It's an inconvenience, but you really do have to maintain your car if you want it to work well, burn fuel efficiently and stay clear of costly repairs. But what kind of facility should service your car? There's always the service department at the dealership, but you know it'll probably cost you an arm and a leg. There's also Joe's Garage — right down the street, but can you trust them to do the job right?
Although most people assume that new and used car sales are the big moneymakers, the service industry is no small potatoes: Service repairs for 2004 are forecasted at almost $137 billion in the U.S. alone, according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association. Of this, $61.6 billion is labor, and $75.2 billion is for parts and chemicals.
So where to go? Below we've outlined some of the pros and cons of the dealers versus the corner garage. Bear in mind that "corner garage" means small, independent repair shops, not the chains like Midas, Jiffy Lube, Meineke or Pep Boys. Those chains, which often specialize on one "area" of the car, fall in a middle ground between the Big Boy dealerships and the mom-and-pop repair shops.
The technicians at the dealer level are specialists; they are manufacturer-trained and typically work exclusively on your make of vehicle. Most dealers have an ongoing training program for the service staff, which includes not only the service technicians but also the service manager, advisors and support staff. The manufacturers offer these training programs only to their network of dealers. The dealers typically pay for these programs to keep up with the latest vehicle enhancements and repair techniques.
A manufacturer-trained and experienced technician is one of the dealers' biggest assets, so dealers typically offer higher salaries or other incentives in order to recruit and retain these employees. Of course, these costs are passed on to the customer in the form of higher labor rates.
This is not to say that the dealers always have the best technicians. Many independent repair facilities are started by previous dealer employees who want to operate their own repair store. Once on their own, they can continue to stay current with the latest repair advancements by taking classes and getting certified through the (Automotive Service Excellence). Many technicians are both manufacturer- and A.S.E.-certified, so don't be afraid to ask about their certifications.
Although A.S.E. training is less "make" specific than the manufacturer's training, the technicians at these facilities can be just as expert in their knowledge, depending on their experience. There are many shops that specialize in only one make (especially European makes) and so can be trusted to know their stuff. Other shops that deal with a variety of makes may specialize less, but can be terrific if you have more than one make of car, want one-stop shopping and prefer to see the same faces each visit.
There is nothing more important than a competent mechanic, and you won't get to know your mechanic unless you go to a small garage. Smaller facilities allow for more personal relationships between car owner and repair facility personnel. You are able to get to know your mechanic (among others) by name. He (or she) may become very familiar with your vehicle and anticipate issues or problems down the road.
At dealerships, you're often just a number on a computer printout, and you most likely won't even meet the mechanic. Particularly at larger dealerships, you'll have no idea who is working on your car, what his experience is or if the same mechanic will ever work on your car again. Recommendations for the future will probably be confined to whatever is on the manufacturer's or the dealer's own maintenance schedule and will be made by a service advisor. Although many service advisors know plenty about the vehicles they handle, keep in mind that their role is more that of a salesman than an expert mechanic, so it is not unusual for problem descriptions and diagnostic information to get lost in translation. And since they usually work on commission, service advisors have an obvious incentive to get you to spend more money. This is not to say that service advisors can never be trusted to make recommendations about maintenance or repairs that your car might require, but as a consumer, you should be wary of any high-pressure tactics.
The one-on-one relationship between driver and mechanic that smaller repair shops foster can really help consumers have confidence in both the work that's performed and in the vehicle itself. Local mechanics are more willing to help you understand how your car performs and what it needs. You can ask to look under the hood or the chassis with your local mechanic, and perhaps learn something about what goes where or why a service needs to be performed. A dealer service technician may also be willing to go over particular trouble spots with you, but your access to him depends on your rapport with your service advisor and how busy the dealership is.
Location and Convenience
Repair shops are often in more easily accessible locations than the dealers — as in the proverbial "corner" garage. You might have dozens of small shops to choose from on the drive that stretches between your home and your dealership. Chances are, if the repair or service that you need isn't major, it's a lot more convenient to drive a short way to your neighborhood repair shop than it is to go to the dealer, especially if you need to leave your car for servicing. Of course, if your car needs repairs covered by its manufacturer warranty, or is backed by a complimentary maintenance plan, then it's worth it to drive the extra distance. Further, most dealer service departments will provide a shuttle back to your office or home, provided it's no farther than five miles or so. And many luxury-brand dealers will go the extra mile, providing consumers with loaner cars to drive while warranty work is being performed. Often, these loaners are pulled from cars that are on the dealer's lot (so that, for example, Lexus owners can be given another Lexus to drive while theirs is out of commission). Some dealerships contract with rental car companies; although you may be given a less prestigious loaner to drive, it is transportation nonetheless.
Guarantee on the Work
What about warranties? There the advantage definitely goes to the dealer. First, a dealer will perform repairs for free if your car is still under warranty. Dealers are paid by the manufacturers to perform this service and require the service technician to verify the problem, so you might find that dealers are hesitant to perform warranty work for problems they have difficulty substantiating. Even if you have to pay for repairs outside the warranty period, dealers can back up their repairs with a warranty that is good nationwide. Thus, if the repair doesn't hold, it can be fixed free of charge at any other dealer.
The dealers can also offer manufacturer-backed extended warranties for both new and used vehicle purchases. The manufacturer-backed extended warranties can make service easier because there is a large network of available dealers; this is especially important if you plan on moving or do a lot of traveling in your vehicle. Small shops can offer warranties on service or repairs, but may not offer the same length of coverage or may cover only the parts or the labor, but not both. And if you travel with your vehicle, your warranty may be worthless wherever it is your car decides to give you trouble.
Dealership owners, or principals, have to pay vehicle manufacturers in order to work under their banner. Since they represent the manufacturer, service departments are required to measure up to corporate standards of customer satisfaction as part of the deal. In fact, customers are often surveyed by the manufacturer or the dealership to measure their satisfaction and (in theory, at least) to handle any unresolved issues. Dealer service departments know that if you're angry with their service, you'll complain to the manufacturer, and that would be bad news for them. Truth is, some dealerships are truly more concerned with keeping "corporate" happy than their customers, and it shows.
Local repair shops, on the other hand, report to no one but you. And since they're smaller, corner garages depend on repeat business and word of mouth to keep a steady stream of customers. They know that a happy customer will tell a friend, but an unhappy one will tell 10 friends. Because you are more apt to know the owner and/or his mechanics personally and may even be part of the same local community, small shops can't really afford to blow you off. They know that friends ask each other for recommendations.
Recalls and Service Bulletins
Dealer service departments have a distinct advantage when it comes to manufacturer recalls and technical service bulletins. If you've moved since you first bought your car, or if the manufacturer simply doesn't have your correct address on file, you may have no clue there's an open recall on your car. Most dealers will automatically check for recalls when you come in for service — corner garages do not have any such direct link with a particular manufacturer. In addition, recalls often require revised parts and can only be performed by a dealer.
Technical service bulletins, which are essentially special messages sent by a manufacturer to a dealer service department detailing a repair or special procedure for particular problems, are usually for dealer service eyes only. Anyone can order copies of the bulletins, including your corner garage, but obtaining them can be time-consuming and bulletins may be too numerous or too vehicle-specific to make it a feasible investment for them. For example, your car may be making a particular clunking sound that the corner garage can't figure out, but the dealer may have already received a bulletin from the manufacturer detailing the problem and how to fix it.
Parts Quality and Price
Manufacturers and their dealers offer only OE (Original Equipment) parts, which represent a standard of quality and engineering that only the manufacturer can authorize. A 12-month/12,000-mile warranty on parts and labor for repairs and/or service is not uncommon at the dealer level. Many manufacturers offer some of the best warranties in the business on not only the parts but also the dealer's labor to install those parts. But while dealers can offer only OE parts, small repair shops can offer OE or aftermarket parts, which are meant to substitute for the OE part. The advantage of aftermarket parts is that, like generic prescription drugs, they are supposed to perform the same function for a lot less money. There are times, though, when aftermarket parts are inferior to OE parts. By law, if you request OE parts from any repair shop, they are obliged to provide them. So you have the choice at small shops — go with OE parts, or save the money. Depending on what you choose, you may have to wait for a part that's not in stock.
For performance-oriented car owners, small shops provide a unique advantage in that some of them will modify your vehicle to your specifications. Many of these types of shops specialize in a certain make or model of vehicle and often know it better than the dealer technicians, especially when it comes to performance modifications. Although dealers have historically stayed away from customization and performance upgrades, this is starting to change in response to increased consumer interest in the aftermarket. A number of manufacturers now offer performance upgrade kits that can be purchased from and installed by their dealers. Although serious enthusiasts are still apt to find smaller shops the better way to go when it comes to getting maximum performance for their money, dealer retrofits offer a quick and easy route to more performance, while giving you the assurance that none of the modifications will void your car's factory warranty.
Dealers do have a distinct advantage when it comes to facilities. Dealers get manufacturers' assistance with start-up costs and equipment. They get first dibs on any of the manufacturers' newly developed service tools, specifications and, as noted above, recall and service bulletins. That way, the manufacturer keeps the latest information on new cars and the hardware to best service them "in-house," at least for awhile. (This translates to keeping your money in-house, as well.)
Size also matters. Dealers usually have larger facilities and that means more service bays are available to accommodate customers. This can, but doesn't always, translate to quicker turnaround time. You may find it more difficult to get prompt service at large, busy dealerships, especially if you go in without an appointment.
Dealer facilities are often cleaner, more organized and better maintained than smaller shops. At a dealer facility, you may find a waiting room, clean bathrooms, a place to buy car accessories, even the availability of drinks, snacks and television. They may even wash your car before returning it to you. This can make the overall experience a lot more pleasurable.
So how can small repair shops compete with dealers on facilities? The short answer is: They can't. But since smaller shops incur far less overhead costs than dealer facilities, they can charge you less. Often a lot less. The other thing to keep in mind is that although smaller shops may have fewer service bays, they are sometimes able to provide faster service on shorter notice. Whereas your car may be in line behind a dozen others at a dealer service department, the slower pace at independent shops may permit the mechanic to address your needs right away.
Price of Labor
Everything else being equal, sending your car to a dealer for service would be an easy decision, because dealers have a lot in their corner. But it's not equal. Price stands out as the biggest advantage that small shops have over dealerships. Depending on your budget, that can outweigh any and all advantages the dealer has to offer. The overhead at dealer service departments — the nice facilities, trained technician, additional personnel and so on — translates into a higher labor rate per hour — roughly $15-$20 per hour higher, and sometimes more — than that of independent facilities. It isn't difficult to find a huge disparity in parts price markup as well. This means your total bill with a dealer could be significantly more than a small garage, though exactly how much will depend on the kind of service you need and the individual garages you visit. Of course, if your car is still under warranty or is covered by a free maintenance plan, you could end up paying nothing for your visit to a dealer service department. Just make sure to confirm what's covered and what's not before signing off on your service advisor's estimate.
If you do decide that dealer service is what you want, get your name on the dealer's service mailing list. You will get a certain amount of junk mail, but some of that will include coupons for significant discounts on maintenance and service. If you decide to go with a smaller shop instead, look for places nearby that specialize in your vehicle's make; then ask them about prices, certifications and warranties. Finally, no matter what type of service shop you're contemplating, it can't hurt to ask friends for recommendations or to check the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been complaints filed. At least this way you'll know that, no matter what you choose, you won't get taken for a ride.