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Auto Repair System Failure

Computerized auto repair diagnostics have created obstacles for consumers, which include the need to figure out which independent repair shops have the most up-to-date equipment. It has become the biggest problem in auto repairs these days, even as consumers face new scams and unnecessary services.

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Nick Clements/Photolibrary

Taking your automobile in for repairs or maintenance is about as much fun as going to the dentist. You endure the drill, because you have no choice.

These days, however, your auto repair encounters can be more uncomfortable than ever before. There are so many new variables working against you—sometimes even before you’re forced to visit an auto dealer’s service department, a specialty chain or an independent repair shop. Computers play an increasingly vital role in how your vehicle performs and how repair shops diagnose your vehicle’s problems. As a result, when you bring in your late-model vehicle for something as simple as fixing a tire, it can trigger a warning light on your dash, which can lead to paying a mechanic even more money to check out a problem that doesn’t even exist.

Perhaps the most important new variable to auto repair is the increased influence that the auto industry has over it. Critics say the automakers have made it difficult for independent repair shops to get access to the latest diagnostic repair codes and equipment that are necessary to fix today’s increasingly high-tech vehicles. When some shops are denied access, it undercuts the healthy competition that, economists say, keeps prices in check for consumers.

Declining auto sales have led dealers and automakers to look more to parts and service for profits. National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) data show that the percentage of total dealer revenues that stem from parts and service climbed in 2009 to almost 16 percent of total revenues from 12 percent in 2007. Some independent automotive repair-service business groups maintain that repairs and parts are more profitable for dealers than auto sales are. They say that’s why automakers and dealers are joining to monopolize that end of the business. Regardless of whether that’s true, one thing is clear: As dealers try to survive, the pressure to squeeze every buck possible from consumers for maintenance and service costs is greater than ever before.

This new landscape has emerged just when many budget-minded consumers want to keep their vehicles running longer and would rather pay for extensive maintenance and repair than buy a new model. The average age of a running vehicle has gone to almost 10 years old today from 8 years old in 2000, and it’s a simple fact that older cars need more repairs.

The net result of all of these changes is that consumers are more vulnerable than ever before as they deal with a service industry that is long known for aggressive sales tactics, unscrupulous business practices and outright fraud.

SHOP TALK. The decision about where to take your vehicle for repairs is just as difficult today as it was 6 years ago when we last examined the problems that are related to auto repair. Some consumers in the past 2 years have had to look for new repair shops, because the shop to which they always took their vehicle closed or the dealership from which they bought the vehicle that they drive went out of business.

A survey by Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) indicates that going to an independent shop saves consumers about 34 percent on average for a range of repairs. (See “Repair Comparison.") Despite the difference that you’ll pay for repairs, the parts that are installed by independent shops often are made by the same original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) as are the parts that are installed by dealer service shops, says economist John Dunham, who oversaw the AAIA survey. The only difference is that the dealer’s parts have an official OEM label. AAIA found that the parts that are installed by dealers typically cost 27 percent more than the parts that are installed by independent shops (often referred to as aftermarket parts). Automakers and dealers whom we interviewed don’t dispute that aftermarket parts in many cases work just as well as or better than OEM parts.

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