Car repair shops

Car repair shop buying guide

Last updated: June 2012

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Getting started

When it's time to take the car in for routine maintenance and especially for repairs, remember this: In general, independent repair shops continue to get higher marks for satisfaction than car dealers, according to the results of our latest Annual Auto Survey.

Every year, we ask car owners how satisfied they were with auto repairs performed by dealerships and independent shops in the previous 12 months. This year, we got responses on 168,000 vehicles.

Regardless of whether service was performed at an auto dealer or an independent repair shop, we found satisfaction scores to be higher overall for maintenance than for repairs. That is not surprising, given that repairs are often more expensive, time consuming, and aggravating than scheduled service.

Those who prefer independent repair shops the most are owners of Chrysler, Dodge, Jaguar, Jeep, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo vehicles, who, as a group, tended to be less satisfied with dealership repairs than owners of most other brands.

For dealer repairs, Lexus, Acura, Lincoln, Buick, Porsche, and Cadillac owners were among the more satisfied. Land Rover, Jaguar, Dodge, and Jeep owners were among the less satisfied.

For maintenance, owners of Buicks and Lincolns were among the more satisfied, followed closely by Cadillac, GMC, and Chevrolet. With those brands, there was little difference in satisfaction between those who had their cars serviced by dealers and those who went to independent mechanics. Suzuki, Smart, Mitsubishi, Scion, and Mazda owners were among the less satisfied with dealer maintenance overall.

The accompanying Ratings charts show the satisfaction ratings for dealers and independent shops. While there is not a large spread between the best and worst, there are trends worth considering when shopping for your next car.

Top auto-service gripes

For the first time, we also re-contacted 5,400 of the respondents and asked about their specific repair gripes. Of that group, about three-quarters were either completely or very satisfied with their repair shop. But of the 27 percent who weren't, 38 percent cited high prices as a reason. That is a more common complaint for dealerships (42 percent) than for independent shops (32 percent).

The second most-common complaint is even more troubling: More than a quarter of the unsatisfied group said their car's problem wasn't fixed properly. This gripe was reported at the same rate at dealers and independent shops.

Other gripes: Twenty-one percent of those respondents said it took longer than expected to complete the work, and 18 percent said they had to take the car back because the repair did not "hold up." Again, dealers and independents shared the blame for those complaints almost evenly. There was a slight difference between the two types of repair shops in owners who felt that the staff had treated them poorly, with 8 percent citing dealerships and four percent citing independents.

Why people leave their mechanic

Sometimes, this dissatisfaction led owners to switch shops. Of the re-contacted subscribers, almost a quarter revealed that in the last five years, they'd had a vehicle repaired at a shop they no longer use, with almost half of that group citing a dealership, a third saying it was an independent shop, and a fifth citing a franchise chain similar to Midas or Sears.

The top reasons for switching shops were similar to those above. Half of the group said the shop didn't fix the problem properly. About a third said the price was too high. Almost a quarter reported that they had to take the car back or that the shop sold them unnecessary parts or service. And one fifth said the staff treated them poorly, the shop took longer than expected to complete the work, or the price was more than originally estimated.

One other red flag for repair shops: 30 percent of female respondents who stopped using a shop said they felt the staff tried to take advantage of them because of their sex.

Tips for getting a repair performed right

  • Describe the problem fully. Give the shop as much information as possible. Write down the symptoms and when they occur. If possible, talk directly to the mechanic who will be working on your car.
  • Don't offer a diagnosis. Avoid saying what you think is causing the problem. You may be on the hook for any repairs the shop makes at your suggestion, even if they don't solve the problem.
  • Request a test drive. If the problem occurs only when the car is moving, ask the mechanic to accompany you on a test drive.
  • Ask for an estimate. And have them contact you for approval if the repair will cost more than the estimate.
  • Ask for evidence. If you're not comfortable with the diagnosis, ask the shop to show you the problem parts. Worn brake pads or rusted exhaust pipes are easy to see. Don't let the mechanic refuse your request by saying that his insurance company doesn't allow customers into the work area.

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