It’s a question for which there is no single, best answer- only the best one for you. Whether you should or shouldn’t get your your auto repair performed at the corner repair shop or at a dealership depends on several factors. Only you can answer that question.
At a dealership, the technicians (aka, ‘mechanics’) are trained for and experienced in working on the car that you bring to them- in so far as the mechanics aren’t fresh out of their schooling. That being said, a privately-owned auto repair shop is usually staffed with mechanics that have experience over years of working in different shops (often got their start in a dealership) on a wide variety of car makes and models, and they have expertise on what’s under the hood of a vehicle. They could be a one-stop shop for your family’s vehicles of multiple makes.
An experienced auto repair mechanic is not just a parts-replacer, but can diagnose a vacuum leak just by the sound he is hearing; he or she is familiar enough with the specific mechanics of the parts in a vehicle to know the interchangeability of older parts with newer versions of the same. Regardless of who services your vehicle, make sure that they are certified to do so. It is perfectly fine for you to poke around a bit and ask about certification and extra training.
Specifically, look for some of these standards of auto repair certification:
- Automotive Service Excellence, “ASE”
- AAA (or CAA, in Canada)
- NAPA Autocare
- Better Business Bureau, “BBB”
- PPG Certification
- Parts Plus Car Care
- AIA (in Canada)
As far as figuring out what’s wrong, access to electronic diagnostics is par for the course at a dealership. It helps a mechanic more quickly figure out which specific valve or sensor or (insert trouble car part here) needs replacing. The equipment is micro chipped for different makes and models and a mechanic simply needs to insert the chip required for the specific car being worked on. This diagnostic equipment is expensive for the local mechanic; however, many are choosing to purchase them as part of the increasing overhead costs to remain competitive with the service that a dealership can offer.
At a dealership, mechanics use original manufacturers’ parts. These genuine parts- usually kept in a centralized dealership for cost and ease of storage- are ordered and delivered as they are needed. Hopefully for you, that can happen quickly. However, more and more dealerships do not carry parts in an inventory, so it is not uncommon to have to leave your car at the dealership shop for a few days, waiting for a specific part to arrive and be installed. The other option is to take your car home and make a second appointment once the part comes in. The original parts used by a dealership are more expensive, but usually of higher quality. A local mechanic, on the other hand, has the option to order (and have same-day, express-delivered!) parts from a local parts store, as he or she is not bound to using original, genuine parts. A corner shop mechanic can choose to use ‘jobber’ parts that have been refurbished and are available at a much cheaper price.
Knowing your mechanic may or may not be critical to you, but for some people it is. At a dealership, there is no guarantee that your car will ever be worked on by the same person twice; whereas at a local, smaller shop, the mechanic can get to know you, as well as your car and its quirks, with consistency.
Generally, the costs at your local mechanic shop are a bit higher; they have a higher overhead costs, and mechanics working there tend to be paid a higher hourly rate. At a dealership, money often comes from your pocket and into perks like shuttles or loaner cars, technician training in proprietary information and skills for new yearly models, plus a comfy waiting room with a fancy coffee machine. Again, if you feel that what you pay is buying dependable service and quality work, that is what answers the question for you.
Loyalty is, perhaps, the biggest part of the answer to our question. Ultimately, a driver will take their car to a mechanic or shop that they trust. If you have been bringing your vehicle to a dealership while under warranty for all maintenance and repairs, and find that the customer service is consistent and reliable and the cost is justified, then by all means, let that loyalty lead you. Other drivers might choose a local repair shop simply because it means that they can also get to know their car’s mechanic, not just the front-desk guy.
Regardless of where you get your car maintained and repaired, the important thing is that you get it done. Replacing the timing belt regularly isn’t just something a garage tells you so that you’ll come in and spend your money. Getting frequent oil changes means far more than a new sticker on your window every once in a while. Make sure to do your homework by checking out wherever you are considering. Ask around… word of mouth turns out to be a pretty reliable indicator of the quality of work and service that any shop can provide to its customers.