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Today: A Prius guinea pig gets a raw deal.

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Dear Tom and Ray:



So, I was driving home in my beloved 2003 Toyota Prius on Friday. I turned right a few blocks from my house, and the wheel froze in the turned position ... I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a parked truck. After a few minutes of freaking out, I realized that with all my might, I could force the wheels straight enough to get it home. I had it towed to a dealer, and they say it's an electrical connection between the steering column and the rack and pinion, and will cost about $2,000 in parts and labor. I'm at about 70,000 miles -- way past the 36,000-mile warranty. I know there was a recall having to do with the steering system on Priuses made just after mine, but the dealer says it doesn't apply. Do I have any recourse? I've gotten all the scheduled maintenance at the dealer ... I just keep thinking that if this had happened on the freeway, I'd be dead. Thank you! -- Rebecca

RAY: I'm afraid the dealer is right, Rebecca. The later steering recall is for a different issue entirely, so it wouldn't apply to your car.

TOM: And he's right that what you probably need is a rack and pinion, which will cost you two grand.

RAY: Welcome to the world of new technology! One of the many ways the Prius saves fuel is with electric power steering. And although it's expected to become more and more common (and, presumably, more durable), the Prius was one of the first vehicles to use it.

TOM: It works by using sensors in the steering column that tell a computer how far, how hard and how quickly you're turning the steering wheel. The computer then sends an appropriate amount of electrical "boost" to the electric power-steering motor (most cars use hydraulic power-steering pumps, run by the engine).

RAY: The advantage of this electric system is that it saves fuel by being smaller and lighter, and by running off electric power only when that power is needed, instead of off the gasoline engine all the time. The disadvantage of it is that it's new, and apparently it can fail catastrophically.

TOM: So, you're a guinea pig, Rebecca. We're just glad to hear that you lived through the experiment!

RAY: You can try asking to speak to the dealer's zone manager. You can make your case to him or her, and ask if he or she will help you with the cost of the repair, since you almost died -- and now that you're still alive, if he or she treats you well, you'll be around to buy more Toyotas. But if he or she tells you to get lost, you'll just have to consider this part of the cost of being an early adopter. Sorry, Rebecca.

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