photo by Andy Armstrong
Much like the dentist or the DMV, a trip to a car dealership’s service department is something that tends to get put off as long as possible. Sometimes, though, you have no choice.
I was among the millions of Americans whose vehicles were included in the Takata airbag recall. Given that the faulty airbags have been known to injure or kill drivers and passengers, it was not a repair I wanted to delay indefinitely, which meant a trip to my local dealership, willing or otherwise.
Like many drivers, I usually avoid my dealership’s service department. My 2006 car has been out of warranty since I purchased it in 2009, so in most cases there is no pressing reason to go there, but a recall gives a vehicle owner no choice. I also knew of another existing recall that meant I would need to replace my gas tank, so I planned to take care of both problems in the same trip.
When the dealership contacted me to let me know the airbags had been fixed and my tank had been replaced, they also informed me that my battery was dead. This was a bit of a surprise, since the battery was only a year old, but the dealership employee insisted that it was the case. I told the dealer not to do anything until I called my mechanic, who has worked on my cars for 14 years and who sold me the battery in the first place.
My mechanic, like me, was surprised to hear the battery was dead. He told me that the battery was still under warranty; if I brought it to him and it was indeed faulty, he would replace it free of charge. The dealership’s quote for a new battery was $260.
I told the dealership I would come pick up my car. If need be, I could jumpstart it and drive it straight to my mechanic. This plan turned out to be unnecessary, as the car started just fine. I have not had any problems with the battery in the week or so since.
Many drivers assume that dealership service departments are more expensive than other repair shops and that they are especially prone to “discovering” problems that may or may not be actual problems in order to fix them. This is why many vehicle owners try to avoid dealerships once their vehicle is no longer under warranty.
It is little wonder that car dealerships want to upsell service department customers. The margin on such work is orders of magnitude better than on selling new cars. A Forbes article from 2012 pegged the Penske Automotive Group’s gross profit margin for service and parts at 57 percent; the gross profit margin for new vehicle sales was just 8 percent. Business Insider found similar results for other dealers. While the exact figures vary over time and between dealerships, service and parts sales remain the most profitable part of a dealer’s business overall, according to data from the National Automobile Dealers Association.
In this context, the record number of recalls in recent years have been a boon for car dealers. Dealerships hope to sell customers on extra repairs or upgrades during the recall visit itself, and ideally generate follow-up work down the line too. The dealers do not only benefit from recalls because of increased chances at sales, however; automakers also pay them well for the recall service work itself. The Los Angeles Times estimated that the 2014 GM recall had the potential to generate $600 million in revenue for dealerships. So while recalls are terrible news for car manufacturers, and not great news for vehicle owners, dealers have reason to see the silver lining, even if they worry about the effect on new car sales down the line.
In my case, there are three possible explanations for the battery problem the dealership’s service department discovered that has, so far, turned out to be a nonproblem. First, it is possible that there was nothing at all wrong with my battery, but the service department tried to sell me a new one anyway on the assumption it would just be easier for me to go along with their suggestion while my car was already in their hands. Second, the service department did something to the battery that will become a problem, at which point I will take it to my mechanic to have him assess the issue. Third, the dealership really did think my battery was faulty because it actually was. If this turns out to be the case and I run into problems, I will take my car to my mechanic whenever they become evident.
I have no way of knowing which scenario is true. But if I did not already distrust dealership service departments – or if I did not already have a working relationship with a mechanic who I do trust – the dealership’s hope that I would go along to avoid a hassle would have been much more likely to pan out.
If your car is still under warranty, of course you can just take it to the dealership. In the case of a recall, you have no other option. Safety is paramount. But if your car is older, either because you’ve had it a long time or you bought it used, you should take the time to establish a relationship with a good independent mechanic. Ideally, you will want someone who has a longstanding relationship with the family member or friend who referred you, so you can build on their years of trust.
Once you have an independent mechanic on your side, even if you eventually need to go to the dealership, you will have a second opinion handy for any additional problems that mysteriously arise once the service department takes a close look at your vehicle. You can then make an informed decision about whether the work needs to be done and, if so, whether you want the dealership to do it.
My battery seems fine for now, but my “check engine” light mysteriously came on as I drove my car out of the dealership. It wasn’t on when I brought the car in. If that doesn’t go away soon, I suppose I will need to give my mechanic another call.