Oil Change: Dealer or no dealer?

One of the basics of automotive maintenance — the engine oil and filter change — has undergone more than one major development lately and things aren’t quite as clear as fresh 10W30 motor oil as a result.

The first is the popular proliferation of quick (while-you-wait) lube service centres. In the Ottawa area alone they include (in no particular order) Active Green and Ross, Canadian Tire Corporation, Frisby Tire, Midas Muffler, Mr. Lube, Oil Changers, Pennzoil 10 Minute Oil Change Centres, and Walmart.

Their basic oil change services range from around $35 to $45 for an average passenger car or light truck and all offer synthetic oil at an additional cost. Most can complete other fluid changes such as engine coolant, power steering fluid, and transmission and axle oils.

Some of these operations have no vehicle lifts or hoists and instead use below-floor service pits. Therefore they can’t complete tire rotations (the second most common auto maintenance item).

But on the plus side these hoist-less centres tend to have shorter line-ups because they’re not performing more time consuming work such as brake replacements or steering and suspension repairs.

Car manufacture dealerships operate in much the same manner with prices that are competitive and many of these stores even run no-appointment while-you-wait bays for the consumer on the go just like the fast lube centres.

So what’s the best bet for the average car owner? (Major disclaimer here; I work full time for an automotive dealership).

If similarly experienced people are performing the same job with comparable materials when it comes to engine oil changes, is there really any benefit to choosing one over the other?

Some dealership staff will try to scare customers away from fast-lube centre with horror stories of faulty parts or workmanship. Drain pans to them!

Nobody can prove to me that an aftermarket (or non-auto-maker) filter is of a sufficiently lower quality to damage an engine or shorten its lifespan. In my 35 years behind the counter I have witnessed only one such failure on an oil filter. It was an incomplete outer casing seam weld and could have just as easily happened to any OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) filter.

The national chain store that installed it, quickly owned up and notified their insurance company which paid for a brand new engine installed at the customer’s choice of OEM dealerships.

On the other side of the equation some fast-lube consultants will relate tales of long delays at dealership service department or exorbitant costs. Make a few calls or website price searches of your own and you’ll find most dealerships have matching prices for an oil and filter change.

So if the prices, technicians, parts, workmanship, and convenience are the same, what’s different? The answer is relationship. If you take the time to build a good customer/retailer relationship with your choice of repair centres, you will usually find an ally behind the counter when things go bad.

Any good auto service retailer (aftermarket or OEM) will keep a thorough electronic record of all repair and parts transactions for all customers and any front-line advisor worth his or her salt will review those records each time a client brings in their vehicle.

They do this to see if any scheduled maintenance work needs to be done and to bring this to the customer’s attention at the time of drop off to make sure the vehicle is getting everything it needs and, of course, to increase sales. It is also used to make sure there is no duplication of services.

Each and every service department manager has the ability to review a summary of a client’s complete purchase history to rate their value to his or her store.

Where this affects a customer is when something not related to normal wear and tear is required that is outside the limits of an existing warranty. If this repair is expensive, an OEM dealership has the opportunity to either contact the car manufacturer’s area rep to plead for some goodwill coverage, or make their own decision if they are authorized to do so.

I can tell you from making hundreds of such calls over the years on behalf of my customers, the first thing the factory rep asks is: “Is this a good customer?” And by good they mean are they loyal regular clients that frequent the dealership for most of their service and parts purchases.

You don’t need a road-map to see where this is going.

Someone who has never been to the dealership’s service department before is unlikely to get much help while a “good” customer will. Is this a horror story? No, it’s a simple fact of business that is played every day.

Fast-lube centres definitely cannot perform this type of service. Nor are they able to complete OEM warranty repairs. If you own an older vehicle beyond any warranty limits (or even a newer one that is quite reliable and relatively inexpensive to fix), this may not be of any concern. But if you do still have coverage, it can be a decided advantage to take the time to build a good working relationship with your OEM service crew.

And then there’s familiarity with the car you are working on. Techs — even oil change apprentices — who only work on a particular series of models from one maker tend to learn very quickly where any weaknesses lie. And by bringing these to the attention of vehicle owners, repairs may be done under any applicable warranties or (if not covered) at least before things get worse.

Photograph by: Matthew Haase, file photo