Are car dealerships really evil?
January 15, 2015 8:14 AM   Subscribe

This question and its responses made me wonder if taking our car to the dealership for repairs is unwise.

We've only ever received excellent service from them; we bought a new car there a couple years ago and have taken it in for a basic tune-up and oil changes. We figured that if we ever want to sell the car it would be great to have a complete and authorized repair history, and we trust them. Plus I know from past experience that finding a good mechanic is difficult.

Can anyone shed light on why dealerships have a bad reputation? I'm not looking for anecdata, but rather information on how a dealership is different than a mechanic, and the advantage and disadvantages to either. Thanks!
posted by Specklet to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Car Talk: Do dealers really charge more?

Spoiler: Yes. They do. Particularly on the coasts, for whatever reason.

The second comment on the results page points out that dealerships will use parts that are more or less guaranteed (not in the "warranty" sense) to work just as well as the original parts that the automotive engineers intended to be used. Independent mechanics, on the other hand, will often use something cheaper that might not necessarily be the ideal replacement. There are also warranty issues to think about that may make it cheaper in the long run to stick with the dealer, at least for the first few years.
posted by Etrigan at 8:24 AM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I take my car to the dealership for its regular maintenance and such. My issue with the dealership is this: they're fine for regular stuff, great at finding issues, but really really bad at taking a reasonable approach to my car.

I have a 1997 Rav4. It is old and decrepit and I've been driving it since I was sixteen, it's spent the last six years of its life living on the mean streets of Chicago, break ins and careless parkers and polar vortices and all, and I have no illusions that it will never be a nice new car. The Toyota dealership every time I take it in for maintenance gives me a laundry list of its various shortcomings with an invoice for "recommended maintenance" coming in at the $1200 or so mark. Bro the car is barely even worth that. No.

So every time I go to the dealership I have to have a discussion with the service guy along the lines of "no, no, no, ha no, no way, please just tell me which of these problems, if any, will put my car at risk of exploding tomorrow." And, eventually, the answer is always none. And for the last two years they've been reminding me about how they have all these nice, unfucked vehicles they'd be happy to sell me.

tl;dr in my personal experience it's not that they're evil so much as it's just become kind of a pita to get our expectations in re my old ass car to align.
posted by phunniemee at 8:29 AM on January 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

Once my car went out of warranty, I continued going to the dealership for a few years. Then I moved and found a highly regarded independent mechanic, and my bills are about 1/4 of what they were for similar things (mainly scheduled maintenance). They also often go above and beyond, fixing small things for free because I'm a regular customer, which never happened at the dealership. And from what I can tell, my independent mechanic can pull up records of what was done based on the car's computer, though I don't know how complete they are (and I could be totally wrong about that).

I liked the people at the dealership, and I don't think they were malicious or manipulative, they just cost a lot more.
posted by jaguar at 8:29 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Toyota dealership every time I take it in for maintenance gives me a laundry list of its various shortcomings with an invoice for "recommended maintenance" coming in at the $1200 or so mark.

I do not have a Toyota and my dealership mechanics also always had that same price tag. The independent mechanic seems to be in the $200-400 range for the same work, and he generally apologizes if it's going to be more than $300.
posted by jaguar at 8:31 AM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

(Oh and I should note, if something is actually going to explode, I let the dealership tell me what it is and then go to a different mechanic to get the actual work done for way less.)
posted by phunniemee at 8:36 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had to go into the dealer recently as I was told what needed to be done was only something they could do.

It was fine, probably too expensive what what needed to be done and they were very unorganized and I got three different price quotes each higher than the last. But it appeared they had me over a barrel so to speak and that's all there was to it.

So not great or amazing and I'd recommend finding and then going to a great local mechanic.
posted by Carillon at 8:39 AM on January 15, 2015

I think dealer mechanics tend to do only what "the book" tells them to and to not dig deeper. I had a situation where my engine was 'missing'. The mechanic replaced a spark plug that was arced over (carbon tracked). That lasted for 2000 miles and it did it again. They replaced the spark plug again. You guessed it-2000 miles-same thing. I looked at it and found that the spark plug boot was all carboned up. I replaced plug and boot, no more problems. I believe a good independent mechanic would have found this the first time.
posted by H21 at 8:40 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Can anyone shed light on why dealerships have a bad reputation?

Dealerships are expensive, which is where most of the 'bad reputation' comes from. So when they cost people a lot of money, they get extra hurt and angry about it. Dealerships need to (to some extent) charge the most money because they are dealing with the newest models and must represent the manufacturer in accordance with their guidelines and so must have all the bells and whistles, fancy looking buildings, keep up with all the special tools and software required (no insignificant cost) because they need to cater for the latest cars at all times. They have to send mechanics for manufacturer specific training too, which costs them money twice (the cost of the training, plus paying for a mechanic's time while he is at training and not making money for them on the shop floor). They also have guidelines from the manufacturer they must adhere to, and direct access for approving or disallowing warranty claims.

- People have bad experiences with all mechanics - its not an exact process and some people expect it to be. In addition dealerships are held to a higher (unrealistic sometimes) standard because people expect them to have a magic wand because they have a 30 foot long sign with the car manufacturer's name on it outside. Because the bad experience is with a more expensive dealer, it gets yelled about a bit more. The same mistake from a mechanic shop is perceived as a bigger mistake at a dealer (sometimes rightly, sometimes not).

- Dealerships do the same job as smaller (but good quality) independent mechanics shops. But independent mechanics shops are often not trained to the same standard nor have all the specialist tools dealers have.

- Dealers always (sometimes HAVE to) use OEM parts, consumables and processes. Basically, they work on your car with the same stuff that it was built with, in the same way, usually down to the exact same oils and washer fluids etc that came in the car from new. But obviously these cost more.

- Dealerships have access to all the information network from other dealers with the same manufacturer worldwide. So they have access to information that gives them the collective experience of the brand globally. This is not insignificant in terms of diagnosing weird problems or being faster on recalls. This information is sometimes also available to independent shops but they may not choose to spend the significant sums of money required to stay in that information loop. Dealers are required to as part of their contract.

Because of all these advantages (most of which the dealership has to pay a LOT of money to have) they generally charge more per hour for labour. They also charge full price for parts. They also don't always 'cut the hours' like an independent shop might to keep your business - ie a brake disc replacement takes (say) 1.5 hours 'book' time (dictated by the handbook they use) and requires the wheels to come off, but a good mechanic can get it done in 1 hour. A dealer will probably still charge their standard cost for a requested tyre rotation (taking 0.5 hours 'book' time), despite the fact they had to have the wheels off to do the brakes anyway - it's where you draw the line with what is profit through your workshop efficiency and where you pass that on to the customer for better perceived service. The dealer may charge 2 hours (full book) for brakes and tyre rotation, a back street mechanic may charge the 1.25 hour it actually took him for both. Or somewhere in between. The independent is also charging out at $90, while the dealer has a flat rate of $120. So the same job is $240 at the dealer but $112.50 at the independent guy.

But the dealer has a nice showroom to sit in while you wait, and complimentary coffee. And maybe a selection of chocolates. Some nice shiny cars to look at and sit in. At the independent guy, you're on a clean-ish chair in a tiny room with a 15" TV in the corner showing something terrible.

It's just not the same level of service, but some people expect it to be and determine therefore that dealers are evil. That's just not the case.

TL:DR: Dealers are not evil. Well run dealerships are actually better and more capable than well run independent shops for newer cars
Poorly run mechanic shops cost money in bad ways. Bad dealers cost more money for the same cock up than independents. They're not evil, they're a different business model. It doesn't make the most sense to take a brand new car to an independent and it doesn't make any sense at all to take a 10 year old car to a dealer. Somewhere between is the best time to switch between the two.
posted by Brockles at 8:45 AM on January 15, 2015 [36 favorites]

Can anyone shed light on why dealerships have a bad reputation?

I had a big thing written up, and it said, well, all of what Brockles said.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:56 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dealerships will typically use the recommended brand name parts, rather than independent parts that might not work as well with your car. In theory this means you are paying a little bit extra for better service, but in practice it is never that clear cut.

The other difference between a mechanic and a dealer is that a dealer also sells cars. Thus, they are constantly trying to sell you a new car, which could affect their approach to maintaining your old car. I would imagine that cases of intentionally botched repairs are rare, but you can definitely find stories on Yelp.

Really it depends on (1) The make, model of your car (some are harder to service than others), (2) the age of your car (an experience phunniemee described perfectly) (3) The dealership itself (in my experience some are more sleazy than others), and (4) how much money you are willing to spend.
posted by AfterAlbuquerque at 8:58 AM on January 15, 2015

The reason why people often drop "dealerships are evil" is because cars are a fucking money pit. If you own a car in the typical, middle-class-American-dream manner, it means buying new with financing, and getting the car serviced at the dealership. And this just costs a whole huge pile of money.

Unless you carefully budget, the monthly payment is what one mentally commits to "cost of the car", but the reality is that a car is a machine, and machines break. And when you get a car serviced at the dealership, it costs more for the reasons Brockles outlined above.

Personally, I don't think dealerships are evil, I just think buying new cars is a losing game.
posted by rocketman at 9:08 AM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Anecdata in the other direction: my dealer has told me I don't need a procedure at least twice, and never tries to sell me a new car. Mine's only seven years old, however.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:10 AM on January 15, 2015

The other difference between a mechanic and a dealer is that a dealer also sells cars. Thus, they are constantly trying to sell you a new car, which could affect their approach to maintaining your old car. I would imagine that cases of intentionally botched repairs are rare, but you can definitely find stories on Yelp.

A lot of the bad feedback can be due to people just not understanding how hard it is to fix something as complex as a modern car, though (I mentioned this in the thread linked in the OP). I find it phenomenally unlikely to be a 'real thing' in Yelp reviews because the dealer would make much more money by fixing the old car time and again *then* selling a new car through a happy return customer than trying to ruin their car, pissing the customer off in the process, but hoping they will buy a new car and keep coming back because they need a ride home. It just... doesn't make sense. The dealer is making money by servicing the guys car, not losing it so he's happy enough anyway.

So it would have to be a short sighted and stupid dealer, who was also evil. PLUS a customer who would buy a new car after a massive disappointment all needing to be in the same place. It's just... not likely. Dealers try and push people into new cars, true, but sabotaging a repair on an existing car? Almost certainly bullshit and maybe based on a serious repair on the original car that went badly for a genuine reason (which happens, but people assume shouldn't) and the owner just flat out doesn't understand cars or how to fix them and so dismisses the dealers explanation (which may or may not involve chance/incompetence, but almost certainly not 'intent to sell a new car).

It would only be at the tiniest majority of dealers that are genuinely shady on an institutional level yet also haven't been dumped by their manufacturer) rather than some arse within the company trying to make more commission personally that the scenario of deliberately botching a repair to make a sale would happen. But these stories about dealerships pervade, despite dealers making nowhere near as much on a new sale as people think, and most of their money being made in servicing. It's because people WANT the perceived establishment to be out to get them and it costs money. They see independent mechanics as a person, and a dealership as a Massive Multinational Faceless Corporation and don't treat the same mistakes by each equally. Hence dealers look x% worse for the same problem.
posted by Brockles at 9:13 AM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

FWIW, when we're not talking huge repairs, I factor in the hassle factor about dealership vs independent mechanic. I live near an excellent, very highly regarded mechanic. I've had some work done there and have been satisfied. But it's a tiny place with no waiting room. Any work you get done--even an oil change--requires you to drop off your car (and it's not within walking distance of any cafes or shops to kill time). So if I go there, it's a whole pain where I have to either arrange a pickup from a friend or spend money on cabs, etc.

Meanwhile, the two local dealerships have lovely waiting rooms with free wifi and snacks, and they run a complimentary shuttle taking me wherever I want to go if the wait time is over an hour... Sometimes that's worth the extra $15 they charge on an oil change or for new wipers, you know?
posted by TwoStride at 9:13 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

As per usual with car related questions, Brockles has it. In addition to his points I think some of it is spillover from the reputation on the sales side of things. I can tell you from having sold cars for a living at a bunch of different dealerships that that reputation is not always well deserved either. Don't get me wrong, some dealers and some salespeople are total scumbags but some, even large dealer networks, are totally fine. Sometimes people walk away thinking that the dealer was sleazy as hell though. I've been totally honest and up-front with customers while they've been lying through their teeth. They walk away thinking I was trying to rip them off which reinforces the stereotype despite any facts to the contrary.

Buying a car is, for most people, a surprisingly irrational decision. The rational part of their brain can be screaming at them not to buy a new car but they buy it anyways. Then, when they need to spend more money on it to fix it, they beat themselves up over it and their ego will tell them that it's all the dealership's fault.
posted by VTX at 9:16 AM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

nthing Brockles. I've driven a lot and worn out a lot of cars, and had bad experiences at both. I'd only add that I am absolutely unafraid to take a newish car to an independent I trust for oil changes, etc. The "multi-point inspections" most dealers claim to do is rubbish. Any mechanic can do them, most of it is very superficial, and some dealers charge for them and then don't do them at all.

The situation I tend to want to take a newer car to a dealer for is an actual problem, beyond a simple brake job or the like. Alternator goes out, or power steering dies. That sort of thing.

Not everyone needs to be a mechanic; I actually do very little on my own cars (bulb changes is about all). But you need to know how to check fluid levels (in a modern car, this is 99% of preventative maintenance) and enough about how the systems work and interconnect to know when a service writer or shop owner is talking rot.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:28 AM on January 15, 2015

Dealerships are sort of like churches. They believe in the sanctity and purity of their brand(s). They believe that while you are the temporary owner of one of the Children of Prius, or Mazda or Ford, you must be compelled to maintain that relationship at the highest level. Dealerships therefore have no qualms asking you to tithe your paycheck for a simple oil change that the heathen Pep Boys will do for $18.95.

That, and they make shit on the actual sale of the car, and they make only a small service fee when doing warranty work, so they have to soak you for everything else.
posted by Gungho at 9:46 AM on January 15, 2015

I actually find, in NYC at least, that the (Hyundai) dealership is not significantly more expensive than my local mechanic. I've never had a serious repair done by either, but on maintenance the costs are comparable. The labor rate is probably a little higher at the dealer but the parts cost about the same, even though the dealer is using genuine Hyundai parts and the local mechanic is using some no-name part that is adequate but probably not as good as the OEM part. (Note that local mechanics often mark up the parts they install in a huge way--it's a major source of income for them.) So in a way, I'm doing a little better by taking my car to the dealer for maintenance because I'm having original parts installed for around the same price.

HOWEVER (and this is a big however), dealers will often try to screw you by trying to sell you service that you don't actually need. This is how you get the $1,200 tune-up for a 1997 RAV4. So when you tell them "I'm due for my 30,000-mile service," they give you the price for all the stuff Toyota requires at 30,000 miles and "recommend" additional services that are unnecessary or of dubious value, like ATF replacement (when the manufacturer says you don't have to do it until 60,000 or 90,000), the infamous "fuel injector service" or "throttle-body service," etc., etc. Note that many service advisers work on commission, so it's in their interest to sell you as much service as possible, whether you need it or not.

So, bottom line is, I find that cost is about even between the dealer and local mechanic, but I am very informed about what my car needs, as specified by the manufacturer, at specific mileage intervals, and don't let them sell me anything additional. Every car owner needs to familiarize him/herself with the owner's manual and the maintenance intervals specified therein (or what the lights on the dashboard are saying when they tell you that you need to perform some kind of maintenance) and stick to them. The manufacturer knows your car better than anyone else, and getting any kind of additional "suggested" or "recommended" service that is not specifically required by the manufacturer is a huge waste of money.
posted by Leatherstocking at 10:31 AM on January 15, 2015

Unless it's a recall or service that's part of a pre-paid service package, I take my car to a highly-regarded independent mechanic for good service at a lower price. Dealerships will only use $$$$ manufacturer brand parts (another profit center for them) and they tend to charge the maximum book value for labor even if they don't use all that time. My independent mechanic uses very high quality aftermarket parts that are much less expensive and they charge me for actual labor time.
posted by quince at 10:36 AM on January 15, 2015

Dang, Brockles said it all!

I'd had good and bad experiences at independent mechanics; it all depends on the shop. I've only dealt with one dealership in my life, because I bought most of my cars used, only my current one was new. The dealership changed though (from selling/maintaining Chryslers to Minis), so right now I'm back with an independent I've dealt with on-and-off for more years than I care to admit to. The dealership was faster but both were equally competent, both didn't charge again if they didn't fix something right the first time, both treat me as a person with a brain (mechanics I'll never go back to include the sexist fools who assume female drivers=brainless idiots); the dealer was slightly more expensive, but not really enough to make much of a difference.

Also, I'll never ever go to something like a JiffyLube or Precision Tune again in my life, I don't give a damn how much time, money and trouble going somewhere else would cost: those places are ripoff kings and 'evil'.
posted by easily confused at 10:47 AM on January 15, 2015

We have a great relationship with our Honda dealer. We buy our cars there and we get them serviced there. We continue to do business with them because we know the repairs are guaranteed and they'll use genuine parts. Do we pay more? Not always.

Our dealer is very competitive for routine service, tires, batteries and oil changes.

I am sure there's a 'Honda Guy' out there who does a great job for less, but I don't have the bandwidth in my life to find him. Also, the dealer is up to date on recalls, and other issues.

Anecdata: My sister had an Audi, and she took it to a guy called "Lord of the Rings." Yes, mostly because of the clever name. As expected, she had maddening, intermittent electrical issues. The mechanic's way of dealing with it was to keep replacing stuff and hoping it would take care of it. After spending about $1,200, the issue wasn't resolved and the mechanic said, "You have to take it to the dealer because I've tried everything I can think of. They'll have more advanced diagnostics than I have."

Sissy got a new car after that because it turned out to be something pretty bad. Could have saved $1,200 in trying and trying. Also, think about how frustrating it was to have to keep going back for the same thing.

That's been my experience as well. When I had beaters I had one of those mechanics who would put things together with spit and bailing wire. It was cheap, but at some point you get over repairs that don't last, funny smells and being stranded all over the city. When AAA knows you intimately, it's time to make a change.

So no, the dealership isn't evil and they're not always the most expensive. But they can be expensive, and you have to decide if it's worth it. I personally think it is.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:27 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Subaru dealer by me has horrible customer service. I have been hung up on multiple times and screamed at for asking simple questions about pricing and other service they are recommending.

In the meantime, my local mechanic is much nicer, has great loaners, and saves me a lot of time and money compared to dealer service. Obviously, YMMV.
posted by Nackt at 11:36 AM on January 15, 2015

"Dealerships therefore have no qualms asking you to tithe your paycheck for a simple oil change that the heathen Pep Boys will do for $18.95."

Just don't go to Jiffy Lube, where they were caught recommending unnecessary procedures seven out of 11 times.
posted by klangklangston at 11:52 AM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers, guys! I'll continue to take my car to the dealer for another few years, then start shopping for a good independent mechanic.
posted by Specklet at 7:21 PM on January 15, 2015

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