Is it just me, or are dealer service departments in deep trouble?


Last week I took my 2000 Mercedes ML in for a stalling problem. Beforehand I looked on Edmunds for clues, and found that my symptoms matched a fix called the Crankshaft Position Sensor. I left a note to that effect when I dropped off the car at the dealer. $450 later it was fixed. $135 for the part, and $315 to diagnose the problem and replace.

2 years ago the dealer wanted to replace my AC for $2,000 due to a vibration at idle. The corner mechanic replaced a missing bolt for $40 which fixed the problem.

Nearly every trip to the dealer leaves me with a feeling of distrust.

Is it desperation?


If a car isn’t under warranty, it is almost never advantageous to take it to the dealer for repair. Find an independent euro import shop for your Mercedes needs.


It depends on the dealer, some are better than others but most are more expensive than independent shops. My local benz dealer has an excellent parts department, but I don’t use their service. I have a very good independent benz shop that is probably better than the dealer (with similar prices). Dealer service departments have a lot of overhead, partially because they are required to be up to date on all the latest training/equipment. As a result, they tend to be more expensive and usually rely on warrantee work for a large percentage of their income. They also tend to be less familiar with the older vehicles that they don’t usually see.

In some cases, their parts costs are also out of line; my dealer charges about $50 for the air filter for one of my cars (I can buy the same OEM filter for about $20 from other places, and I could probably find some after-market junk for $10-15 at Walmart or the local McParts store). In this case, the dealer’s parts manager laughed at his own price and told me I should buy it elsewhere.


Your mistrust is well placed!

As mentioned, unless it’s under warranty, you will get ripped off. I am the kind of person that drives a car into the ground, which has provided me with ample experience in dealing with dealerships vs. generic auto-repair shops, i.e. Pep-boys, TreadQuarters, local shop, etc. I have found that no matter what you get done, the same work, by certified mechanics will most often cost you a car payment less by not going to the dealership.

Some exceptions are brand or model specific issues.

Please be forewarned though, going to Merchant’s Auto is not only a price-gouge, but it is also a money trap. They will find things wrong with your car that aren’t in need of repair and claim that you will explode the minute you get into your car if you don’t have them repair it that minute. This is not only from experience, but having had a couple friends that worked for Merchant’s and them giving me the inside scoop. It is a culture that is promoted by the higher-ups. You were forewarned!


Benz over and hold the rail. This won’t hurt much…


Just wondering, who/what is “Merchant’s Auto” (I’ve never heard of them)?

OP, you really do not want to take your benz to a generic repair shop (chain or independent). If you don’t want to go to the dealer (understandable), find a good independent shop that works exclusively on benz (or at least a german car specialist). Don’t expect the independent shop to be much cheaper than the dealer, but they may be better. The corner repair shop may be cheap, but they won’t be able to do anything more than very basic repairs on your car.


Most everybody is in trouble these days trying to stay afloat. Mercedes, BMW, etc. have had a particular reputation problem and might be in more trouble than others with a higher overhead. I agree, you usually don’t need a dealer for routine work.


I have known people who go only to dealers because they think that dealers are more competent and more honest than independent shops, and they are willing to pay a little more for those qualities.

My experience is that this is generally true, but you cannot rely on it.

I advised my daughter to have her BMW towed to the local dealer in her college town because it sounded like her problem might be a complex electrical problem. They ripped her off for several hundred dollars and tried to sell her several hundred dollars more work that she did not need. They told her the car was unsafe to drive if they didn’t do the suggested repairs. She has worked along side me on her cars since she was 16, and their story sounded suspicious to her, so she called me. I told her to get her car out of there. Later, I checked the subject components. They were fine. The dealer had been blatantly lying, trying to take advantage of a 21-year-old woman.

Here in the Sacramento metro area, we have two BMW dealers. One is expensive but honest, competent, and highly customer-focused. The other is not. There are several great independent shops that specialize in BMWs, and several more with unethical hacks who I would not let wash my car.

BTW, I am a mechanical engineer who worked his way through college working in repair shops and teaching auto mechanics at a junior college, so I have viewed the problems with competence and ethics from all sides.


I think if one actually works for a dealer in the service department then they would find that they are not all riddled with incompetence and thievery.

One or two incompetents (incompetent defined as a mechanic who botches a substantial portion of what he does) can reflect on the entire shop so the entire shop should not be blamed for the actions of a few.

I will maintain the the vast majority of dealers are honest and competent and there are a few reasons why this is so.
One is that the factory is not going to tolerate an excessive number of consumer complaints and if one wants to find out if a dealer is really crooked or incompetent then do this. Search the BBB files and the public courthouse records for complaints and suits. If a dealer is REALLY that bad then there are going to be an excessive number on file.

Someone posted on this board several months back about (paraphrased) “all of the garages in this area of NM are downright crooks”. I did a BBB search on that area and only found one shop out of several hundred that had what could be considered an abnormal amount of complaints. Most were free and clear.

I’ll also maintain that many of these alleged “rip offs” are not rip offs at all but are often the result of a misunderstanding.
In the case of the OP it’s possible the A/C problem was a blown diagnosis if the story is correct. As to the stalling problem it sounds like the OP is doing some self-diagnosis and then expecting the dealer to strictly abide by what the OP told them they found on the Edmunds website.
No way should the service dept. rely on what they found on a handwritten note. Of course the service dept. is going to do the diagnosis and ignore the note.
Wonder what would have happened if the dealer had simply ignored any diagnosis procedures, and installed the part as diagnosed and requested by the OP? The dealer would then have been blamed for “not making sure” and “ripping them off”.

That’s like leaving a note for the surgeon as one is wheeled into the operating room stating “the symptoms match a gall bladder problem so yank her out”.


No way should the service dept. rely on what they found on a handwritten note. Of course the service dept. is going to do the diagnosis and ignore the note.

Any service provider who believes that had better see an attorney for advice today.

For some time I had an intermittent engine code in my Sienna, having to do with the fuel tank not maintaining its seal. I forget the codes right now. But, I worked as an electronic troubleshooter on high tech electronics for over 30 years, and know if you expect a tech to fix something he can’t see, you are going to burn up a lot of money and be told, gosh, there is no problem. Intermittents are the worst problem to fix.

So, I kept playing with it myself. I got a notebook and recorded when I got a code, when it was, and what it was.

Once, in Mexico, it did not fail for over three months.

I reviewed the shop manual, and things I found on the Web,and realized it was almost certainly the charcoal canister assembly. (There are apparently some low-pressure valves on there.) I even found another Sienna owner on the Sienna Club with the same problem, but he had two Sienna’s and swapped parts until it worked, so I had some support besides the technical description and my own theory.

I went in and talked to the service writer, and told him I was an experienced electronics troubleshooter, and while I lacked experience on cars, the computer code concepts were essentially the same as what we called ‘self-test’ in military and commercial avionics. I also told him I wanted my car fixed, and was taking responsibility for the diagnosis, that I’d rather pay for a canister when one wasn’t needed, than pay them $100 to say NO TROUBLE FOUND. (Even if the problem wasn’t solved, I would have a brand new canister assembly for my money, ready for another 125,000 miles.) I also did not expect to pay someone to troubleshoot something I had already troubleshot.

He agreed, said this happened all the time, wrote it up, had me sign that I did indeed want the part replaced with no troubleshooting, and they did it. PROBLEM SOLVED AT MINIMUM COST. Parts and labor, no diagnosing costs which would have been extensive on an intermittent problem, and the chances they would find it were small.

I am reminded of a woman tech I worked with in the 70’s. She got in a black box with a clear symptom, one which pointed directly to a specific component. She played your game, and said, “I don’t care. If I don’t see the problem myself, I can’t replace a part.” She asked our boss, ‘Forrest Gump’, and he said she was right. So, they sent a defective, intermittent box with a known intermittent part, to be put back in an aircraft, NTF, putting both crew and people on the ground at real risk, just because her Royal Majesty didn’t happen to see the intermittent failure. If I’d been in charge, I’d have fired them both.

If I take a car to a shop, request a part replaced, and they charge me hundreds of dollars for diagnosing that problem, I will sue their rear-ends. If they don’t want to do it, they can refuse the job. And, if they honestly believe the customer is wrong, they should turn it down. In virtually every state, this is standard business law – do the job as requested or turn it down. If you are in service work, and don’t know that, better take an attorney friend to lunch and ask him to explain it to you. Maybe you think you own a car/customer who comes to you, but you don’t. (If you want to look it up, it’s called Contract Law.)

My son is in medical school, and it looks like he may be a surgeon, since he has a natural talent for it. In most states in medicine, there is a legal medical concept called informed consent. And, if a person goes to a surgeon and tells him he wants his gall bladder out, the surgeon is ethically required by professional medical standards to verify there is a need to remove the gall bladder, before he operates. (There is no professional mechanic standards which prohibit replacing a part at customer request; just get him to sign that he is responsible.) If he doesn’t think so, or the patient refuses the examinations, he has to refuse to operate (that is, turn down the work.) Likewise, the patient has the legal right (except minor children in some cases) to refuse surgery which is deemed necessary by qualified medical personnel.

If you want problems, ignore the customer’s instructions and do exactly what you want to do. Yes, you can be sued, and if it is found that you knew what the customer told you to do, and ignored it because you felt the customer was wrong, and did it your way instead of refusing the work, you can lose big time. (I got an A in Business Law, also passed the CPA exam on it; this was emphasized because a lot of smart-aleck service people think they can do whatever they want to do when a customer brings in work, no matter what the customer tells them.)

The problem is that you left an "informative" note for the service department. The note would only be view (rightly), by the mechanic as, "I'm assuming that this component is at fault."  The mechanic is fairly certain that if YOU were a mechanic, and had correctly diagnosed the problem, that you would have replaced the part, yourself, or direct the replacement of the part [i]in writing[/i]. 

As a mechanic, when someone wants a part changed, and nothing more, he’ll have to put it into writing. The few times that I’ve accepted a customer’s diagnosis (or, even symptom descriptions), and I didn’t duplicate the problem (or, observe, or hear the problem), myself, I caused myself grief. So, PUT it into writing.


I think it can be inferred from the OP’s post that they diagnosed the problem themselves based on what they read on Edmunds.
To quote the OP; they “left a note to that effect when they dropped the car off”.

There’s a difference between a note requesting a part to be replaced and a note providing a lot of relevant info; the latter of which is seldom done and is greatly desired.

Jrlandes, I understand your point completely but a shop should not do the former, period.
Couple of points. (first already mentioned previously)

  1. What do you think the OP is going to do if a part is simply replaced as requested and the part does not solve the problem? Who is the finger going to be pointed at? You know who.
  2. Let’s take this a step further. The car is “dropped off with a note” requesting the transmission be replaced “because the symptom matched” on the Edmunds site. Ten grand later the car has a new transmission and the problem still exists.
    Should there have been more of a diagnosis performed or should the dealer have simply followed the instruction on the note?

Carry this onwards.
You call a central heat/air guy out and you leave a note telling him to replace the compressor relay in your home unit. He replaces it and the A/C still doesn’t work because the compressor is shot. Are you going to get mad at the guy for not doing further diagnosis or will you happily pay the bill for the service call when it arrives?

You cannot compare an aircraft black box with what has occurred here. The black box can be high tech, thorough, and point to a specific problem that has occurred.
What you have here is a handwritten note based on what they read on the Edmunds site and it is claimed the “symptoms matched a fix”.
This is comparing apples to oranges.
Should the aircraft owner diagnose their own electronic problems or turn it over to someone who knows something about it?

(And I agree with you totally about firing the people involved in that aircraft incident you mentioned. Many planes have gone down due to corner cutting, lack of maintenance, or rushed procedures. I also agree with you that if a shop replaces a part based solely on what the customer wants then have at it. The problem with that is that the same person who signs that authorization form absolving the shop of any responsibility will turn right around 2 minutes after being told the part did not fix the problem and proceed to scream/curse/point fingers/threaten to sue. That is as sure a bet as the sun coming up tomorrow. Been there, done that, seen that too many times.)

I will point out that in about 35 years as a tech I have never seen nor heard of a lawsuit over an issue like this. Not saying it can’t or won’t happen; just that I’ve never seen it. I have been in court a couple of times as an “expert witness” involving a couple of cases in which a customer sued the shop for doing exactly as they requested per the note. The car owners lost every single one of those cases.


I happened to think of yet another example of why this note or waiver means nothing. Someone brought me a Volvo P1800 one time that was eating oil. The engine was worn out and the lady did not know if she wanted to overhaul it or not. One day she shows up with her fiancee (an Air Force captain and flight instructor at the base).

He is being transferred temprorarily to TX and they want to know if they can leave the car in the back lot for about 30 days. I was very antsy about this but agreed to it with the understanding they would sign a waiver absolving me of any problems that occrred (weather, fire, theft, etc.) and that they would pick the car up within the next 2 months.

They agreed, signed and EIGHT MONTHS later, they’re back. We go out to the car and someone had Slim Jimmed the door and stolen the stereo.
Guess whose fault? Mine, according to them. I had not even looked at that car since the day they left.

It got pretty volatile between me and the Cap’n until what they signed finally soaked in. They left disgruntled and threatening to sue. Sue away but get that heap out of here. (And no, they did not sue and to think that I never charged them one stinking dime for any diagnosis at all, leakdown test, oil pressure test, etc.)


Was your diagnosis right? (charcol canister) I sure wish that I as a tech could turn down certain jobs. But that behaviour gets you a name as it has been pointed out to me on this forum that name is FIRED


Merchant’s Auto is an East Coast auto center similar to Goodyear, Firestone, and Sears.


I’m surprised the shop didn’t just report the car abandoned after the 2 months were up.


I used to be comfortable with my dealer until the service manager left. They now charge $400 for what used to be a $190 service as they add all kinds of items on top. They also spiked prices and are alarmists.

I am thankful the service manager did open his own (low overhead) one man show shop and remains honest and fair on his work and is a certified tech in my make.

I do not like independents unless specialized in that make or a few makes. They can do most work but specific problems seem to mean a few trips back and “wasted” repairs.


as several of the replies have indicated there is a variety of opinions on this subject.

reading all of them seems to bring out a common thread.

the mechanic does not seem to be the fault, but the service writers’ seem to be the issue.

as someone stated, some dealership mechanics are good, some are bad, but what seems to be the common thread is the repairs needed, completed and desired vary not necessarily according to real need, but the service writers foisting unneeded crap on to unsuspecting customers.

how many itmes have we heard jiffy lube upsell and incompetence in the same sentence? the same applies to ‘stealership’ service writers too!

the only common answer is to find a decent local mechanic who writes his own service advice, and is the guy you talk to if there is a problem.

how many times at a dealer service department, when ther is a problem with a repair do you EVER get to actually talk to the tech??? but who is there to intercept you and placate you??? the service writer!


This the situation that motivated my recent postings “Implied Consent” and “What makes a good Service Advisor”


Consumer Reports had a recent article on dealer service satisfaction vs independent garages. In all cases, owners were more satisfied with their independent mechanics. Mercedes had the LOWEST dealer service satifaction of all manufacturers, while Lexus had the highest. So your instincts are right. Use only the dealer for warranty work and new technolgy items that the independent has not received service data for.