Say the warranty on your trusty minivan or sedan just ran out. You’ve been having it serviced at the dealership for years with no problems. Your friends say, "Why change?" The dealer uses original manufacturer’s parts, and the mechanics are factory-trained. But your neighbor swears by a local mechanic and promises you’ll save a fortune on car repairs.
Which do you pick? First, understand how each operates, point by point.
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Dealership service departments
Dealerships work on hundreds of cars each month and have many service bays and factory-trained technicians.
Customers meet with service advisors to determine what their car needs and likely never meet the mechanic.
Dealerships specialize in repairing and maintaining your car brand only.
If your car is under warranty, the manufacturer covers the cost of most repairs. After the warranty expires, you can buy an extended warranty or pay for repairs and servicing as needed.
Typically, these are smaller garages.
Customers meet directly with the mechanic working on their car.
Many are started and staffed by former dealership technicians.
Many work on a cross-section of car brands.
Some independent auto shops honor third-party warranties.
Now let’s talk services.
Independents: More personalized, often cheaper
Independent mechanics ranked higher than dealership servicing for customer satisfaction, price, quality, courteousness and on-time repairs, according to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey.
If you go this route, make sure your garage has its industrywide standard Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification. To find the right mechanic, ask friends and family for recommendations and search online reviews. Always remember to shop around to compare prices — and include a quote from your dealership, too.
Zach Mason, service manager at Advanced Autowerks in San Francisco and a former dealership employee, requires his staff to hone their skills regularly.
“If you aren’t doing 16 hours of continuing education per quarter, you lose out,” Mason says. “If there’s a new VW engine and someone’s teaching a class on that, my guys will go to that. If there’s a new programming class for a new electronic module system ... my guys are going to school on that.”
Independents can be as technically proficient as factory-trained dealership mechanics.
Independent garages can get original manufacturer parts for repairs and servicing, but they can also offer less expensive, alternative parts, or even rebuilt parts, that perform the same function.
It can be easier to build a personal relationship with garages, since you speak directly with the mechanics.
Independent mechanics answer to you; they have no loyalty to the manufacturer, as dealerships must.
Garages start from scratch to build relationships with paying customers, without the years of free service to foster goodwill.
Facilities usually are smaller and have less overhead than dealerships. This can mean significantly lower prices for customers.
It takes more work to find the right auto shop, because there can be a couple of dozen corner garages in the same town.
Garages may work on multiple brands.
They may turn down repairs if they don’t specialize in your car brand.
“The process needs to be as close to flawless as possible,” Mason says. “If something is misquoted or times aren’t delivered on ... we don’t have that history built in with the customer. Our promise times absolutely have to be met. Our word has to be our bond.”
Dealerships: More specialized
Dealership service departments have that brand-name power. They can offer manufacturer-backed extended warranties and check for the latest repair and recall bulletins every time you bring in your car. But if you stay with the dealership, be prepared for slightly higher prices. Keep your owner's manual handy, so you don't have any unnecessary work done on your car, and consider signing up for the dealership's mailing lists. Coupons and deals it sends may add up to big savings.
“Sure, your [independent mechanic] may be able to fix your vehicle," says Neil G. Chirico, former road test coordinator at Edmunds.com. "But they're not specifically trained for that specialty and sometimes waste more money and time trying to figure out your repair that the specialist would find easily.”
Chirico is a believer in parts made by the original equipment manufacturer. "Nothing works and fits like the OEM parts," he says. "Aftermarket parts do not have to pass the same tests as, say, Ford dictates for its parts."
Dealerships pay higher salaries for manufacturer-trained and highly experienced technicians. But this means you’ll pay higher prices for their services.
Specifically and regularly trained for your auto brand only.
Dealership service departments are required to use factory-made equipment and parts from the manufacturer. This ensures high quality control, but if a part is out of stock, shipping times can be longer and prices higher.
Dealerships have a constant flow of cars coming for free repairs under warranty, so they don’t have to work as hard to attract or keep customers.
Dealerships also answer to their manufacturers, and service managers will make a commission from their work. So when they recommend a repair, they get a percentage of the parts and labor.
Dealerships are more likely to have cushy chairs and flavored water in a sparkling-clean waiting room.
They're more likely to have shuttles or loaner cars available while mechanics work on your car.
The customer-satisfaction gap compared with independent garages is smaller for luxury car brands than for other auto dealerships. Buick, Lincoln, Cadillac, Lexus, Porsche and Acura dealerships all scored closer to independent shops, according to the Consumer Reports survey.
Tesla is the only manufacturer with higher customer satisfaction ratings than independent shops for servicing.
Make the choice
If you have a luxury car, value a nice waiting room and don't mind paying a little extra for specialized training and equipment, you won't go wrong at the dealership. If you're more interested in finding a good deal and having a relationship with your mechanic, try a local auto shop.
Remember to shop around for prices, and don't be afraid to negotiate at either location.