The Trouble With Imua (Or How Cheap Can You Get?)
With 2015 being the most traveled of my career, it was decided in the fall that I'd upgrade my touring vehicle and sell Rita to give the old girl an easy-going retirement. I didn't want to let her go; we'd been through quite a bit together and she'd never let me down to the point where I missed a single gig. Still, the rigors of my ever-increasing tour schedule and the need for ample storage to bring necessary equipment and product on board made it imperative that I get into a larger and newer-than-antique rig.
Thankfully, the search didn't take long. After Jae and I rented a 30' Leprechaun from El Monte RV in Orlando back in November, a little surfing online turned up the option of buying a used rental from them. The reviews were encouraging. You could get a fleet vehicle that had been kept in immaculate condition for renters, service records dating from mile one and a 12 month/12,000 mile warranty. Even as we engaged in our drive about adventure, I was eyeing the El Monte site to see what my options might be.
It came down to a 2009 Fleetwood Tioga Ranger with a V-10 engine. 26 feet long and clean as a whistle, based on the photos. When I finally made it to El Monte in December to begin shopping, turns out that the 2009 had sold, but a 2008 in the same model and floor plan was available. The manager took me out to see it, commenting that it had been sitting for a while and that the batteries were dead, but I could have a look around. I didn't think much about that. Turns out that it was a harbinger of things to come.
After qualifying for a loan, I took delivery on my new rig Monday, December 21st, 2015. Shiny and new, she sparkled in the lot as the manager walked me around and filled me in on some operational tidbits. Having been a motorhome owner for four years, I was keen to flip every switch and twist every knob, asking lots of questions along the way. When I operated the slide-out, I was giddy at the sight of all that space I'd be enjoying. I wasn't so giddy, however, when the slide-out refused to come back in. After some tinkering with it, and after a service tech was called out to replace some things, I was told that they'd have to take it back into the shop to do some work and could I come back later in the day. No problem. Just glad it happened at the dealership and not when I got it home where it would've ended up too wide to even leave the makeshift RV pad next to our house.
When I returned, the manager demonstrated that the slide-out was now working fine; something about a burned-out motor and "I've never seen a motor burn out on one of these units." Well, first time for everything, I supposed. "Now, you've got a new $612 motor in there - you shouldn't have any problems." There you go - everything for a reason, right? I named her "Imua", which is Hawaiian for "go forward with grace."
It was an amazing feeling to drive the new rig around town. Everything about it so different from Rita. I was going to miss the old girl but, damn, I was sure digging all of the upgrades. A day later, while pulling out of Walmart after a pre-Christmas shopping run, I felt a slight hesitation in forward motion while accelerating and the "check engine" light came on. Crap. Knowing that El Monte wouldn't possibly be ready to deal with this during Christmas week, and needing to stay in the new rig with family coming over, I decided to wait until the following Monday to have it serviced. Christmas came and went and I invited some friends to ride in the Ranger out to Walt Disney World for some sightseeing. On the way, the hitch in Imua's get-along got worse, bogging down with alarming frequency. The air-conditioner also blew air intermittently. On the way back from Disney, it got so bad that I could barely manage 45 mph as the engine sputtered and coughed, cars honking and speeding past. We finally choked to a stop on the shoulder of Interstate 4 by Sea World and had to call a tow truck. It turned out to be my last AAA tow for the quarter.
Besides this embarrassing set-back, some other niggling things had taken place. The slide-out, though still working, wasn't sitting flush with the side of the rig. Upon noticing that one of my turn signals was faster than the other, I discovered that my driver's side taillights were completely out. A light above the mirrored cabinet wasn't working. The gas cap broke when filling it for the first time, separating the handle from the part that screws in. A splash shield underneath the engine came loose and was scraping the ground. A cabinet latch was broken; the super-fan in the loft wouldn't turn on. One of the 12-volt plugs was delivering intermittent current. This was a lot of overlooked stuff for a unit that was marked for sale. I wrote to the manager and asked him to check all these things for me when I brought it into service. Having run out of tows, I asked if El Monte could do the towing. The answer came back "no", and I had to pay $371 out of pocket to get Imua towed to El Monte.
The general manager suspected a fuel pressure sensor or EVAP issue. Throughout the process, he had been amiable enough and, at one point, confided in me that they would start with the "least expensive" solution and work their way up. That was another omen that I should've picked up on.
The phone call came not too long after that; they had narrowed it down to the fuel pump and replaced it with one out of another rental unit. Apologetic to a fault, the manager handed me the keys and wished me good luck. It was on my way back from a New Year's Eve gig at Homosassa Riverside Resort when the same surging/bogging-down problem took place. Without any tows left, I repeatedly had to pull over to the shoulder, turn it off, let it sit, turn it back on and then drive until the problem raised its ugly head again. What should've been a two hour drive extended into five hours. I dropped Imua off at El Monte, had Jae pick me up, and waited for the next step which turned out to be, again, the fuel pump.
"I understand your frustration. None of this was meant to happen sir. None of this was evident to us either," the general manager wrote when I expressed my concern to him. "I already fixed a fuel pump problem that is not covered to show that we stand behind what we sell. Vehicles break down whenever they want to. Be assured that if any of this was evident, we would have fixed before you got the unit." Somehow, this was not entirely encouraging to me and I began to wonder if I had indeed been sold some kind of lemon of a motorhome. I took Rita to my gigs and, of course, the old girl got me there with no problems. An unease began to settle in with my new purchase.
The culprit? Fuel pump failure. This was supposedly a new pump, yet it had gone belly-up in no time at all. They replaced it with yet another fuel pump and handed me the keys. Two weeks later, on my way to a weekend of gigs in Homosassa, the same problem resurfaced and I had to take it back to El Monte. By this point, you understand, I'm totally pissed. I've never had to cancel a gig in my entire life, yet here I was doing exactly that because of a recurring issue that El Monte couldn't seem to correct. How did this vehicle survive as a rental? Was this why it had sat idle on the lot for so long? It was here that my public post on Facebook, alerting folks that the shows would be canceled due to the new motorhome breaking down, shone the first spotlight on my new vehicle troubles. People began asking questions and I was more than a little embarrassed. "Shoulda kept Rita" was one of the common statements. I was thinking they were right.
"Whatever it is, I will fix it for you, we stand behind our product," said the general manager. Well, that's all well and good, but did these guys even know what needed to be fixed? What if it wasn't the fuel pump but something else that was causing the failure? With tour season approaching, I began to panic ever-so-slightly. Not that Rita couldn't handle another year of travel, but that I was now approaching my first payment on a rig that had spent most of the month or so that I "owned" it in the shop. Dark thoughts indeed.
The problem turned out to be big enough that El Monte outsourced the repair to a guy named J.R. at nearby Quality Automotive. J.R. was a former Ford engineer and had better capability to diagnose these kinds of issues. While dropping Imua off, J.R. came over and asked me a series of questions about how she was handling when all of this went down. He seemed genuinely concerned and I was starting to get a feeling of distance from the El Monte general manager. Especially when, after spending a little more time with Imua, I noticed some other things that had somehow escaped their notice. Like a major hole in the fiberglass underneath one of the storage door latches. The general manager seemed to suggest that it had happened after I drover her off the lot the first time. I resisted the urge to tell him exactly what I thought.
At this point, I bought a roadside assistance plan from Good Sam. Figured I was going to need it. Unlimited towing; good deal.
J.R. re-routed my fuel lines and replaced the fuel pump yet again, telling me that I was getting vapor lock because the fuel was heating up. He was insightful about it and I felt good about driving it off the lot this time, though after my first successful round trip camping journey in Imua, I discovered a water leak under the bed where the water pump resides. The general manager was adamant that the leak wasn't there before and, anyway, it wasn't covered under the warranty. They did patch the fiberglass, however. I decided that I'd be seeing Camping World for anything not related to the motor and transmission.
Two weeks later, I was absolutely floored when the surging/bogging-down issue returned. Luckily, it wasn't so bad that I had to miss the gig, but I wrote to the general manager and basically asked him "what gives?" He basically dropped all of the "sirs" and "sorrys" and said "the pump was never part of the 12 month/12K warranty. I recommend you take it to Quality Automotive tomorrow." I didn't act like an ass - I just swallowed it and made an appointment. Maybe sensing that he was at least a little bit culpable, the general manager offered that if it did indeed turn out to be the fuel pump again, he would cover it. But since it couldn't possibly be the fuel pump again, and turned out to be something else that didn't involve the motor, it would be on my dime.
It was at this point that I figured maybe their source for fuel pumps was crappy. This was confirmed when they had put in yet another replacement pump and I spoke with J.R. about the situation. He said, "I'm glad you're here, let me show you something," and he proceeded to show me the fuel pump that had been removed from Imua. He explained that it was a terrible design, prone to heating up due to its return flow. Ford had stuck with the part because it would get the job done on the E-450 Super Duty platforms for ambulances and shuttle vehicles. A motorhome was too much of a load, but Ford didn't want to spend the money or time redeveloping such an integral part of the engine. I asked J.R. if there was an after-market pump that was better and he said that there was.
Taking firm control of the situation right then and there, I asked him to go ahead and order the part. I'd spend the extra money (though it really should have been El Monte doing that) and rest easy knowing that a better part was in place.
That was just before Valentine's Day. After almost two months of run-around with a cheap-ass part, my decision to bypass another faulty installation has resulted in Imua running like a champ. No issues. We've been back and forth to Homosassa a few times, throttle wide open, taking the Clermont Hills like a ferocious beast. My unease and anxiety subsided with each mile we blazed down. Two months of headaches and lost wages because El Monte was too cheap to put in a decent fuel pump. Unbelievable.
They say that everything happens for a reason and, though this was somewhat of a nerve-wracking period of time, I emerged with a new trusted mechanic only five miles from my house and a better understanding of engine operation. Granted, the new bad-ass fuel pump cost me $800 out of pocket and, including the tow that I had to pay for and the lost wages, I had shelled out some $1500 after driving my new rig off the lot. When the current warranty is up, I plan on getting an extended warranty with someone else. I don't know that everyone's experience with El Monte is so turbulent, but I observed a basic attitude about this particular general manager (and I've kept his name out of the story because it just seemed like the right thing to do) and his "cheapest fix possible" approach to customer service. This guy moaned and quoted me the repair price each and every time I brought Imua back to the lot. She should've never left the lot with as many problems as she did. She should've never gone idle so long that her batteries died, making it impossible to test drive her. I went on El Monte's guarantee and maybe I should've insisted on a test drive before I signed papers. That's my bad.
But, after all of this, I can now sit in her captain's chair and hurtle down the road with confidence, knowing that I've got a mechanic who will tell me the truth and make good suggestions. He even fixed my broken arm rest without having to ask. No whining about lists of things to repair. Imua's engine is in fantastic shape and so is her coach. The water leak is a small thing, hasn't done any damage and I've got an appointment with Camping World to have that fixed. In the meantime, folks at the 4th Annual Florida Gulf Coast Dulcimer Retreat oohed and aahed over her saying "she's so awesome!" I think so too. All in all, she's turned out to be a great find and though I'll miss Rita, I'll also feel better about tear-assing up mountains and not driving a stake through her little V-6 heart. If I had killed that motorhome, I'd have felt like a total heel. Imua is a warrior of a different sort and she's up for the challenge that this new year of touring will bring. One thing is certain. I wasn't cheap when it came to maintaining Rita and I won't be cheap with Imua either. Cheap may save you money on the front-side, but it's going to rear up and bite you in the ass somewhere down the road. I don't get why businesses insist on being cheap to increase their bottom line. It smacks of disrespect for the customer and leaves way too much to chance. The other employees of El Monte were all wonderful through this whole ordeal; maybe they understand, having worked with this particular manager. I was nice and patient throughout and sensed that they were rooting for me, in spite of what this guy had to say.
So, she had a rough start with me; Imua. But she's earned her name in the past few weeks and I do believe now that we are destined to "go forward with grace."