How to run an auto repair shop

Like most people, my relationship with my car dealer is one of distrust and lies. I don't trust them any farther than I could throw them (even were I to be exposed to mysterious Gamma Rays, transforming me into someone you wouldn't like when I'm angry). Since December, my ABS light has been coming on periodically. Sometimes it'll stay off for an entire commute, others it's on instantly and stays glowing for the whole trip. About a month ago, I tried taking it into the shop to get looked at, but the light never came on. It took another week before I was able to get it into the shop with the light on so they could run the diagnostic. For those of you unfamiliar with the diagnostic - a history.

Back in the day, car dealers were only interested in fleecing you out of money when you actually bought the car. Subsequently, if anything needed fixing, you would take your car to a local garage, or gas station to get it fixed. There, the mechanic would take you through a complex process of diagnosing what was wrong using the following technique:

Mechanic: So what seems to be the trouble?
Owner: I don't know, it's making this noise whenever I turn left.
Mechanic: What's it sound like?
Owner: (makes a sound like a muskrat in a clothes dryer)
Mechanic: Hmmmmm...I think I know what to do...

The mechanic would then take a day or seven to order replacement parts, leaving the owner stranded long enough to fall in love, solve crimes, invent rock-n-roll, or whatever other plot points needed to be resolved in the particular Michael J. Fox movie we happened to be watching.

These days however, auto dealers realized that there is way more money to be made fleecing owners on the maintenance side of the business. But because everyone kept taking their cars into their trusted mechanics, they devised "the diagnostic" which is a computer who lives inside your engine, gathering secrets about it which it will only tell to computers at the dealership. What sort of secrets it gathers I prefer not to think about. Of course this makes figuring out what the problem is very easy for the dealer. But the problem is that if the diagnostic doesn't see anything wrong at the moment, it assumes nothing is broken. Thus, in my case it made for trouble, since every time I brought it in to get looked at the diagnostic refused to tell the dealer's computer what was wrong (not unlike a passive-aggressive significant other).

Needless to say, the dealer kept my car for two days and eventually figured out what they thought was the right answer - and that would essentially cost me $2100 to fix. Naturally, I calmly inquired whether the service guy was high and if so, when would he be talking sense again so I could call back. In the end, he confirmed the diagnosis and I refused to get it fixed, choosing instead to get another problem fixed that would not require me to sell a kidney on the black market.

Once the parts were in for that fix I dropped it off last Friday morning. When I got a call a few hours later from the service guy telling me he had "some good news" - that the fix they thought they would have to do on the ABS light was, in fact just a faulty sensor that would cost me "only about $300" to fix, not the original $2100. Needless to say, I was ecstatic! I just saved $1800! Woo-hoo! The GF will confirm how excited I was, because I called her in my excited, somewhat spastic state of glee. Of course, in her wisdom, I'm sure she was saying to herself "Doesn't he know he's spending another $300?", but kudos to her for letting me have my moment.

Of course, that feeling only lasted for an hour or two. That's when I started wondering if the whole thing was a ploy. I mean after an initial quote of $2100 - *anything* would seem reasonable. So now I'm a little paranoid that this is a new trick the dealers are doing to get more of our money and pay off their boats. So the next time someone quotes you $2100 to fix anything on your car, back away slowly.


J.Bro said…
Man - the last paragraph was _exactly_ what I was thinking! C'mon - a sensor? So the only thing that's broken is the thing responsible for telling whether something is broken? It reminds me of the sign outside a local car-fixing-place that says, "We fix service engine soon lights."

Also, this post read like a Dave Barry column - I approve.
grrrbear said…
Frankly, I think every gas station in the country should post a sign reading "We Fix 'Low Fuel' Lights".
Anonymous said…
ya im sure the automotive dealer came up with all the diagnostic just to take your money. they came with all of this because people want there DVD players, seat warmers, power windows/locks, fuel injected vehicles that make everything easier on themselves. They have computers for every part on the vehicle now and therefore they need sensors for everything to tell the computers what is going on. If you think about it for all the wiring, sensors, and other electronic equipment on your vehicle your lucky it doesnt have more problems then they do. Im not saying some people arent out to get your money there are people in every job that try to rip people off. so why dont you stop talking bad about the automotive industry in general when its clear you nothing about the way your vehicle works or how to fix it. By the way im a mechanic and I have never tried to rip anyone off and $300 isnt that bad it could have been alot more. Specially for an anti-lock brake system problem (abs)
Anonymous said…
Agreed, I’m a mechanic my self. In today’s vehicles the miles upon miles of wiring and sensors is phenomenal. It should also be known that the computer does not tell you what’s wrong. It simply points you in the right direction.

In your case the $2100 estimate could have been the abs control module (computer). If it is not able to comprehend the signal from the sensor it needs to be replaced to work properly. On the other hand, if the sensor is not sending the signal that is a different story. It can sometimes take time to figure out, by testing sensors and wiring (which loops in, out, up and around the transmission, dash, engine etc…. You pay for every hour the mechanic works. If I was a medical doctor would you question me? Probably not! Truth be told the human body hasn’t changed in thousands of years, but cars change every 3-5. Not one brand or make/model works the same.

I think another issue here is that you probably don't even know the technician who worked on your car. Next time your in ask to meet him/her and start to develop a relationship with them. It will help in the future with problems you may have, before they become a major concern. Also the chances you'll get ripped off will greatly diminish. Unfortunately it does happen, but not just in the automotive industry...
Caridad Guzman said…
It is a bad sign that you don't have that good relationship with your car dealer because no matter what happens we still be calling them because they know well about our cars than anybody else.
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