Automotive Repair Facilities: How to Choose The Best One

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Before you can begin to choose where to take your car to be fixed, you need to have some idea as to what the problem is. Are you having trouble with the brakes? The front end? The electrical system? How about if the engine is running rough? To diagnose these problems yourself, turn to the appropriate sections on these areas located elsewhere in the guide.

Once you’ve determined the area of repair, the next question you’re faced with is where to take it. Provided it’s not a roadside emergency, where you are at the mercy of the nearest facility, there are an over whelming number of choices. One flip through your Yellow Pages or Google and you’ll see what I mean. Which one should you go to? Should you go to the dealership, the department store, the big parts chain? How about one of those quick stops? Maybe you should go to a “specialist?” How do you choose?

That’s a tough one to call. I can’t make the choice for you, but I can give you a breakdown on each type of repair facility, how they are structured, and what types of repairs they are generally best for. I will also outline how most of these repair facilities charge for their parts and services. Why is this important? Because how a mechanic and service manager are paid often determines the extent of their honesty. If you were paid a certain percentage of every new part you were able to sell, what would you do? It’s a good question, one that tests the morality of all mechanics paid on a “bonus and commission” scale. Some pass the test, many don’t.

THE DEPARTMENT STORE

I used to be mystified as to why the department store ever became involved in the auto repair industry in the first place -- until I worked for one. After some experimentation, many department store chains have come to learn that certain types of convenient repair are highly profitable, and for the most part, can be fixed while a customer shops (and spends money) in the store. Most of the chains have narrowed down their services to areas that are profitable for them, and not beyond their area of technical expertise. Because of aggressive competition, and because of their volume, many a good deal can be found at the department store chain.

THE GOOD DEAL

Though department stores will recommend and push parts with their name first because of higher profit margins, many offer quality name brands at bargain prices. The problem is you have to ask for them, otherwise you’ll get their generic brand. Then again, be advised that most of the advertised specials they offer are only good if you use their parts, and not “the other guy’s.” You’ll have to decide which is more important to you and your car—saving a few bucks or spending a few more.

In all fairness, however, many of the generic brands are quite good. A case in point is the Sears Die-Hard battery, arguably the best battery available anywhere.

Because of their size, department stores can offer tune-ups and brake specials that can save customers hundreds of dollars over some private repair shops. This is because they purchase in quantity, and their higher volume allows them to operate on a narrower profit margin than many specialty repair shops. That’s the best case. There is another side to this as well.

WHAT THEY DON’T DO

Most department stores don’t handle any type of major engine over haul. This would include valve jobs, timing chains, oil pumps, engine seals (front and rear main) and other internal components. Nor will they be eager to do any transmission work, flywheel or clutch replacement. Also rule out the department store for any type of electrical work.

All of these areas involve a vast amount of specific knowledge and specific parts for each type of car. The probability of a foul-up is greatly increased. Mistakes made with repairs on internal mechanisms are extremely costly, especially in the time/labor department. Also, many department stores refuse to work on “exotic” imports, such as Porsches, BMWs, Ferraris and Jaguars.

CAUTION

Department stores may not carry the long exhaust pipes and special mufflers for every type of car around, especially imports. What does this mean? It means they would often have to order the part from a dealer or special source—driving up the price of the part. Ask if they have your muffler in stock before you sign the repair order. For complete exhaust system replacement, a muffler shop would be the better choice since their parts availability is much better, although there are exceptions to this rule as well For more on that, turn to section 5.

RATES

Some department stores have a “clock in, clock out” method of determining invoice and job prices. The mechanics simply punch a time card at the beginning of each job, then punch out. This is to determine the total labor time spent on the vehicle.

This method does foster honesty among the mechanics. Most repair jobs take about the same time in the hands of most mechanics. In this fashion the costs stay relatively uniform, and if a tire balance that normally takes 1 hour suddenly takes 3 hours, then something is wrong. How can you know what takes what time? Just ask the service manager when he writes up your ticket to see his flat rate manual, which lists the times for jobs. Then you’ll have something to compare it to when you get the actual invoice.

With this system, the mechanics and service managers are usually paid a flat rate, without a commission on parts or extra labor. There fore, these guys have nothing further to gain by overcharging you for their services or by overselling parts.

However, the majority of department stores operate on a commission bonus system, whereupon the mechanics earn extra money off of parts and services they sell above a certain quota. This method of payment can lead to dishonest practices.

BEST FOR REPAIRS

Since we’ve discussed some areas the department stores shy away from, it's only fair to list the ones in which they excel, with a few cautions.

Tires—Department stores buy quality brand-name tires by the gross. Either that, or their own brand-name tires are manufactured by one of the big tire makers anyway. Ask the salesman who manufactures the tire for them. It could be the same tire as the one that costs $20 more, only with the store’s name on it.

The inventory is voluminous and they stock tires for every make automobile and truck. They usually offer special, package deals that include free alignment, balance and installation with the purchase of new tires. Furthermore, the department store tire warranty is usually excellent.

CAUTION

Be forewarned that the extent of the tune-up may be limited (for what constitutes a minor or major tune-up, go to section 9). A department store’s expertise when dealing with exotic or many foreign makes is questionable. High-performance foreign sports cars are likely to scramble the brain of a department store “R and R” mechanic. They seldom have the experience or technical repair manuals from which to perform the task. This is due to the new and sophisticated carburetor and fuel-injection systems and electronic engine control systems on many of today’s newer cars.

Batteries—Although the battery is definitely part of the electrical system, this is about as far as a department store will delve into this gray area. Most department store batteries are sold at very competitive prices. As with the tires, the warranty/guarantee furnished with batteries is outstanding and often includes an agreement to provide a trade-in exchange, which discounts the new battery price more. Courtesy inspections on these products are frequently performed at no cost to the customer. Costs on batteries vary with the type of warranty offered. Some are for life, some are for five years and some are for three years. If you drive a clunker destined for the junkyard within three years, or are going to trade in your used car for a new one soon, it wouldn’t make much sense to purchase an expensive battery guaranteed for life, right?

Exhaust—Their exhaust work is thorough and they-are quite cap able of performing the work. There is nothing substandard about their pipes, mufflers, resonators, or hangers. However, according to a recent survey by a leading consumer magazine, department stores overshot their muffler and exhaust repair estimates by an average of 10 percent.

Shocks and Front End—Front-end parts are usually a bargain as long as the work involved is limited to simple items like shock absorbers. For more specific front end work, like bushings, anti-roll bars, springs, tie-rods, etc., you’d be wise to go elsewhere. For more on front end work, turn to section 7.

Tune-Ups—In general, most tune-up prices are grossly out of sight, but department stores are still a good bargain for a minor tune-up. Many of their coupon tune-up specials are the lowest in the industry. They do enough of them to be proficient and thorough, and they often have state-of-the-art equipment.

CAUTION

Don’t get a coolant system flush and replacement from a department store unless they have a wall-mounted forward/back flush pump machine. You know you’ve been had if you catch the mechanic shoving a hose into your radiator and letting the water run. You could do as much at home. You need a good high-pressure forward and back flush which includes your car heater lines and reservoir—also a pressure check to see that your coolant system does not leak.

Transmissions—A transmission service? Fine, as long as it’s limited to a fluid change, new gasket and filter or cartridge replacement. It is a simple task similar to a routine oil change only it's for the transmission. Most of the stores stock the most popular service kits and the mechanics are skilled enough to provide this service. Insist on a good quality, major brand name fluid. Other than this, forget it. Most department stores are not qualified to disassemble and repair a sophisticated manual or automatic transmission. You’re better off going to a specialty shop for this.

Brakes—Brakes are a major repair area for department stores. They stock nearly all of the brake shoes, brake pads and hanging hardware. Their prices for a two- or four-wheel service are very competitive and specials are always in evidence, usually run on a bi-weekly basis. Their best amenity for a standard brake job is low labor cost because they sell the service as a parts and labor package, instead of charging individually for parts and labor.

Cooling System—Department stores can do a great water pump swap. They do enough of them to be proficient, and their prices are nearly always better than a radiator shop’s. Water pumps are relatively inexpensive compared to the labor charge required to install them. Hose and thermostat replacement are also very reasonable since most stores stock generic thermostats and radiator pressure caps. They carry bulk heater hose line on spools in all sizes, as well as pre-molded radiator hoses.

The Little Stuff—Windshield wipers, seal beams (headlights), tail light bulbs, inner tube and tire repair, fan belt replacement, oil changes and other smaller areas of knick-knack repair, are handled quite easily by department stores. Air conditioning evacuation and recharge is a common service provided by department stores and can be handled by most of the personnel, including the “general service” type mechanics.

CAUTION

Some of the most disastrous mistakes I have ever seen have been made in the area of brake repair by an “R and R” department store mechanic. However, some of the best deals and finest jobs are also in evidence. This is a very technical and sensitive area, not to mention that it plays a very important role in the area of safety. If you do decide to have the department store do the brake job, make certain that the man who performs the work is fully certified. Most shops have several people who have gone through some special training and are certified to do brakes—but not all employees are qualified to do so. Just mention to the service manager during the write-up that you want to make sure that a brake certified mechanic will be doing the job.

THE DEALERSHIP

For many years, the place most people automatically went to have their car fixed was right where they bought it—at the dealer. Not so anymore. Increased competition has taken away much of the dealer ship repair business, a business that represents a great deal of profit to these dealers. And they are fighting back with increased customer satisfaction training seminars, extended warranties and by offering you more “service” than you’d get anywhere else.

All dealership repair facilities are grand by any definition. The tools and machines are state-of-the-art. Their shops always seem cleaner and much more professional looking. They have elaborate parts houses, well-staffed coordinators, trained managers, paint and body shops, detailing crews, salespersons and beautiful lobbies where you can find color TVs, food and drink machines, classical music, polished floors and a cushy chair to recline in. The term “professionalism” rings loud and clear at the dealership. The image that they cast is just part of their overall strategy to cater to and to impress the repair customer. However, you will pay dearly for this grand show.

RATES

There are few repair places where you will pay more for parts and labor than at the dealership, unless your problem is covered under warranty. The labor charges are high because the technicians are the most qualified in their respective specialty areas, and they are the most highly paid too. Because they are so familiar with your car, most dealerships use a flat rate manual that indicates a specific time allotted for a labor chore. If the book calls for 2.5 hours labor on a tune-up, and the shop labor charge is $70.00 per hour, the total labor charge (excluding the parts) will be $175.00. This leads to what is known as “flagging” time. A dealership technician is not paid on a bonus or commission scale. A tune-up can require 2.0 flag time, which means that it's a job that will take two hours (maximum), to complete. If his hourly rate is $16.00 per hour then he is entitled to $32.00 (these are his wages, not what the customer is charged.) This is regardless of how long it takes him. He could knock out the tune-up in 45 minutes (many of them do), but he is still entitled to his share of the full flag-time amount. You of course, are charged 2.0 hours of labor, even though the dealership technician may have only spent 45 minutes of that two hours working on that area. This is an outrageous system of charging that only profits the dealership.

CAUTION

If it seems to take a long time to special order a specific part for your car that the dealership is out of stock on, then be sure to check the part number and in voice when you actually pick up your car. Occasionally, a dealership will obtain a lesser quality part if they can't locate a factory original part. In this case, you should question the management and ask to see the parts inventory list on your in voice. The parts price difference between original and generic should not be the same. The generic should always be cheaper. The brand name is the giveaway. Ask them to itemize and explain each part number and brand name before you pay the invoice.

Parts—The parts costs are high because they are exclusively “original factory equipment” replacement parts. If it's a foreign car dealer ship, the parts are more expensive than domestic parts, because the long distance shipping and import tax charges must be offset. In most cases, parts at the dealership will be twice that of many other facilities. Every one of the dealership’s parts is specifically designed to fit your car with precise tolerance, because it's a duplicate of the same part on your car, manufactured by the same people who made the car to begin with. It is almost never a reconditioned or rebuilt part, but a brand new one. That is one reason why dealership parts are so expensive. But think for a moment how necessary it's to have those exact parts. It may not be necessary for a muffler, or spark plugs, or oil and filters. Batteries, alternators, shocks, air cleaners, tires and wheels, brake pads and shoes—all are items that are available from other manufacturers that work just as well, and in many cases better, for far less the cost. On the other hand, if the items are fuel injection or carbureted parts, or any other internal engine components, then precise tolerance becomes important.

BEST FOR REPAIRS

Most certainly you should always go to the dealer for any repair work that's , or should be, covered under warranty. If you go somewhere else to have that transmission repaired, the warranty could be void. The same goes for any heavy engine work.

CAUTION

If you’re having any type of major work done to the engine or transmission, and your car is still relatively new, it may still be covered under the original manufacturer’s warranty. Check the paperwork, then call the dealership facility and ask them if transmission or engine work is still covered. If it's , then you should go to the dealership. Not only should the repair be free (sometimes, however, warranties are limited to parts and you still pay the labor), but you should remember that many warranties are void if another facility other than the dealer performs repairs on warranty covered areas.

Major Engine Overhaul—The dealership is a good bet for any type of major engine overhaul (internal work). There are other alternatives, such as specialty engine rebuilding shops that may be less expensive. Your choice depends on how much you value your car and how long you intend to keep it. You’ll pay premium price for major engine work at a dealer, because the dealership uses all factory replacement parts. Technicians have all of the necessary current technical repair manuals and the latest tools and equipment to do the work. Any dealership parts house is superior in inventory to what a specialty shop might stock, hence the work would be completed more swiftly. Parts availability is crucial in major engine overhaul. The dealership excels in this area.

Electrical—Electrical problems can be the most difficult to diagnose in a vehicle, and dealerships generally are the best in this area. Most dealership technicians know the wiring diagram of your vehicle but even this area presents a challenge to the dealership diagnostician. Sometimes the short is interrelated with another system that has failed as a result of the original malfunction. Multiple electronic shorts are very hard to diagnose since no one rightly knows what system started the chain reaction in the first place. Finding a problem of this nature requires a slow, deliberate and intricate process of elimination. No other facility can remedy this type of problem faster or more efficiently than the dealership.

Chassis and Drivetrain—The dealership also excels in these two areas. This includes the major components of your chassis (all parts connected to the suspension, steering and wheels) and drivetrain like backing plates, drive-shafts, differentials, transmissions, clutches, shock mounts, axle shafts, leaf and coil springs, steering components and other such parts. There is little the dealership can’t handle in these areas. However, many of these items can be serviced by other outlets at better prices.

Fuel Injection and Electronic Engine Control Systems—Today’s newer cars sport sophisticated electronic engine control systems and fuel injection systems that are exceptionally complex. In fact, the so-called “black box,” the computer that monitors and manages your engine and fuel systems, still baffles many dealership technicians. When a problem is thought to be in this area, many technicians simply replace the engine computer rather than try to fix it, and send the suspect one back to the factory. The good news is that this item is almost always covered under warranty, so there should be little, if any charge for this service.

Sometimes fuel injection nozzles and sensors become damaged or clogged, and their replacement falls under the heading of critical work. In these cases, it's best to head for the dealer if your engine is not running as smoothly as it should. After all, if the dealership technician has trouble with these systems, how then can the local wrench at the corner gas station do any better?

REPAIRS NOT RECOMMENDED

Can dealerships do oil changes, muffler work, smog checks, basic tune-ups, radiator work, tires and alignment and brakes? Of course they can, and with a great deal of proficiency and expertise. But in these cases, you might be paying for that proficiency and expertise when you don’t need to. There are other outlets where these services can be performed at prices much more reasonable. Don’t fall prey to the service writer’s sales pitch that “we can take care of it now while you’re here.” This is an all too common ploy to help boost their profits, especially if you are coming in to have a problem fixed covered under warranty. A dealer doesn’t make any money on a warranty repair, in fact he often loses money. So they are under a lot of pressure to get something out of you while you’re having the problem fixed. Oil and lube changes, tire rotations, tune-ups, brakes, mufflers—are all areas you’ll be pressured into taking care of while at the dealer. I wouldn’t fall for them unless they are offered for free. These types of repairs are available from other outlets for much less.

CAUTION

Many dealerships don’t do engine machine work. A/though they offer this service it can be “farmed out” to a special facility that does this type of work. The result is a costly charge, because the original facility must pay a certain price, then they must charge you a higher price for their inconvenience. Your best bet is to find a dealership that has its own “in-house” machine shop facility.

AUTOMOTIVE RETAIL CHAINS

These facilities include the major tire, muffler, transmission, and combination parts/service chains spread throughout the U.S. In recent years, they have become extremely aggressive and dealerships have watched their market share decrease steadily as customers flock to these centers to take advantage of their heavily advertised specials.

ADVANTAGES

Many of these chains can offer highly discounted prices because they specialize in one area and do a great deal of volume. A tire store, for example, that only deals in tires with 300 franchises across the U.S., can certainly get a great discount on tires than someone who offers it as an additional service. The same can be said of a muffler shop. In the case of large parts chains that also offer repair service, their heavy volume allows them to offer replacement parts at very competitive prices.

DISADVANTAGES

There are a couple of downsides to the larger chains. One is that they deal almost exclusively in replacement parts, which in some cases can mean inferior. Rebuilt and/or reconditioned parts are commonly used, and that's how the chain stores keep their prices down. This factor relates to just how much you value your car. I wouldn’t want a Korean rebuilt water pump put on my BMW or Porsche.

Another disadvantage is that the personnel are often trained just to perform one particular function, like remove and replace tires or mufflers and nothing else. This is fine as long as that’s all they do, but within the last few years, some of these specialty chains have begun offering other services faster than some of their employees have been trained to perform them thoroughly. A large muffler chain, one that built up a solid reputation for that area, recently branched out to brake service and shocks, high profit items to be sure. But I question the ability of the long-term mechanics who have, for years, only performed muffler work and are suddenly thrust into brake work. Brakes are not even remotely connected to muffler and exhaust removal and replacement. According to a survey by a leading consumer magazine, muffler chains scored lowest in customer satisfaction when it came to brake work.

Another factor influencing the level of competency are the salaries paid to chain mechanics. We’re talking about entry level here. When a mechanic becomes extensively trained and certified, he’s likely to move on, right? Therefore, I’m inclined to have a chain store perform only those services for which they are well known and respected for. Tires from a tire shop, mufflers from a muffler shop, transmissions from a transmission shop.

CAUTION

Due to the sophisticated ignition systems on today’s newer cars, the chain store may not be a good choice for a tune-up on some foreign or exotic make automobiles. They are quite qualified to handle the earlier (pre-1986) most popular foreign makes i.e., Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and most of the domestic makes. But their experience is generally limited with the more complicated systems found on today’s British, Japanese, German and Italian-made cars. For ex ample, there are no common chain store facilities that require their mechanics to become certified on specific foreign make auto mobiles. At worst, some chain stores might attempt these tune-ups, even when they know that their expertise in the area is shady. If you own a car that falls into the above category, it's best to take it either to a dealership or to a specialty repair shop Most chain stores (and department stores for that matter) don't stock tune-up kits for these type cars, nor do they know how to work on them properly.

RATES

Few people realize that many large chain stores, unlike the department stores, are “independently owned and operated” franchises. In other words, they are not regulated and monitored religiously like a department store service center is. Of course, the franchise owners are given policies and guidelines for charging according to a flat rate manual, but it's up to the franchise owner (and his service manager) to carry them out. The flat rate manual is really a form of price fixing. Quite often the time allotted is not how long it takes, but you are still charged accordingly.

Furthermore, this structure also usually means a system of “quotas” whereupon a franchise is expected to meet a specific quota each month. This can lead to overcharging and unnecessary repairs to meet those quotas. Unlike the department stores that used to charge a flat rate for the installation of a part (and some still do), chain stores for the most part have followed the dealership policy of an hourly labor charge. Chain store labor charges are usually higher than department store prices, but below that of the dealership. A few exceptions, like the largest chain stores, might approach the higher cost brackets, but they would still be below any dealership price.

CAUTION

When it comes to generators, alternators, and starters, the main concern is whether the store stocks the proper replacement part, or must order out for it. Many chain stores don't have the stock rooms to house the hundreds of different alternators, generators, and starters for most cars, unless it's a parts chain (such as Pep Boys). So this “order out” part would cost slightly more. With these items you usually have a choice between a rebuilt or new one If you don't specify which kind you want, there s a good chance the part will be new. The new part can cost 40% more on your invoice but the guarantee will be slightly better, for example, a 90 day guarantee verses the rebuilt guarantee of 30 days. It is entirely up to you as to which part will be used. If you desire the cheaper rebuilt version you must say so before the work is performed. (Many rebuilt electrical parts fail prematurely not long after installation). New electrical parts are less risky—they always outlast the rebuilt ones.

BEST FOR REPAIRS

Which chain is best for which type of repair depends on what they specialize in. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? The problem is, chain stores became daring very fast and began branching out into other areas. Many will repair (or claim to repair) all of the most popular “R and R” (remove and replace) auto parts and provide most of the light to medium type services. They will not, however, perform most heavy engine, transmission, or chassis work.

Tire Stores—The tire stores started out selling—what else? Tires and balance, then later, alignment. They are an excellent source for this service. They are unequaled when it comes to new rubber that's designed to last its maximum life expectancy. Their tire warranty / guarantees are the best in the world and, without question, backed to the hilt—satisfaction or your money back. Workmanship and tire quality? If it’s a brand name, it’s the best money can buy.

Since most chain stores (like department stores) sell tires, their primary product concern is selling new rubber and anything associated with it. As mentioned earlier, many of the shops enforce strict quotas on their staff to sell a certain number of tires per week. This is because they stock so many tires they must move vast amounts to keep their floor space free and ready for turnaround or restock. Therefore their prices are very competitive—the best overall buy in this product line. They also offer standard provisions for free rotation, puncture service and inspection. Many offer a “pro-rate” service that allows you to swap your old set of tires (if they have worn prematurely), with a new set of tires at a reduced or special rate. For tire quality, the tire chain stores are the best choice for price, quality and warranty/guarantee.

Front End—This is another area where the large chain store excels, especially if it's involved with the sale of tires. Worn front-end parts such as: tie rod ends, ball joints, upper/lower control arm bushings, shocks and wheel bearings can accelerate tire wear. Chain stores usually have mechanics trained well in this area who can perform these repairs swiftly and economically. However, unlike dealerships, they are unlikely to stock many of these parts, having to order out for them from a major parts house, or even a dealer. The parts mark-up may be high, but the labor will be less expensive than that of a dealership.

Tune-Up—Chain stores are well equipped to handle most standard and electronic tune-ups, with some exceptions. Often their personnel are certified exclusively in this area, and they have the diagnostic scopes to perform them. Like the department stores, they run regular specials or coupon tune-up deals. The prices are hard to beat, besting the prices at department stores. The advantage here is that they will almost always use major brand tune-up components, and frequently there is a warranty that goes with the service.

Brakes—Brake service is still a good bargain at chain store outlets, in fact, it always has been. It is the one-shot price package that makes this service attractive. Dealerships or specialty shops rarely, if ever, announce coupon discounts for any type service. The chain stores know this and capitalize on it, by offering competitive, full-service brake specials.

Electrical—Chain stores can save you money when diagnosing common electrical problems with batteries, alternators, generators, regulators and starters.

Muffler Chains—Midas, Meineke and to a lesser extent, Ace, are examples of successful muffler store chains.

As far as work performed, and replacement parts for: mufflers, catalytic converters, resonators, tailpipes, exhaust pipes, exhaust manifolds, heat risers, hangers, (exhaust and tail pipe mounting brackets), the major chain muffler store is certainly proficient and well- equipped to perform these services. They will frequently run coupon specials on mufflers that beat the advertised specials of the department and chain stores, however, herein lies the greatest fault of a muffler chain. For more on that, turn to section 5.

SERVICE STATIONS

This is where auto repair really started—the corner gas station. They were once the kings in their time and they harbored some of the wisest and most knowledgeable mechanics. However, the service station, which is usually independently owned and operated, has lost more of the repair market in recent years than any other facility. Many of them have shut down their “back room” repair facilities because they can not compete with the large chains and department stores. Many service stations that used to offer “on the spot repair” services now sell convenience and food items. However, some have held on to their repair facilities because they must have some sort of extra revenue—the profit margin on selling gasoline is so small. To compensate, corner service station prices are far higher than you’d find just about any where else. They can charge these high prices because the services they offer, either repair or food, are convenient.

Many service stations are family affairs owned and operated by father and son, cousin and nephew, or other relatives. The service station has always been the place where teenage boys got their first job. Generally, the staff is almost always limited, both in size, skill and technical expertise. There are, however, exceptions.

RATES

Want a can of STP, oil, brake fluid or radiator coolant? No problem, as long as you’re willing to pay as much as three to four hundred percent more than what the same brand-name items cost at a local auto parts store. I once bought a can of radiator stop leak at a service station for $5.95. Two days later I found the exact same product in a large parts store for $1.49. Simple mathematics is the greatest teacher in this example. Under no circumstances will I ever buy another product from a service station, unless I’m stranded. As for shop labor charge, the amount is somewhere between the chain store and the dealership (if it's posted at all.) This is invariably high considering that they might not have the greatest and most up-to-date repair equipment available. Their budgets don't allow them the amenity of the newest machines and test gear. An exception might be with a few of the largest service station outlets that are subsidized by the parent company, such as Unocal 76 stations and Arco MPG Tune-up franchises. However, the rates charged in a service station are generally as high as a center that has better trained personnel and better shop equipment. Lack of training and proper equipment could lead to longer labor times, which means more costly repairs and the added inconvenience of having to do without your car for a longer period of time.

CAUTION

The fact that service stations stock little or no major parts means they have to order them or pick them up themselves. They might even pay retail for a part if they can't locate it at a lesser price. This would lead to an already high priced part being bumped up more. Couple that with very high shop labor costs, and presto! You’ll have a whopping bill.

BEST FOR REPAIRS

They do quite well in most areas of simple auto repair such as fan belts, hoses, batteries, minor tune-ups and oil changes. Also, they have fared well in consumer surveys when it comes to customer satisfaction for muffler and brake repair work. In fact, they’ve fared better than larger chains specializing in those areas.

The problem is many service stations will tell the unsuspecting customer that they can repair anything for a price. You name it, they’ll do it. Engine overhaul, carburetor rebuild, transmission work, clutches, air conditioning, electrical shorts, valve jobs—everything that a dealership could do these people will tell you they can do it, and for less.

They don’t turn much work away. They can’t afford to let you pass by. But I would seriously question the ability of a corner service station to rebuild an engine, or diagnose and solve a complicated electrical short. What many of the shops will do, is sign you up for the work, then farm it out somewhere else and charge you accordingly. My advice is to stick to simple, remove and replace repair work when dealing with a service station.

Emergency Parts and Service—At night, far away from the big city, when you are broken down on some lonely stretch of highway, an open service station can be heaven-sent. In emergencies, most service stations are equipped to handle your problem.

They carry gas cans for rental, tow trucks for towing and jumper cables for starting. They generally carry fan belts and radiator hoses to meet any emergency for most vehicles since these commonly fail. Windshield wipers, seal beams and taillight bulbs are also in their inventory as are fuses. Other skills that they have related to convenience or emergency care are with water pumps, cooling, vacuum and air conditioning hose service. Their air conditioning service might be less expensive than a department store would charge as it's a very frequent service requested of them, especially from vacationers. They stock headlamp bulbs for most cars. Sometimes, a service station is the only facility around that will repair your flat tire and provide instructions or repair on tow bars, trailer hitches, taillight wiring and snow chains.

However, many a service station has been known to take advantage of the tourist stranded out in the middle of nowhere. “60 Minutes” placed a hidden camera at several remote service stations and recorded some very unethical and shady practices. Spilling oil under a customer’s car, for instance, to sell a shock absorber or an oil pan gasket, is one.

In fact, the number one reason most people go to a service station for repair is because they have no other choice, and there are many crooked service station people who know this. When you’ve broken down on the road, a service station is the first place you’re likely to be towed. Once the station owner knows you’re stuck, from out of town and in a hurry, watch out! With a shady owner, it’s rip-off time!

Official Repairs and Services—Most popular service stations post large blue signs that denote official or certified special services. Among these are: “Official Brake Station,” “Official Head Lamp Adjusting Station” and “Official Smog Check Station.” These signs mean that there is at least one person who has passed an exam and received a certificate or license designating that he can perform these repairs accurately. Prices for these services are generally competitive because they are subject to a “fixed” rate within the industry, or at least they should be. If you go to a service station for an official service, look for the state licenses that should be on display to make sure the station is qualified to perform the service.

THE QUICK STOPS

The food industry no longer has a monopoly on fast service anymore. The concept has reared its capitalistic head in the auto repair industry. The newest phenomenon has been the concept of the fast repair shop, or the one-stop in-and-out service visit. Thousands of these small franchise outlets have popped up all over the U.S. Some of them are refurbished service stations. All claim that they can perform a simple service “while you wait” in about the same time it takes for a full- service car wash. Such a deal.

To a certain extent, the deal is pretty good. The only thing that distresses me about these small service centers is how fast they work. If you observe the work while you wait, you’ll see what I mean. Several mechanics literally rush about your car in a frenzy to complete that “23-point” service to get it as done as fast as possible. These places depend on high turnover and volume for survival, and your service will be delivered accordingly. In other words, this type of work philosophy breeds carelessness and mistakes, which can become costly to you.

Take an oil change, for instance. In his rush to get it done, it's quite conceivable that a mechanic could forget to tighten that oil filter, cap or oil pan bolt securely, or forget to fill it up properly. You drive down the road, and suddenly your oil light comes on as the engine loses oil pressure, which results in a muffled explosion and a lot of blue smoke. What you have now is a blown engine that resulted from a carelessly tightened oil pan bolt.

RATES

The rates charged at the quick stops are extremely competitive and relatively low, which makes them an attractive alternative. They are generally based on a “package” deal that includes fluid checks, parts and labor, all for a single low price. However, anything that falls outside the package, such as additional labor, an unspecified part, or additional fluids, are charged at a premium. They mimic the cut-rate specials of the popular chain stores to stay competitive, but on the other hand they charge very high shop labor costs appearing to mirror the image of a professional dealership.

BEST FOR REPAIRS

These facilities like to concentrate in three areas, and generally don't venture outside them. They don’t have the large stockrooms or trained personnel to service cars that require large parts, i.e. mufflers brakes, front end parts, etc. What’s hot on their list are; lube oil and filter, tune-ups, transmission fluid change and (in California) smog checks. In fact, if such a facility offered to repair anything but what they advertised, I would thank them very much and leave.

Tune-Ups and Smog Checks—These shops do a tremendous number of tune-ups and smog inspections. Customers flock to the specials both for the price and the promise of speedy work. They probably know how to tune-up many import cars, and yes, swiftly—again because it's this “flea market” mentality that gives them such a good customer draw. Since a smog check and certification is such a dreaded inconvenience, most people want this service done quickly and out of the way. The temptation to drive in and drive out of such a small, convenient facility is what has given the quick stops so much smog check business. But a good, thorough L.O.F. should take more than 10 minutes. Likewise for a smog check. However, if you’re in a hurry (who isn’t in today’s work-work-work society), then this minor fault can be easily rationalized.

Fluid Changes—The quick stops probably do more lube, oil and filter work than any other repair facility on an employee-to-workload ratio. It is their most frequent repair request. Transmission service (fluid and filter change) is another service offered. If they are a busy shop they perform many of these a day, and with repetition comes experience and expertise, but so does boredom and carelessness.

CAUTION

I would make sure that their replacement parts (tune-up kits, spark plugs, wires) are not substandard. Recognizable names are: Champion, Autolite, Delco Remy, Motorcraft, etc. Furthermore, you should be aware that a $49.95 tune-up constitutes a minor, not major tune-up. For the differences between the two, go to section9.

Be advised though that many advertise a multi-step service for a flat fee, such as “change oil, filter, check washer fluid, check coolant level, check transmission fluid, etc.” The point here to remember is the word “check.” If the transmission fluid is low after they’ve checked it, they will fill it, but charge you extra for the fluid. It is not part of the package price. The same goes for the other fluids as well. I know of more than one person who has been surprised by a bill far more than the advertised price because these fluids were “checked” all right, but then the charge to fill them was added on. I would advise that you ask up front what the advertised price includes.

PRIVATE SPECIALTY SHOPS

As a result of increased competition and the need to specialize, the specialty shop has found a rewarding place for itself in the auto repair industry. Since the advent of the computer—the electronic control module, or ECM, more technical knowledge is needed to repair and diagnose the latest models. Systems like anti-lock brake systems, computer controlled heating and air conditioning, and computer con trolled fuel delivery systems have created more opportunities on the car to cause difficulty. These subsystems are becoming extremely difficult to repair without special training.

Dealership repair and parts houses are finding it very difficult to hang on to faithful service customers, who are only revisiting the dealership for annoying warranty work instead of returning for routine maintenance, avoiding high priced general service altogether in favor of the less expensive chains and department stores. Only the chains and department stores are generally baffled by these new computer controlled systems and faced with the choice of trying to fix it, or send it off down the road to another facility. That’s where the specialty shop comes in.

The specialty shops evolved as an “intermediary,” providing quality repair without the high dealership prices. Nowhere has this service been needed more than in the foreign automotive repair trade.

Specialty shops are easily recognized by their titles or repair claims. For instance, shops who specialize will work on only one, two, or sometimes three specific make foreign automobiles like: Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, Saab, Renault, Nissan and Audi, or any combination. By repairing only one or two models, the specialty shops can almost insure total working expertise in all repair areas. Specialty tools, testing gear, and other equipment are available. Customer satisfaction and speedy repairs (with fewer errors) are enhanced. At the same time overhead for the specialty shops is kept to a minimum as their rents and staff are kept down to provide functional shops that are half the size of standard dealerships. And best of all, the specialty shops nearly always undercut the labor and parts costs of the dealership. More than likely, the owners and operators of specialty auto repair are displaced dealership technicians and service managers who have branched out on their own.

RATES

Specialty shops nearly always undercut the dealership price or offer other services at reduced savings. However, their prices will be higher than all of the other facilities: chain stores, department stores, gas stations, quick stops, etc. With this price you can expect quality workmanship rivaling that of the parent dealership, perhaps surpassing it in some areas. Furthermore, a specialist, trained to work on a single make vehicle, is more likely to be more familiar with that type car and repair it much more quickly than other types of mechanics.

BEST FOR REPAIRS

There isn’t too much that has to be said about the areas in which specialty shops excel. The term “dealership quality” says it all. If you own a Toyota, for instance, there is a good chance that the specialty shop will be able to repair any system on it no matter what the ailment. However, I wouldn’t have a specialty shop change the oil, but I would certainly have them perform a major tune-up or solve an electrical problem.

HINT

When searching for a repair facility, check to see if it's approved by the AAA. If it's , this would weigh heavily in your favor, because the facility must adhere to certain requirements to get this approval. You don’t have to be a member of the AAA to use the facility.

In order to receive the AAA seal of approval, the facility must offer a 90-day or 4,000 mile guarantee on parts and labor. Second, they must make available to you any parts that were replaced. Third, if the repair looks like it will exceed the original estimate by 10%, they must get your authorization. And last, the facility must agree to cooperate with AAA in investigating and resolving any disputes between the facility and an AAA member, and abide by the AAA’s decision.

CALL FIRST

When choosing a repair facility, I highly recommend that you call ahead first and ask several questions. I don't recommend that you try to describe the problem over the phone, because most repair places simply can't tell you what is wrong in this manner. Get a note pad to jot down the responses of each repair facility. When you’ve called around, compare the notes before calling one back and setting up an appointment. See the checklist for suggested questions you should ask.

  • Call ahead and ask the facility if they have experience working on your type of car (unless it’s a listed specialist or dealer, of course).
  • Determine if the facility is capable of performing the work, if you know what area the problem is in. Do they do brakes? Do they do transmission work? If yes, what special certification do they have?
  • Does the facility do their own machine work, such as brake turning, or do they farm that work out to other shops?
  • Is the facility (in California) a member of the Bureau of Automotive Repair? Are their mechanics NIASE certified? If not, how are they certified? Is the facility approved by the AAA?
  • If you’re calling about an advertised special, ask what the price includes. Does it include labor, all parts, diagnosing and machine work?
  • Does the facility give free estimates? Do they charge for troubleshooting and diagnosing problems?
  • Does the facility offer a warranty on all parts and labor? If so, how is it limited and how long is it good for?
  • Do they stock the parts you’ll need? Are the items new, used or rebuilt/reconditioned? If they don’t stock them, where do they get them?
  • If you’re looking for a tune-up, ask the facility what they consider to be the difference between a major and a minor tune-up. What does each include? How much is each one? What kind of diagnostic machinery do they have to perform it?
  • If the procedure is a standard remove and replace job, ask how much time they generally estimate to complete the actual repair, and how long you’ll have to leave your car to get the job done. A warning flag should go up if one facility says it needs 3 hours to do a tune-up and the other needs only 1 hour. Which one do you think will be cheaper?
  • If it’s a tire store, ask what the purchase price of tires includes. What kind of guarantee/warranty? Does the price include a free spin balance and wheel alignment? If not, how much do these necessary services cost?

Next: The Mechanics -- Who Are These Guys and How Are They Trained

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