When it's time to take the car in for routine maintenance and especially for repairs, remember this: In general, independent repair shops continue to get higher marks for satisfaction than car dealers, according to the results of our latest Annual Auto Survey.
Subscribers found that independents outscored dealership service once again for overall satisfaction, price, quality, courteousness of the staff, and work being completed when promised. With few exceptions, the entire list of independent shops got high marks on those factors. The same couldn't be said for franchised new-car dealers.
Of course, these are general statements, and not all shops are created equal.
Where to go for maintenance and repairs
Before you consider where to take your vehicle for maintenance and repair, you need to understand the difference between the two. Routine maintenance items are those listed in your vehicle's owner's manual as part of the model's service schedule. They are intended to keep your vehicle in top operating condition. Repairs are service that needs to be performed to fix a problem. Where you take your vehicle may depend on what needs to be done. (Use Consumer Reports' car repair estimator tool.)
Scheduled maintenance can be performed at any dealership; you don't have to go to the one where you bought the vehicle. Likewise, you can take your vehicle to an independent auto-repair shop or franchise, which are typically less expensive than dealerships. Federal law gives you the right to service your vehicle wherever you like without affecting your warranty coverage. (Depending on the contract, lessees may be required to have all service performed at a dealership.) Mechanics in your dealership's service department are specifically trained and certified in all aspects of your model's service needs, and the shop will be equipped with all of the necessary diagnostic equipment. Because maintenance items are fairly basic, however, any professional auto shop should be able to perform the necessary tasks.
Wherever you go for service, make sure they have access to the manufacturer's latest technical service bulletins (TSBs), which are basically instructions on how to fix common problems with a particular model. Often, an automaker will do TSB repairs for free, but you'll have to go to a dealership to get the work done.
Repairs can range from basic tasks such as a brake job or auto-body repair to complicated service such as overhauling a transmission or diagnosing an electronics-system problem. Go to a dealership if your car is covered by the original warranty and you want the manufacturer to pay for the fix. Use a dealership, too, if your car has been recalled or is the subject of a "service campaign" in which the automaker offers to correct a defect. If you have an extended warranty, you'll need to check the terms to see who must perform covered repairs.
If the vehicle is out of warranty, the type of problem may determine where you take it for repair. A reputable independent shop should be able to handle most common repairs. Shops that specialize in your vehicle's brand are more likely to have the proper training, equipment, and up-to-date information. A good technician will let you know when a problem warrants a trip to the dealership or a specialty shop.
If you're experiencing a problem with a system that's exclusive to your model or automaker--especially electronics, such as a navigation or multi-function control system--consider taking the vehicle to a dealership. You also need to take it to a dealership to have safety recall work performed.