Your car is four years old, has 45,000 miles on it and needs new brakes. Where do you take it: to the dealer, a brake specialty shop or an independent garage?
Or suppose the “check engine” light comes on. Dealer or general repair shop? What about replacing front struts or shock absorbers? How about collision repair?
Different answers to these questions can mean vastly different repair bills. And at a time when a simple fuel fill-up can drain a wallet of $40 or more, who doesn’t want to save a few bucks when it comes to automotive repairs and service?
Dealerships claim their factory-trained mechanics know your car better than a general garage or quickie service center. They use factory parts made for your car, they say.
All that may be true, but such expertise costs. And sometimes it doesn’t take a factory Ph.D. to cure what ails your vehicle.
While rates vary across the country, dealership labor rates can run to $75 to $95 an hour, compared to $40 to $50 an hour at an independent garage.
Also, dealerships tend to go by what is called the “book” rate or flat rate — referring to a manual that estimates how long it should take a competent mechanic to do a specific job.
Theoretically, the book rate should save the customer from overpaying on an hourly basis because a mechanic worked too slowly. But if the mechanic does the job faster than what the book calls for, you still will be charged for the time specified.
While some shop owners may disagree, a repair based on a book rate almost always costs the customer more.
So if a dealer charges more per hour and uses the book rate, it’s easy to see that using an independent garage that charges a straight hourly rate that’s substantially lower is the way to go most of the time.
But this is not a one-size-fits-all world, so on some repairs it’s a good idea to take advantage of the dealer’s more expensive expertise.
Consider that pesky
The software that runs your vehicle is proprietary to the manufacturer, and it takes a properly programmed diagnostic computer to detect what’s wrong. While such computer software is available to general repair shops, it’s possible that their setup may not contain all the factory updates that a dealer should have.
So as a general rule, it’s likely more cost effective to take more serious, internal problems, including those pesky glitches that only show up from time to time, to the dealer. Although the hourly rate may be higher, the dealer’s expertise should be able to accurately diagnose and fix the problem more quickly.
General garages or shops that specialize in brakes or mufflers are cheaper alternatives for fixing or replacing items prone to normal wear — brakes, shocks and struts, CV joints, mufflers and tires — as well as services such as oil changes and front-end alignments.
And what about the debate over using factory-new parts, as opposed to parts made by someone with no connection to the manufacturer?
So-called factory parts are rarely made by Ford, GM, Honda or any other manufacturer. Subcontractors make their parts, so it’s entirely possible that the part in a box with the manufacturer’s logo at the dealership — which likely will cost 20 percent more — is the same part that’s in a different box at the discount auto parts store.
A good rule of thumb: Make sure there’s a warranty on the part and that it’s specifically made for your vehicle. Then go for the best price, regardless of the logo on the box.
When it comes to body-and-fender work, the landscape isn’t quite so clear-cut. Straightening a bent frame section or matching paint so a repair is undetectable can require a great deal of expertise that only a large dealer or repair shop can offer.
Replacing air bags and the sensors that trigger them in an accident can also require specialized knowledge. But some dealerships have taken to farming out much of their body and fender work to independent shops. An honest dealer will disclose this, but some will let you believe your car will be repaired in-house and will charge as though it was.
This is when your insurance company can be your best friend. Let them recommend a shop or dealer and have them directly pay the facility that does the work. That way you know what your out-of-pocket expense will be — usually your deductible — and your insurance company will have to stand behind the quality of the work.
In general, here are the questions you should ask before deciding where to get repair work done:
You should also inspect the shop to see if it is clean, well-organized and seems to be run in a professional manner. Engage the manager, owner or mechanic in discussion and trust your instincts about whether you’re getting straight answers.
Terry Jackson has authored several automotive books, is the former editor-in-chief of AMI Auto World Magazine and has written for dozens of publications, including Automobile, Road & Track and AutoWeek.