Should I trust the dealership or a shop with my new car?
December 24, 2016 11:01 AM   Subscribe

The Ask: We love our new car, and want to be good parents to it, and we're able to pay dealer prices for maintenance and repair. BUT we want to get our money's worth, we want to last for a very long time, and we have other expenses (like our upcoming wedding) to pay for. So, should we place our trust in a dealership or a private garage? Which have you had better luck with, and why? The saga continues inside.

Two weeks ago, we bought a new (old) car! This was a big deal for us, as we try to be thrifty people and we haven't owned a car together before. It's a 2006 Mercedes-Benz e320 Wagon, it's in beautiful cosmetic shape, and it has 171,000 miles on it: we were nervous about that, but the interwebs assured us a well-cared for Mercedes could keep going for a long time. Now we need to figure out how to keep it going!

We bought from a private party, and got it at a very low price, a few thousand under our expectation. We took it into the Mercedes of Seattle Dealership, where they concluded that it was in pretty good shape, with the exceptions of: 1) a small transmission leak, 2) a small oil leak from the right-side valve cover, and 3) a radiator leak that requires replacement, along with some hoses and clamps. They assured us that these are easily fixable, but quoted a total of almost $3000 for parts and labor.

The private seller is willing to cover half the replacement of the radiator, but he thinks we should go to a garage instead of the dealer. The estimates from private garages are substantially lower than the dealer's. Also, the dealer replaced the windshield wipers for us at over twice the cost I had planned on after researching good wipers, so I'm not convinced they are fairly priced.

We don't know much about cars or car-related headaches. I can imagine private garages as being awesome, geeky tech-head places that will make my exciting new car sing, or I can imagine them as sloppy, off-market that won't have the expertise or care for my car. I just don't know!

Please help us with this anxiety so we can do right by our car and our bank account. Bonus points if you have specific experience with Seattle or Seattle-area German car maintenance and have recommendations. Thank you so much!
posted by skookumsaurus rex to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total)
When I bought a new car I took it to the dealership for everything while it was still under warranty. It wasn't necessary, technically nor legally, but for peace of mind I bit the bullet. I think for this situation it can be a good idea to use the dealership so that both parties can have a clean break. After that you can find the best techy-geeky garage for your ongoing maintenance.
posted by rhizome at 11:10 AM on December 24, 2016

Where does the seller have the maintenance done?
posted by notyou at 11:19 AM on December 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've had German cars for nearly twenty years now. I've taken them to both dealerships and independent shops. Each has their pros and cons. For a car the age of yours, I would probably take it to an independent shop IF I found one that specializes in your type of car, with good references from satisfied customers. At least for expensive jobs, maybe not for oil changes.

Generally I take my cars to the dealership for service during the warranty period and for a few years thereafter. My experience is that independent shops (even those that specialize) are more used to seeing somewhat older cars, and they don't always have a ton of experience with the quirks of brand new models. The dealership is seeing the new models all the time. So I've found that the dealership is usually somewhat better at figuring out issues if the car is relatively new. Also, the dealership isn't that much more expensive until you get into large jobs.

After the car is a bit older, maybe 7 or 8 years, I'll tend more toward the indy shops, though sometimes I'll still go to the dealer for something like an oil change because it's maybe $10 difference and the overall experience is usually better (e.g. they have a nice fleet of loaner cars, the lobby is comfortable, etc.). For a brake job or something else that's getting up near the four figures, the savings at an indy shop make it more worth it.

Overall, based on my experience and ignoring cost, there is much more variation in independent shops than dealers. Some dealers are pretty good, some are pretty bad, but I've never experienced one that was consistently off the charts amazing or really terrible. I've seen both of those in independent shops. The indy highs are higher and the lows are lower. At a dealership you know you're likely to pay more, you probably won't get above and beyond service, but most likely it will go fine. Only go to independent shops that you have good reason to believe will do a great job on your specific type of car.
posted by primethyme at 11:21 AM on December 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

I own a much different genre of car, but with a similar bent—it's old and high-mileage and I want to keep it around because I like it a lot—and I would trust a specialty shop over a dealer for it. Yours is still kind of in the middle ground, but as it gets older dealerships are going to start seeing far fewer examples of your particular car around, which erodes a lot of the advantage they have for new cars. (My car is ~20 years old, and at that point whatever the make it might as well have come on a truck from Mars—that it has the same make as the cars they sell now is basically just a coincidence.)
posted by Polycarp at 11:32 AM on December 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

The problem is, it totally depends on the dealer and/or garage involved; there are good and bad examples of each.

My only absolute would be, I would NOT take it to a garage recommended by the seller, unless I had other, non-seller opinions that that was one of the good garages --- you don't want to take it to some buddy of the seller who will do a quick & dirty fix, only to have the same problem reappear later when the seller is long gone.
posted by easily confused at 11:38 AM on December 24, 2016

"We try to be thrifty" and "we just bought an E Class with 171K on the clock" don't go together. You have purchased a notoriously expensive car to maintain. The parts alone are very expensive. The labor is specialized. An independent shop is not likely to be much cheaper than a dealer shop over time.

You don't say if it's a diesel, which some e320s were. If it's a V8, make sure you aren't affected by the balance shaft class action lawsuit.

I agree that in a city like Seattle you'll be able to find an excellent independent German car specialist (with a boat payment to make). But while it's true Mercedes can go 400k miles, they cost a year of a good college's tuition's worth of maintenance to get there in many cases. Thrifty they are not.

Best bet is to learn to wrench it yourself.
posted by spitbull at 11:56 AM on December 24, 2016 [15 favorites]

My local mechanics are the best. I wouldn't even consider taking my car to a dealership for a non-warranty issue. (Not that my car is in warranty!)
posted by cnc at 11:56 AM on December 24, 2016

You actually can be thrifty with a high mileage M-B, if you have a shop nearby that specializes specifically in M-B cars. While there are exceptions (the best Honda mechanic I've known actually worked at the local dealer), specialist shops are generally better at dealing with the make they specialize in than the dealer mechanics are, especially when it comes to older models.

The best M-B mechanic I've ever known was at a specialist shop that only dealt with M-B. Nothing else. They also sold used Mercedes cars as well. I'm sure there is someone like that in Seattle. Look for the place that has been in business for 20+ years and does nothing but work on that single make.

For the situation at hand, what makes the most sense depends on how much of that $3000 is labor. If it's mostly labor, it would be worth finding an independent mechanic with a lower labor rate. If it's mostly parts, order the parts more cheaply online and let the dealer do the work.
posted by wierdo at 1:25 PM on December 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

If I have a choice, I've always used a good independent mechanic. I try to find someone who specializes in the type of car I have. They tend to know the quirks and their experience creates value. And, before you try to save by buying your own parts and having a shop do the repairs, make sure that the shop will allow it. Many don't.
posted by quince at 1:30 PM on December 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would absolutely go to the dealer during the warranty period for a new car, but taking a 10-year-old Merc into a Mercedes dealership is just ridiculous and a waste of money. Ask around and find a good, experienced local garage who know their stuff with older Mercedes models.
posted by tillsbury at 2:12 PM on December 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

In my experience really good independent German luxury car mechanics named Hans or Jürgen are in high demand in wealthy cities like Seattle and their labor rates are not much lower than dealers.

Here is the estimated average cost of ownership for a brand new 2015 E Class on

You will note that *scheduled* maintenance and repairs alone for the first five years and 75k miles comes to about $10k, 75% of that scheduled maintenance items.

That's before the first major repairs tend to be necessary.

And it's five times higher than a new Toyota Camry.
posted by spitbull at 2:29 PM on December 24, 2016

Sorry, math off a bit, it's more like three times higher than new Camry. But the diffence continues to increase over time because the parts and labor are so much more expensive for the MB.
posted by spitbull at 2:40 PM on December 24, 2016

You can get detailed advice and local mechanic recommendations from fellow MB nuts here on MBforums.

For what it's worth they agree about not using a dealer for service on older cars.
posted by spitbull at 2:52 PM on December 24, 2016

Please me-mail me. I am an expert on both Mercedes and Seattle area practioners of the MBZ arts, both routine maintainers and fantastic diagnosticians. You have a potentially excellent car and, with care, it will last a very long time. The wagons are especially coveted as the North American wagon population is very low as compared to Europe.

There are things that you want to go to the Mercedes dealer for and many you don't. Wiper blades? Use only OEM blades from Mercedes (no, really). Ditto for brake and trans fluids. That doesn't mean you have to have a dealer install these but that Mercedes-spec replacements are proven to be vastly superior to the aftermarket.

FWIW, there are no balance shaft issues with that engine. You do need to baseline the maintenence with a VMI from Mercedes so you know if the harmonic balancer issue has been dealt with and a few other things and I can guide you through that. I have owned a wide variety of MBZ and know the local market very well, particularly on the eastside.
posted by bz at 7:59 PM on December 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

First, congrats!

I have an '07 E350 sedan just over 100,000 miles and I've been taking it to a independant MB shop since I bought it 5 years ago. I only took it to the dealer at first because I hadn't found this shop yet.

The truth is that their labor rate is just about the same as the dealer but I trust them to be more honest with me than the dealer.

Getting the VMI from the dealer with be nice (if they give it to you), but I don't think it's necessary if you go to a MB shop. They would/should have enough experience to know about common issues and look out for those and then put you on a maintenance schedule for your specific vehicle.
posted by eatcake at 4:42 AM on December 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would consider contacting this group regarding finding good MB wrenches in the Seattle area.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:13 AM on December 26, 2016

Thanks, everyone! Spitbull, thank you for those numbers, it seems like we may have overlooked some data. We will need to keep the car for at least a year; if our costs are ridiculous we'll look at another option. The suspension and seats have been really nice on my partner's neck problems, and our general thriftiness gives us some wiggle room for a hobby car.

Thank you everyone for forum recommendations and general advice. We'll pick a mechanic this week and see how it goes!
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 7:01 PM on December 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't get me wrong, I totally get the appeal of a vintage German car. Growing up my family bought a yacht over the years for a mechanic named Werner (who once loaned my dad his Maserati for a week, because both of our crazy European cars were waiting for parts to come from Canada, yay!) and my garage of choice for my (utterly reliable) Japanese car is called "Autobahn." You bought a beautiful machine that is notorious for being expensively perfect. Every single part on it costs twice what the same part costs for a Lexus and most require expert and specialized knowledge to install.

But you also have joined a community that trades in parts and knowledge and finds pleasure in working on their cars, the most frugal approach of all.

I get it, believe me. My fantasy car is a 1971 Jaguar E Type. So I drive a Mazda3 and close my eyes and think of my kid's college tuition.
posted by spitbull at 5:56 AM on December 28, 2016

A crucial cost savings in using independent mechanics for exotic or luxury cars is that they can source used and aftermarket parts. Anyone really good is going to have a bench labor rate close to a dealer shop, in my experience. But they will work with you on cost more readily and potentially save you thousands by sourcing parts outside of the OEM network.

That said, as noted above, sometimes OEM is worth the money for a MB.
posted by spitbull at 6:00 AM on December 28, 2016

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