Dealer's not always best shop for auto repair


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 check-engine light, for example. It comes on when a sensor tells the car's computer that one or more operating conditions are out of whack. Usually this involves the emissions system, but can indicate other problems. Before taking it anywhere first make sure your gas cap is tightened -- the simplest possible solution to the problem.

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.

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