in that case, you'll need to take it back to them and ask them to take a closer look and fix it.
Tom: But if it handles exactly as it did before this mishap, then all is well. I don't know of any of those parts that could sustain "hidden damage" and break later. I think any damage would be apparent right now.
Ray: But if you're still worried, Mary, the next step is to take it to another dealer. Tell the dealer what happened, and explain that it occurred at another shop. You don't have to tell them which shop did it, since they may be reluctant to criticize a fellow dealer. Or they may know the kid who did it. They may have fired him last week after chasing him around their shop with a tire iron.
Tom: Just ask them to inspect the car for you, and see if they can detect any damage. And if a second, independent set of eyes sees nothing, you're home free, Mary.