The Customer Service Survey

A Tale of Two Car Repairs

by Peter Leppik on Wed, 2007-10-24 01:00

I'd fallen slightly behind on regular maintenance of our family vehicles, so in my usual fashion I decided to get them all done at once.

Yesterday I took my old Audi in to the dealer for an oil change. Normally I'm not too keen taking a car to the dealer for service, but the Audi dealer is only two blocks from my office, and they've got a posh new facility with free coffee and WiFi in the waiting area. After I'd spent about 45 minutes sipping coffee and bandwidth, the service manager came out and presented me with a laundry list of items they'd found: a cracked coolant hose, badly worn serpentine belt, and deteriorating brake lines. The last, he solemnly assured me, was a serious safety issue.

My $30 oil change had suddenly morphed into over $700 worth of repairs.

Not being a car expert, I signed off on it--and to be fair, I had noticed that the coolant was leaking so that part was no great surprise. On the other hand, it's probably not something especially worth fixing on a car which is over ten years old and has almost 130,000 miles on it. You can buy a lot of antifreeze for what they charged to replace a couple hoses and the tank. Was it really so urgent, or could some of those items have been deferred? And somehow it seems like I can never get out of that dealer without plunking down a few Ben Franklins more than I expected to spend.

(On the other hand, old Audis are not exactly known for being cheap to maintain. I think the next car I buy will be a Honda.)

Today it was our minivan's turn. That vehicle is five years and 85,000 miles old, so while it's not as old as the Audi, it's no spring chicken either. In addition to an oil change, it had developed a belt squeal in wet weather and noise from the brakes. So I expected to be hit up for a new belt and a brake job.

The Dodge dealer where we bought the minivan is out of business, so we decided to take it to a local tire-and-car-repair place which we hadn't used before. I dropped off the van on my way to the office, and around lunchtime I got the call: the belt was just loose so they tightened it, and the brakes look fine (maybe we had a pebble stuck in there?).

The damage? My $400 list of repairs only cost $30. Including tax.

Again, not being a car expert, I have to take the mechanic's word that the brakes and belt really are OK, but I'm inclined to believe him. What's more, instead of going out of their way to look for extra stuff to fix, they actually found less expensive ways to fix the problems and declined to perform the costly repairs I was prepared to pay for.

So one the one hand, we have a dealer which consistently surprises me with repairs far more expensive than I expected. On the other hand, we have a local mechanic which (at least this once) surprised me with a bill only one-tenth what I was expecting.

Guess who's going to get my future business?

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