Independent vs. dealer shops for car repair

    A Consumer Reports survey shows how dealerships and independent shops compare by brand

    Published: January 22, 2015 06:00 AM
    Dealerships trailed independents, but overall satisfaction with their work was still high.

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    For most of us, taking the car to the mechanic ranks right up there with getting root canal surgery. But there's a way to ease the pain. Our latest survey of repair satisfaction found that when your car is ailing, odds are that you'll be more satisfied with an independent repair shop than with a franchised new-car dealership.

    Our annual survey of Consumer Reports subscribers found that independents outscored dealership service once again for overall satisfaction, price, quality, courteousness of the staff, and work being completed when promised. With few exceptions, the entire list of independent shops got high marks on those factors. The same couldn't be said for franchised new-car dealers.

    The one automaker that outscored the independent shops was the electric carmaker Tesla, which earned high praise for its on-time repairs, courtesy, price, quality, and overall satisfaction.

    But part of Tesla's success might be because it's new to the market, and it has a relatively small number of customers to satisfy compared with the established luxury brands. As the number of Tesla models increases—especially with the release of the Model 3 compact vehicle in a few years—we'll be watching closely to see whether its customer-friendly repair policies, which include providing service loaners and flatbed tow trucks, can keep pace with the brand's growth.

    The survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, was based on subscriber satisfaction with repairs on more than 121,000 vehicles—80,000 of which were repaired at franchised dealers and more than 41,000 at independent shops.

    Luxury and upscale brands topped the chart among franchised new-car dealers, with Buick, Lincoln, Cadillac, Lexus, Porsche, and Acura slotting in behind Tesla, in that order.

    To be fair to mechanics at franchised dealerships, our respondents also reported being very satisfied overall with their repairs from top to bottom—despite trailing the Ratings of the independent shops.

    Is it the better coffee, the putting greens, or the massage chairs that put premium dealerships at the top of the list? Not necessarily. There were also some disappointments involving prestige marques.

    The biggest gripe was about the cost of parts and labor. Mercedes-Benz drivers, in particular, were much more satisfied with the price they paid at independent shops.

    Also dinged for high prices were Jaguar dealerships as well as Mini dealerships that often share a service drive (and high prices) with an affiliated BMW dealership.

    But if you own a BMW, Porsche, or Volkswagen, bargain hunting for a mechanic might not pay off. Owners of those brands were equally satisfied with the price paid at dealerships and independent shops. (To reduce the visits for necessary repairs with your next car, but sure to check our car reliability ratings.)

    It pays to haggle

    Buick had among the highest marks in overall service satisfaction for dealerships.

    You might think that service charges are non-negotiable, but haggling can pay off. Although only a small fraction of our survey respondents tried that option, those who did frequently saved money.

    In our survey, fewer than 20 percent of respondents tried to negotiate over repair work. But among those who did, 60 to 82 percent were able to save some cash at dealerships, depending on the brand. Haggling success was even better with independent shops, with 71 to 84 percent of negotiators receiving discounts.

    How much was saved varied among brands. The median worked out to $120 for repairs at dealers and $94 at independents.

    Some luxury-car dealers were accommodating at the bargaining table, with those at BMW knocking off a median of $187 from contested repair orders. Mercedes-Benz dealerships discounted $180 from successful hagglers' final bills. Among mainstream brands, haggling knocked off a median of $152 for Subaru dealership repairs, $135 at VW, and $133 at Chevrolet.

    By getting a second opinion on a repair, you can pit repair shops against each other in a bidding war for your business. Also ask for an itemized estimate up front to avoid inflated charges. And dealerships will often lower their price to ensure that you come back the next time.

    See our complete car repair satisfaction ratings.  

    Editor's Note:

    This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.   

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