The big “car dealers and service problems” story
For nearly as long as there have been car dealers, there have been crooked car dealers, and many have used the same scams to separate owners from their cash. Many car dealers are honest, and many dealership employees have a lot of integrity; but some don’t. This article is mainly about the ones that don’t.
There is pressure, admittedly, on the honest ones too; it’s hard for some to compete, and most automakers turn warranty work into a money-losing proposition.
Still, it’s always good to start with the tune-up scam, which, as people get used to the idea that cars don’t require much annual maintenance, has started to fade a little. The average dealer no longer recommends annual tune-ups (some still cling to the idea), but now have a “24,000 mile service” or some such. Here’s how you can tell if this is real or a scam: is it in the owner’s manual? (Not in the “severe duty” section, unless you’re really subjecting your car to unusual duties. I’ve seen dealers claim that any car used for commuting is subject to “severe duty.”)
The tune-up scam has roots in reality. Cars used to need to have their carburetors adjusted twice a year, along with having points gapped; spark plugs needed to be changed every year, and mechanics had to set engine timing and such. Today, though, no car has a distributor, much less points; spark plugs are usually the “100,000-mile” type (realistically, good for 80,000 miles); and with electronic fuel injection and digital timing, there’s usually nothing to adjust, and not much to replace. Even accessory/serpentine/fan belts are usually self-adjusting.
You may wonder what shops actually do for the hundreds of dollars they ask for during these checkups. What they really need to do is listed in the owner’s manual. If it’s not in your glove compartment, you can download it from your automaker.
What they should usually do is check fluids, belt tensions, and such, and adjust the parking brake for cars where it’s not self-adjusting. Ironically, the scammy dealers charge extra for fluids and adjusting the parking brake. Although just about all fuel you can buy in the U.S. and Canada has detergents to keep your fuel system clean, some dealers charge for cleaning out the intake path; some even do the work. You can also do it yourself; the solvent is readily available.
Cars do need to have their antifreeze changed; most have a fluid good for ten years or 150,000 miles (okay, realistically, eight or nine years). Transmission fluid, on the other hand, typically is not meant to be changed, at least not before 100,000 miles or more, and many modern transmissions are sealed from the factory.
If you have an older car, you may have to replace things — but if you do have an older car, you can probably do at least some of that work yourself, and specify the rest.
Incidentally, if you have actual repairs that need to be done, you can often call the manufacturer and find out which local dealer has the best success rate at fixing things the first time. It’s a real time and money saver.
Many dealers (and old-time shadetree mechanics) insist on oil changes every 3,000 miles—a practice which made sense half a century ago, but is long past its sell-by date. Most modern cars have computers which record the engine temperature and numerous other factors, and alert you when it’s time to change the oil. Most people report alerts somewhere between 6,500 and 9,500 miles. That means that if you go with the “recommendation” of the dealership, you’re changing your oil two to three times as often as you need to.
How can you go so long between oil changes now that engines are more precision-engineered than ever? Well, for one thing, because they are made so precisely, perfectly sealed and without large gaps or hot spots. Mostly, though, it’s because oil is far better than it used to be. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has increased their specifications numerous times since the 3,000-mile days.
Getting the most out of your car dealer for service
Every company is represented by good dealers and bad dealers. Sometimes, you might be the person who is wrong, not the dealership person. Sometimes, you’re both in a bad spot. Partly for that reason, it’s best to try to remain calm at all times, and to keep your courtesy; and to be open to the idea that the dealer personnel might be right and you might be wrong.
That said, it’s also possible they are conning you—but what do you gain by getting angry or rude? It just makes it easier for them to justify their own actions.
Car dealers are almost invariably franchise operations, not owned by the car companies; the automakers don’t have much they can do to a misbehaving dealer. That’s one reason service varies so much. Another, though, is because the automakers, when they have tough times, tend to cut payments for repair work, especially diagnostics, so that dealers actually lose money (sometimes a lot of money) when they work under warranty. This pushes some dealers to pretend things can’t be fixed under warranty, but have to be paid for by the owner. They can usually get away with it for items that fail past the ordinary three-year warranty period, but are still covered by various Federally-mandated emissions warranties (check your owner’s manual for details on what is covered).
Incidentally, another reason to always be calm and polite with your dealer’s service advisor is the fact that they can often help to get factory help with repairs long after the end of the warranty. It’s usually their call, and they may need to “go to bat” (argue with the manufacturer) for you, so if you treat them poorly, you might not get help after the warranty expires.
On the other side of that story, if you know that there’s an endemic problem on your car but the dealer is insisting on following just the letter of the law on the warranty, you can always politely ask if they would mind your calling the company to see if you can get an authorization for a free out-of-warranty repair. The message to send is “I’d like to help you get paid for this as warranty work,” rather than “I want to complain to the company about how you won’t fix this.”
Is this a good time to point out that warranty work can be done by any dealership associated with an automaker, not just the one you bought from? (Though usually perks such as loaner cars are restricted to people who bought from that dealership, and it’s rude, if you’ve chosen a dealership to do your warranty work, to buy a car from someone else and then take it to be fixed by your first dealer.)
Lay the groundwork throughout your experience
It’s always good to get (and file safely) a copy of your service documents, even if no problem is found; if you have a problem that comes back, or one which is sporadic and is only found after the warranty is over, you can use that evidence to argue with the dealer, manufacturer, or, in the worst case, judge. Get everything in writing, especially if you have a problem the dealer “can’t” detect. In some cases, they might be trying to avoid doing the work under warranty, since they can get paid more than twice as much if the work comes out of your pocket.
We shouldn’t have to say this, but you have to use the recommended fluids and parts in your car, and keep receipts. If you put 10W30 oil into a car that demands 5W20, the manufacturer has no obligation to replace or fix your engine.
Oh, and if the shop calls you to say your car was in a minor crash, leave work immediately to see the damage in person. Photograph and document it. In some cases you’ll be better off negotiating for a replacement car, or for a check for the value of the uncrashed vehicle. Either way, you may need that documentation later. (Any crash slashes the resale value of the car, too; they are reported on Carfax and other databases.)
If the dealer says they can’t find a problem, ask to take a drive with them; you may be able to help them replicate it or hear a noise, or you might discover they’re being honest with you. You may need to try a different dealer, or check owner forums to see if there is a service bulletin or other source the dealer might not have checked.
Problems that start after a dealer visit
Sometimes, one failure leads to another; and other times, a careless mechanic can break one thing while trying to fix another. The giveaway is often problems that start just after the car comes back from the mechanic, e.g. stalling after a tuneup, brake noises after brake work, or oil leaks after an oil change. Other problems could be unrelated and some might just be coincidence.
If you use a third-party oil change place, listen for engine noises before and after you get the change. If they use the wrong oil, it might change the sound of the engine. One reason why dealers are often good for oil changes is that they should have the right oil for your car. (Likewise, you can watch the oil being changed, if they have marked containers, or, in most cases, bring your own oil—but watch it being poured.)
How to contact an automaker
The owner’s manual has all relevant addresses and phone numbers. Bypassing the customer service zones is usually smart; the national number tends to work best. If you don’t get help there, look up the chief executive and write to them; a higher level staffer will probably read your complaint. once again, be courteous and calm even as you assert yourself. Do not make any threats. Do not use personal insults, including insulting your dealership. These are very defensive people who are used to being maligned and will look at you as some sort of idiot if you lose your temper or throw around personal insults.
If things get really bad
If your new car goes in for repair over and over again, you can use the lemon law to get a new one; it’s often best to get a “lemon lawyer” who knows people in the company on a personal level to negotiate for you. You will lose some money, usually, in a lemon law case, because the company can charge you for miles you put onto the car.
In other cases, you can take the dealership to court, but this should always be a last resort. Small claims and special civil courts can be misleading; in some areas the judges just want to put in as little work as possible, and push hard for settlements. The worst of them don’t hear any cases; they show up for five minutes, ask about settlements, record any that occurred, and adjourn. Find out how good your courts are before you file; there are two major risks. One is losing and having to pay legal fees; the other is losing your temper and getting cited for contempt of court. You may need to settle, but you can still negotiate the settlement.
It’s hard to resolve really bad problems with a dealership, but staying calm and rational always helps.hello