Dealer service vs. local mechanics

I recently had a slightly bad experience with a local mechanic, who did a partly sloppy job of what I thought was to be a thorough 40K mile check-up. I’m a complete ignoramus about cars … should I, therefore, be taking my Toyota Prius to the dealer’s service dept. rather than trusting a local garage?

Any repair shop, including the dealership, should be judged on a case by case basis. Many local (and even some franchise) repair shops offer better Toyota service than many Toyota dealership service departments (we’ve read some real boneheaded stuff here about some Toyota dealerships as well as other shops). Dealerships, however, are almost always more expensive than independent shops. It’s up to you and what you are comfortable with doing.

Well, there are good local independent mechanics and not so good independent mechanics. There are good dealer service departments and bad dealer service departments. Many things on the Prius, such as brakes, oil changes, radiator flushes can be handled by an independent mechanic. On the other hand, some things on a Prius are best left to the dealer who understands the complexities of the hybrid system. I had the opposite problem on the 1978 Oldsmobile I purchased new and just sold this week. If I took the car to a GM dealer, all the lights in the service department would go off, the service writers would disappear and the owner would come out and say “Sorry, we’re closed for the day” and this would be a 9:00 a.m. in the morning. If I would go to my local independent shop with the car, the technicians would lock themselves in the restroom or hide in empty oil drums. There was one great mechanic who loved old cars in my community, but he retired this past summer.

    A good independent mechanic will advise you on a job he feels he can't handle.  There was an outstanding mechanic in our town who had retired as a race driver in the Indianapolis 500 in the late 1950s.  He opened his own shop and did some work on my parents' 1963 Buick in the 1960s.  However, when I took my Corvair to him which had some leaking oil seals, he referred me to the Chevrolet dealer.  He said that he wasn't set up to do this repair in his service station.  A good independent mechanic will tell you when it is a job that requires specialized equipment that he doesn't have.

A hybrid often needs a dealer for repairs as the unique systems in a hybrid are not familiar territory for a local mechanic. However a regular 40K service should be something a good mechanic could handle with ease. So, you said your mechanic did a sloppy job, how so? What were your issues with the work, done or what was omitted?

Almost everyone has an opinion on this topic. Many of the respondents on this site prefer independent mechanics but usually have nothing to say about that when a story such as yours appears. I prefer a dealer. Dealers may cost more but they are more likely to have all of the needed equipment and service bulletins for your car. A dealer can consult with the factory for an intractable problem. A dealer will have several mechanics who can consult with each other for support. A dealer’s mechanics will be more familiar with your brand as that is typically all that they work on. If a dealer’s mechanics can repair a difficult problem for more money per hour but more quickly, then you will have saved money which I believe can happen. On a trip far from home; if your car breaks down, would you take your chances with a local mechanic with unknown capabilities or with a dealer who handles your brand? I believe that the answer to that is obvious.

Independent mechanics do serve a purpose as being an alternative to dealers. They help to keep dealer repair prices competitive.

PS, I suggest a dealer in a small town. They can’t be cheaters and last for long as the word gets around. That does not work as well in a large city.

These are really helpful comments. Thanks! In reply to Uncle Turbo’s question: the local mechanic had left me with dirty brake fluid, even though checking the brakes was one of the things he said he had done. The dealer service dept told me throttle body needed to be taken apart and the soot removed. I don’t know if that’s something the local mechanic would have checked or done. I’m told that it would have been needed fairly soon (I’ve got 41,000 miles on the car, and nothing’s ever been done to the throttle).

Checking the brakes and flushing the fluid are two different things. Is it possible that there was a misinterpretation by the mechanic on what was supposed to be done?
This could be especially true if there was a third person between you and the person actually working on the car. (counter person, etc.)

A look at the Prius maintenance schedule does not even show a brake fluid change so if you asked for a by the manual 40k miles inspection they may have taken that request quite literally.

As to an induction cleaning (throttle body is part of it) that may or may not be needed. If the car is apparently running fine, idling smooth, and has no subtle rattle on acceleration then you might skip that for now. Hope that helps.

Don’t you see the fluid when you check the brakes?

If you tell a mechanic to “check the brakes”, in most cases that translates as “pull the wheels and check how much of the brake pads are remaining”. Some mechanics will also look further, into the hydraulic system, but the usual interpretation is to see how much longer the brake pads are likely to last.

On the other hand, if you told a mechanic something like…“my brake pedal is going down further to the floor than it used to”…or…“on a long downgrade, it felt like my brakes were not working”, the mechanic would begin with the hydraulic system.

If you want something checked, tell a mechanic just what you told him.
If you want any fluids changed, you have to state that this is what you want done.

Think about it another way:
If you told him that you wanted your brakes “checked”, and you came back to find a bill for a brake fluid flush/change, it is very possible that you would have accused him of doing more than you had requested. Even if you are not of this ilk, a HUGE percentage of the population does act that way, and in fact, many of them complain about things of this nature on this site fairly often!

I really doubt your throttle body needed cleaning.
Was there an issue with inconsistent idle speed or a sticky gas pedal?
That’s something done typically after 100K miles.
Did it on my Honda Accord at 200K miles.

I live in a small town and operated an independent shop for many years. The local dealership’s shops, like the independents, ranged from excellent to shade tree. The service manager at one dealership brought his personal vehicles to me for repairs. The service manager at another dealership had customers and mechanics who had followed him from one dealership to another. It would seem worthwhile to investigate the reputation of a shop before turning them loose to work on a car. But when travelling far from home a dealership would seem the best choice.

Good posting, Wha Who. In McAllen, there are good independent mechanics, but they are so swamped they expect you to just leave your car and they will call when they eventually get around to it. Frank Smith Toyota has SO FAR (knock on wood) done a good job, costs more, but I don’t have to rent a car. 180,000 miles, and this last trip north was the first expensive stuff, though brakes and tires is not really repairs as much as routine maintenance. If I go a year or two without another expensive repair, it will still be a feasible car to keep fixing.

Back in Marion Iowa, I would not have thought of taking my car to anyone but 12th St. repair, not sure if he’s still in business or not since his age numbers are getting big, a genius!

Yes, the dealerships do have the advantage of factory connections, etc, but also the problem of several layers of service writers, etc., between the customer and the actual service people. Also, I’ve had customers come in with periodic service invoices that are truly outrageous–I totally could not figure out how to spend the time and money they charged for what they invoiced. However, I’ve also seen independent shops oversell and underperform, as well as really good ones. I sell parts to a number of local independents and many of them are very knowledgeable and responsible and have been in business for a number of years. Good referrals, the accessibility of the owner, a long-term reputation, and a good attitude will point you in a good direction.

I’ve had pretty bad overall experience with dealerships. I’ve been ripped off and they have tried to scam us too. We had a BRAND NEW 2001ish Outback, the (auto) transmission died almost immediately. It was found to have a faulty gasket and leaked all the fluid out. The dealership sent us a way saying it was our fault and the new trans was on us. Fortunately my dad sorta “made them an offer they couldn’t refuse” and they miraculously changed their minds.

On the other hand, we’ve had nothing but great things to say about our local independent mechanic. Great work, reasonable prices, honest. He is basically an angel in coveralls. If you are unsure about the mechanic you went to, I recommend researching reviews on other independent shops in your area. It wouldn’t hurt to ask colleagues, friends or family who they use.

There are dishonest mechanics everywhere. They can be independent or belong to a chain/dealership. The difference is that with a dealership, (I believe) unfairness is purposefully built in to the system. The dealership SELLS warranties for a profit, so they are counting on you to lose. They can’t afford to let you come out ahead. Its like a casino – the house always wins. I think they also use the “loss-leader” system. That is, they lead you in with free (actually prepaid) work at a loss to them but then they might recommend BS maintenance or unneeded repairs.

For my car and my two kids, cars, I have both a dealer and an independent that I go to depending on the type of service needed. Recently a TCU went out on my Concord. That was definitely a dealer issue. In fact they had to go back to the factory for updated software to reflash the unit. I use an independent shop for other mechanical stuff. Both are considered to be fair and reliable, although the really good independent is usually overbooked due to his great reputation. In both cases, these shops are known through the recommendation grapevine which I believe is the best way to learn where to go. Simply ask friends and neighbors. Word of mouth advertising is still the most effective means for praising or slamming a shop. If I have a good or bad experience, I let the shop management know that I indend to spread the word. The good ones remember me. My daughter needed new tires on her SUV. My favorite independent shop beat the pants off the tire shops pricing.

Mousse, I’d like to hear all of the details behind the this transmission failure on a new Subaru and why the dealer refused to replace the transmission under warranty.
I’ve worked for 3 Subaru dealers over the years, have dealt with corporate Subaru quite a bit, and have never seen any reason why a dealer or corporate Subaru would refuse to cover a legitimate transmission failure. Swapping the transmission out on a legitimate warranty failure is not going to cost the dealer anything so I don’t understand why they would balk without a reason.

How about filling in a few blanks.
You say the transmission died almost immediately. How immediately?
How many miles on the car when it died?
Who was involved in any servicing of the vehicle before the trans died?
Any fast lube chains, Wal Mart, etc?
Did no one notice any fluid on the driveway or any symptoms leading up to the failure? (An automatic does not die instantly unless something catastrophic happens.)
What gasket was leaking, the pan gasket?

@ok4450 I want to disclose that some of this info is second-hand through my mother who is not knowledgeable about cars. At the time, I knew even less about cars than I do now.

The car was brand new. If I remember correctly, we had it for only a month or two. I don’t believe it was even due for any maintenance or repairs. We absolutely had not taken it to any crappy chain place for any maintenance or repairs. I don’t believe it was even yet due for the first oil change. I do not remember how many miles it had on it, perhaps I can do some digging around to see if we have the info in our files. I strongly doubt it had any more than 2 or 3K on it.

One day I was driving the car when I noticed smoke/steam or something coming from the hood but the car was not hot. I pulled over, opened the hood and we (my mom, my boyfriend and I) did not perceive anything out of the ordinary (admittedly, I would not have known what to look for). The car appeared to run fine and did not “die” and did not seem to have trouble shifting. We drove the car to our (independent) mechanic because he was close by. I did not hear directly from the mechanic but my mom told me the gasket leaked and the trans fluid was low, so he put in a new gasket. From her description, it very much sounded like the pan gasket. There was not a puddle of oil under the car.

The mechanic said that the gasket was sloppily installed and had not sealed properly and told us to take it to the dealership. We took it to the dealership to check it out, they told us there was damage to the trans and it was completely our fault and we’d have to pay them for a new trans. I don’t think they even gave us a satisfactory explanation for why it was our fault. My dad was incensed (he is half sicilian and half portuguese lol) and left an angry message, then they immediately called us (with a TOTALLY different and super nice attitude) and said they’d be happy to swap a new trans right away 100% free. To me, the sudden change of heart seemed really fishy.

We had no other major problems with the car for ten years. It had 225K on it when we traded it in just recently. We only got rid of it because it failed smog.

If the pan gasket was leaking enough to damage the transmission then the bottom of the vehicle should have been saturated with transmission fluid.
A factory flaw like this is always possible but I’m having a hard time seeing it because a PDI processs (pre-delivery inspection) includes checking all fluids, the undercarriage, and so on.

Here’s where the mistake was made and the dealer should get no blame over this.
You had a near new car that is under warranty and took it to an independent mechanic who had absolutely no business messing around with a pan gasket. The car should have been towed to the Subaru dealer right then and there.

Technically, the dealer did not have to provide a new transmission or one iota of help over this because of the decision to insert a 3rd party into it.
Dealers see this all of the time and believe me, I can’t even count how many vehicles in situations like this. The dealer has no way of knowing if the ind. mechanic screwed this up or not.

Why did they do the transmission change? For PR purposes and it’s quite likely the service manager fudged some paperwork to make it past muster in the warranty process. If it doesn’t pass muster then the dealer would have to eat every penny of that transmission swap. Hope that explains it.

Katiej…No one can answer this for you, sorry. This is something you will need to learn from dealing with the shops. The name hanging above the door does not designate it as being honest or dishonest. Some of the posters on here claim they they were ripped off by dealers and that can happen but I personally have not run into an independent shop that I would trust any farther than I could drool.
Honesty and integrity come from the heart, mind and soul of the individual and not from the franchise they are associated with.

@ok4450 Thanks for the explanation. It makes sense that the dealership would be unable to tell what was up with the gasket if someone else replaced it already. We did not look under the car that day 10 years ago to see whether there was fluid – seems glaringly idiotic now. (It makes me want to check all my fluids right this second, haha) When I get a chance I will ask my mom if there are more details I missed about her car.