Where to get your vehicle serviced

Who is the cheapest, does the best work, is the most convenient, is capable of fixing things right the first time; your dealership, an independent shop or national chain outlets?

Here is the lowdown on the basics that affect consumer decisions on car repairs.

1. Price: Independent shops and national chain outlets on the average have lower posted labour rates (about 20 per cent less than dealerships). Since labour charges can make up about half of a routine repair bill, that lower rate can be a real advantage. Independents, chains and dealerships use menu or combined labour and parts pricing for standard services like oil changes, tire rotations, brake replacement. And dealers do their best to be competitive on these offerings.

Do some comparison shopping by phone or internet. Parts pricing, as well as labour costs, don’t give a clear advantage to either side as many auto makers offer competitively priced wear and maintenance items under their own brand such as GM’s AC Delco, or Ford’s Motorcraft. Remember you get what you pay for.

2. Convenience: National chain outlets can outdo most dealerships by offering at least five nights of extended service hours every week as well as no-appointment-needed service. But many independents offer the same daily hours as dealerships and, due to fewer service bays, require appointments for anything more than an oil change.

More and more dealerships are moving into this competitive arena with no-appointment quick lube bays but the big problem with no-appointment systems anywhere is the long line-up at peak times such as Saturday mornings. If your schedule allows you to take advantage of weekdays, the no-appointment system is the most convenient.

3. Alternate Transportation: When repairs take longer than a day, you’re unlikely to get a free loaner from a national chain. Independent shops sometimes have a loaner car or two. Dealerships are the last bastion of the loaner because many auto makers continue to subsidize the program. But this is changing. Many dealerships are dropping loaners, citing insurance risks and the hassles of maintaining the fleet. A shuttle bus seems to be the main source of alternative transport and nobody has an advantage here since almost any shop can offer a shuttle drive.

4. Warranties: No matter which service provider you choose, with little exception, the warranty on what you buy will be one year or 20,000 km. If you can’t get this from your current service provider in writing, shop elsewhere. It’s the norm.

If a dealership employee tells you all maintenance must be performed with them to keep your auto manufacturer’s warranty in effect, they’re blowing smoke. However, remember to check your owner’s manual carefully for how and when different systems and components need maintenance and make sure your service provider can handle all these jobs.

5. Quality of Work: This is a tough one. A big automaker’s logo is no guarantee your specific problem will be resolved smoothly. Sometimes the smallest independent can breeze through a difficult diagnosis and repair. Good quality independents and chains will have electronic diagnostic equipment that can rival a full-line dealership.

But when dealing with problems on late model vehicles, dealers will probably have an advantage thanks to their familiarity with the product, their access to the latest editions of shop bulletins and direct access to carmaker tech hot-lines.

Paying one hour at a $100/hr labour rate to a tech who does it right the first time is certainly cheaper than paying two or three hours at $80/hr for several failed attempts.

6. Relationships: No matter where you decide to go, stick with a good quality service provider for as much of your repairs as possible. And when you eventually get a case of sticker shock over an estimate, take the time to speak with the shop manager or owner to resolve the issue rather than jumping ship. One of the benefits to sticking with a dealer is getting goodwill assistance when the warranty expires. Just about all dealership service managers have some type of discretionary authorization to get the factory to pay for a part of a repair bill to correct a defect on a vehicle beyond its warranty limits. If you haven’t done any maintenance with them, they are under no obligation to provide such assistance.

Word of disclosure: Brian Turner works full-time at a dealership as a parts manager and has spent the majority of his automotive career in the business. If, after reading this, you feel he’s been biased, please drop him a line at [email protected]