Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Are KIA's Easier to Steal Than Other Cars? No, Not Really

Older cars with key-type ignitions are quite easy to steal.

Years ago, my Dad, in one of his rarer moods, decided to buy a Land Rover.  No, no, not some "Range Rover" luxury SUV, but a 1970's-era Land Rover, with a four-cylinder gas engine, bench seating for nine people, and a four-on-the-floor.  He wanted to use it to plow snow, but it wasn't really suited for that.  He ended up selling it a year later.

In the interim, being teenagers, we wanted to take it for a spin.  Of course, Dad hid the keys, as he realized my older brother was a destroyer of cars.  I recounted before how he had an old '65 Wagoneer, and my brother drove it 70 miles an hour with every light on the dashboard lit.  Seems it was four quarts low on oil.  That old overhead-cam six was quite an engine, but it didn't last long in my brother's hands.

So my brother says to me, "You're good with cars, can you hotwire this thing?"  And I did, and it was pathetically easy to do.

Back then, we had ignition column locks, but foreign makers sort of cheated on it.  While Ford, GM, and Chrysler had a column lock that was built into the steering wheel (but could be defeated with a slide hammer, if you knew how, and had a screwdriver to turn the lock cylinder) most foreign manufacturers simply bolted a key lock to the column, covered by a clamshell of plastic attached with three or four phillips-head screws.

I carefully unscrewed the plastic cover and then unbolted the lock from the column.  Land Rover conveniently provided a tool kit for this purpose.  It was a weird vehicle.  You could remove the center seat cushion and open a door to access the transmission and transfer case, should you decide to check those fluid levels. In the back, it had two facing rear bench seats that could conceivbly seat six.  And of course, it was made of aluminum - which tended to cause the steel frames to rust, but that's the subject of a class-action suit.

Once I had the key lock removed from the steering column, it was a simple matter of jumpering the ignition to "ON" and then sparking the correct wire to get the starter solenoid to kick in.   So we joy-rided the thing around and had fun and then put it back where we found it and I reassembled the steering column lock.   Dad was never the wiser.   Sometimes it is best if parents don't know.

Years later, I would own a number of "foreign" cars and they would be as easy to steal.  My 1988 Toyota Camry had the same setup - a kid with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers could steal the car in a matter of minutes.  Ditto for the Suzuki Samurai I (briefly) owned.  A Lesbian couple in my apartment complex had one, and indeed, it was stolen by a 14-year-old kid.  When arrested, his Mother professed ignorance of how he came into the car.  She thought he bought it from a friend, she said.  Yea, right.

Mark's Volkswagen GTI was the same way - easy to steal, once you broke in - and in fact, it was stolen at the beach.  The thieves were kind enough to bring it back to nearly the same site!  So back then, people bought these anti-theft devices, like "The Club" or the "Cane."  The former attached to the steering wheel and prevented it from turning, so even if you hotwired the car, you could not steer.  The "cane" attached to the steering wheel and either the clutch or brake pedal, so you could not steer or brake, if you hotwired the car.

Of course, thieves (or teenagers, same thing) were one step ahead of the game.  Most steering wheels will bend quite a bit, so it was easy to remove the "cane" if you bent the wheel.  Manufacturers responded with canes that wrapped around with a loop - which was harder to install, but avoided the bending trick.  Thieves escalated the game by simply cutting the steering wheel with a bolt cutter and removing the anti-theft device.   And yes, still others just tried to drive the car with the device in place, making only 1/4 turns of the steering wheel.  Sort of like driving around with a parking "boot" attached to your tire - a recipe for an accident.

Of course, these devices deterred only amateur joy-riders.  Professional thieves can steal a car no matter what.  If a car is worthwhile stealing, they will just flat-bed it to their chop-shop and take all the usable parts out of it.  For many expensive marques, the resale value of the parts is more than the car is worth as a whole.  And since it was stolen, pure profit.   So the idea that you can stop any thief, any time, from stealing your car, is just foolishness.

Of course, by the 1990's, a new trend started - the carjacking.  Thieves got tired of hot-wiring cars and defeating alarm systems.  So they just stuck a gun in your face and said, "get out of the car" and you had to think quick whether the hassle of filing an insurance claim was worth more than your life.

Of course, the ultimate anti-theft device is to own a car not worth stealing.   That may deter the chop-shop thieves, but the joy-riders may still steal your jalopy, regardless.

Recently, much ink has been spilled on how easy it is to steal KIA vehicles with a "USB Cable" as illustrated on "Tick-Tock Challenge" videos (why haven't we banned Tick-Tock already?  Between these and "prank, bro!" videos, nothing good has come of it).   For some reason, they make a big deal (or the press does) about using a USB cable, but I think any old wire will do, to jumper the ignition to "ON" as I did with Dad's Land Rover.  I guess kids have USB cables in their backpacks, so it is handy.

Some KIA's (and I guess Hyundai's) with keyed ignitions can be hot-wired this way.  So can a lot of other, older cars, with key-ignitions.  The reason why KIAs are being singled out is that there was this meme created by these Tick-Tock videos, with step-by-step instructions, which makes it easier for teenage thieves to figure this out.  My brother, for example, would never have figured out how to hotwire the Land Rover, as he has no mechanical/electrical skills like baby brother.  There was a reason they kept me around.  That, and my paper-route money would buy a lot of dollar pitchers of beer back then (It was a different world, I was served in bars at age 15).  But I digress.

The most basic KIA models still have key ignitions, although they are getting harder to come by.   Ours has all the options (the "whole shebang!" package, they call it, I-kid-you-not) so it has a key fob and pushbutton start, which I guess is a lot harder to foil on a moment's notice. But the keyed-kind, well, they are right out of 1988.

And of course, the King Ranch has a similar fob system.  But our 2013 Nissan Frontier had a very primitive keyed ignition, and while I never tried it, I am sure it would not be too hard to defeat, if you had the time and patience.  Funny thing, our 2002 BMW X5 had a code in the key head (which was also the fob) which was read when you stuck the key in the ignition - this deactivated the "immobilizer" that could cut off all power to the car. Of course, in the process of installing a new navigation system, I realized the vaunted "immobilizer" was little more than a massive relay in the spare tire compartment, that could be jumpered around with a jumper cable, or the output wire from it could simply be bolted to the input wire.  There is always a workaround.  But I digress, again.

KIA has noticed this trend and the negative publicity. They are offering free "club" type anti-theft devices to people with keyed ignition systems.  You can apply for one online, even.  But you will need your car's VIN number and the "offer code" that comes with the letter you should receive.  Oddly enough, their site claimed my car had a keyed ignition and not a push-button start fob.  Weird.

I digress again, but if the batteries on your fob die,  you can unlock the car with the hidden key in the fob.  The car may even start if you place the fob over the pushbutton and press down.  Apparently, the button will read an RFID code in the fob.  Expert tip:  Figure out what kind of batteries your fob takes and buy a half-dozen of them on eBay and keep them in the glove box.  Bonus tip:  Keep the fob more than 20 feet away from the car when not in use, as the batteries will run down from constantly "talking" to the car.  Also, your trunk or tailgate may open to thieves if your fob is kept nearby!  But I digress yet again.

So why did KIA put a keyed ignition in cars in recent times?  Well, it was a cost thing.  The KIA Soul, for example, was sold for as little as $15,000 new (back in the day) with a six-speed manual, manual windows, and a steel top.  You could option it up (as I did) to include things like leather interior, panoramic sunroof, Infinity sound system with a huge subwoofer and so on and so forth.  Most cars had the pushbutton start.  But many people wanted a "simple, inexpensive" car and KIA had one for them, in the form of the stripped Soul.

And for folks like my friend, who lives in rural Maine, it works just fine.  Not much car theft up there.  A teenager who wanders into someone's yard to steal a car could expect to be on the receiving end of a shotgun, which hopefully is only charged with rock salt.  Most of these "Tick-Tock" challenges are in the inner-city ghettos or in the suburbs filled with bored teenagers.

I noted before that GM, Ford, and Chrylser had their locks built-in to the steering column.  This was a better solution, but as the opening credits of Gone in 60 Seconds (the original, not the lame remake) illustrate, a simple slide-hammer can be used to "pull" the lock cylinder and a new cylinder (and key) inserted - or even a screwdriver - and you can drive away.   There is no such thing as a theft-proof car.

Kudos to KIA, however, for offering these free anti-theft devices.  They have also given them away to Police departments to give to citizens who may be affected.  Now, some may argue, "Well, they just went to key ignition to save a few bucks!" and that is true - so they could offer an inexpensive and more affordable model at the bottom of the range (hence, most of these thefts are in poor areas).  The locking system is really no different than the one in my Dad's 1970's Land Rover, my 1987 Samurai, Mark's 1986 GTI or my 1988 Carmy - or indeed, even my 2013 Frontier SV.   You don't see people making Tick-Tock videos about those cars or the plethora of others with similar systems.  But of course, you'd have to know about the wiring code colors on another brand of car, unless some helpful Tick-Tocker made a video for you to follow.

KIA has also had an issue with some engines failing.   In some cases, the engines overheated to the point where they caught fire - but you'd have to really work at that.  You'd have to be like my brother, driving around with all the dashboard lights on, saying, "the lights must be broken or something!"   No, he was not the brightest light-bulb on the chandelier - or the dashboard for that matter.

Another bonus tip:  When you turn the ignition "ON" the dashboard lights usually come on, to show they are working.  Indeed, with the ignition "ON" and the engine "OFF" the oil pressure is zero and the battery is at 13V, so both alternator and oil pressure lights should be on.  Once the car starts, these lights go off.  If a light doesn't light when you first turn on the ignition, the bulb is out.  Of course, in modern cars, with LED lighting, this is less of an issue.  But my brother's idiotic mantra of "the light must be broken" is just stupid.  If the light is OFF it may be broken, but ON?  If it's on, you have problems.  I digress, yet again.

KIA's engine problem started, apparently, when someone didn't torque down the connecting rods to the correct torque.  All it takes is one badly calibrated torque wrench on the assembly line, and hundreds if not thousands of engines might go down the line without the bolts properly torqued.   Since you don't know which engines out of millions are affected, how do you recall the cars to "fix" this?  Pulling the oil pans on a million cars on the premise that one-in-a-thousand might have a loose bolt is problematic.

So, KIA reprogrammed the knock sensor (a simple piezoelectric device) to detect the characteristic noise made by a loose connecting rod.  If the check engine light goes off, the owner can take it to a KIA dealer for a free repair.  And they extended the engine warranty to 15 years and 150,000 miles, which should do us right for another seven years.  Yes, the hamster is now eight years old and amazingly only has 36,000 miles on the odometer.

What got me started on this was three pieces of mail I received today.  One from KIA "customer satisfaction" advising me of this free anti-theft device offer.  Two were from a class-action settlement, which extended the warranty from a previous extension (10 years, 100,000 miles) and also offered to reimburse people whose cars died or caught fire.

Of course, one wonders why they had a class-action suit in the first place, as I received a recall notice from KIA years ago, to reprogram the knock sensor software and extend the engine warranty.  I guess we get another five years now.  KIA previously offered to repair or replace cars that caught fire or had engines seize.  So I guess we get the same deal, but a lawyer now takes a cut.

This is, of course, in stark contrast to the old days of "secret" or "hidden warranties."  My Mother's 1973 Vega only lasted about 65,000 miles (my brother strikes again!) as the engine seized due to overheating (and the brain-trust said, "the light must be broken!").  By then, both front fenders had rusted through, which was common when GM removed the fender liners from the car to cut costs in the wake of the 1972 strike. If you asked nicely, GM was secretly installing and painting fenders (and putting in fender liners) on cars, but only if you knew about it and made noise with the zone office.  It was like the THM250 transmission deal.  Long out of warranty, GM made repairs and covered some or all of the cost.  I've read that GM rebuilt or replaced some Vega engines too.

But back then, it was a secret deal for those in-the-know, original owners only, and the companies just hoped that most people would just figure they got a "lemon" and move on (to the Toyota dealer, if they were smart!).   By making these warranties "secret" they could save repair costs - but the damage to the reputation of the marque is just as costly.

So, kudos to KIA to addressing this head-on, even before the class-action suit (which enriches only lawyers, not the class-holders).

It has been the perfect little car for us.

As for the hamster, I guess we'll keep it another seven years until the warranty expires.  It will probably have 50,000 miles on it at that point!  I do have to buy new tires for it, though.  Eight years is a long time, and they are developing flat spots and dry rot.  So this fall, we will re-shod the old gal!  KIA already replaced the wheels under warranty when the clearcoat started to peel.  They have stood behind their product, unlike some other companies (Cough, Ford, Cough!).

Funny thing, Ford once owned KIA, before they sold their stake to Hyundai.   Shoulda kept it!