Is it time for a tune-up? Car won't start? Need a new water pump, or just an oil change? Welcome to the joys of car maintenance and repairs.
Next up is the question that car owners have been asking themselves since ... well, since cars became our most common means of transportation: "Should I take it to the dealer, or go to an independent repair shop?"
Conventional wisdom reminds you that dealerships boast that their technicians are trained professionals with expertise in maintaining and repairing specific brands of cars. At the same time, conventional wisdom also tells you that independent shops are less expensive.
Perhaps the latest findings on the topic from Consumer Reports magazine will help. According to a recent survey of car owners by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 71 percent of the survey respondents who took their vehicle only to independent shops for repair service (as opposed to routine maintenance) were "very satisfied" with their experience. That compares to 53 percent of those who only took their vehicles to new-car dealerships for repairs and claimed to be "very satisfied" with the experience.
While that's an "overall satisfaction gap" of 18 percentage points, the numbers vary dramatically from brand to brand, explains Jim Travers, Consumer Reports' associate auto editor. Among dealers, Acura and Lexus tended to generate the most satisfying repair experiences. Meanwhile, pulling up the rear, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi owners were less satisfied with their dealers' repair service than owners of other brands.
The satisfaction gap between independent shops and dealerships dropped considerably when the topic turned to routine maintenance, as opposed to repairs -- "probably because repairs can be more costly, more complicated", said Travers -- and, often, more annoying, than simple maintenance.
For the repair category, Consumer Reports gathered data based on almost 100,000 vehicles taken to new-car dealers and almost 46,000 vehicles taken to independent shops in the 12 months prior to the spring, 2007 survey. For the maintenance-only satisfaction category, CR weighed data based on 286,000 service visits to new car dealerships and 94,000 service visits to independent mechanics during those same 12 months.
Travers said he wasn't necessarily surprised by the 71 to 53 percent satisfaction gap, but noted that "many respondents told us they got better and more personal service from the independent shops than from the dealers." That was surprising, he said, since so many dealers stress customer service as a top priority.
"People also mentioned that they felt like, when they went to dealers, that they were getting up-sold on services they didn't need, and that the cost was higher at the dealership as well," Travers said. That first bit of data is probably not surprising, given the other bit of conventional wisdom that is actually true: Dealers make a higher percentage of profit from parts and service than they do from new-car sales.
"The results of this survey seem to indicate that the overall rate of satisfaction was a combination of both the cost of the service and the quality of the service experience," said Travers.
But let's look at some more numbers and brands.
Focusing exclusively on the repair side, 72 percent of Lexus owners reported that they were "very satisfied" with the job done by an independent mechanic, while 64 percent of Lexus owners reported a similarly satisfying experience with a dealership. And 74 percent of Acura owners reported that they were "very satisfied" with an independent repair shop, compared to 64 percent of Acura owners who were "very satisfied" with the job their dealer mechanics did.
In the repair category, that 64 percent figure -- shared by Lexus and Acura -- represented the highest satisfaction rate when it came to the job done by the dealerships. There was a three-way tie for third place, with 61 percent of Scion, Buick and Cadillac owners reporting that they were "very satisfied" with their dealership experience. (By comparison, 75 percent of Buick owners and 74 percent of Cadillac reported a very satisfying repair experience with independent shops. CR noted that they had insufficient data for Scion owners' level of satisfaction with independent shops.)
At the bottom of the dealership-repair-satisfaction list, 42 percent of VW owners reported being "very satisfied" with the dealership repair experience, while 71 percent of them reported that level of satisfaction with independent shops. Right above VW owners, in second-to-to-last place, were Mitsubishi owners, whose numbers were 42 percent and 69 percent, respectively.
As mentioned, there was a much smaller satisfaction gap when it came to routine maintenance, as opposed to repairs. Indeed, in a couple of cases, the dealers earned higher marks than the independent shops on the maintenance front: 83 percent of Lexus owners said they were "very satisfied" with the job their dealer did, compared to 82 percent who were similarly satisfied by independent shops. And with Acura owners, those numbers were 79 and 78 percent, respectively. In last place, with the biggest satisfaction gap in this routine-maintenance category, were Kia owners -- 62 percent compared to 76 percent, respectively.
Consumer Reports followed up with many of the respondents and asked them specific questions and reported their responses. For example, the CR study quoted one respondent, Philip LaBella, of Stockerton, Pa., as saying that, "When I first moved to the area, I went to the dealer, and I felt I was told I needed a lot of work that wasn't necessary." But when he took his 2003 Jeep Liberty and 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue to an independent shop, LaBella said he was told things like "This is what you need. Maybe you can wait on that."
Another respondent, Michael Burandt, of Cleveland, reported that he was not happy with the experience he had when taking his 2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser to a dealership. "I think they charge a really high rate compared to other places," he said, adding that, while he now goes to independent shops for repairs, he still goes to the dealership for recall or warranty work.
"That's definitely something we suggest," Travers said, "to continue going to a dealership for warranty work and anything having to do with a recall."
Based on the results of the survey, said Travers, Consumer Reports offers the following tips in order to ensure satisfaction when it comes to auto repairs and service:
1) Shop around. Service prices can vary dramatically, even among dealerships of the same make.
2) Check your manual. When taking in your car for routine maintenance, use your owner's manual to see which services need to be performed at specific mileage intervals. Make sure the dealer or shop doesn't add extras to pad the bill.
3) Get a quote. Don't allow a shop to do any work without you first approving an estimate for the job.
4) When a dealer is best. Go to a dealer for warranty repairs, recalls, and "service campaigns," in which the automaker offers to correct a defect. Also consider a dealer for a system that's exclusive to the car's brand -- especially electronics.
5) Look for a specialist. Independent shops that specialize in your vehicle's make are more likely to have the proper training and equipment.
6) Does the shop get updates? Make sure the shop gets the automaker's service bulletins, which tell mechanics how to fix common problems with a model.
7) Be specific. Tell the service writer or mechanic when the problem started, whether it happens only in certain conditions, and any associated noises, smells, or vibrations.