Before you pop the hood

Should you wheel to the dealer when car trouble hits, or to a good local garage? The options are narrowing.

Having your car break down is frustrating – worse when you don't know where to turn to get it fixed.

Many car owners have heard horror stories about having, say, a new fuel system prescribed when all they needed was a carburetor adjustment.

And the trusted mechanic your father always used has probably closed up shop, bought out by a cappucino chain, maybe, or driven out by the increasing complexity of auto repair.

Many small shops have simply been worn down by the hassles.

"When somebody's car breaks down, it's just a miserable experience all around," says Kathy Reichow, who runs Dan R's automotive just outside Toledo, Ohio. "We [mechanics] are always the bad guys."

The need for repairs often comes out of the blue. As a result, car owners must deal with an unplanned expense they can't do without. On top of that, they may lack the know-how to assess the fairness of a repair quote.

Shopping around is the logical approach, but that has its limitations. One reason: Many of today's mechanics have specialized to cope with an explosion of high-tech autos.

When a car needs repairs, the main decision consumers often face is whether to take the vehicle to a dealership or an independent garage. Experts give some general guidelines:

• Consider the cost. Dealers generally charge higher hourly labor rates than independent mechanics. In an independent study by, dealer prices came out 15 percent higher than independents on average.

• Weigh the time involved. Since dealers work on hundreds of cars like yours, they may be able to fix a problem right away. Independents may take longer to diagnose an unusual problem – and you'll pay by the hour for that extra time.

• Consider the type of repair involved. Standard jobs such as replacing brake pads, engine belts, and changing the oil can often easily be handled by an independent garage. Other work, such as trying to determine why a car makes an odd noise, is best diagnosed by a dealer before a deciding who should make the repair.

• If the car is under warranty, go to the dealer for all but routine maintenance.

As long as you're just having repairs made, not modifications, there's no need to worry about voiding your warranty.

If you do have an independent mechanic modify your car, you can't expect a manufacturer to warranty the after-market parts used. Still, installing custom wheels, say, shouldn't void the warranty on your engine.

Consumers who choose to go with an independent should look for ones certified by ASE, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, then run their picks past the Better Business Bureau.

But word-of-mouth remains the best route. And if you can use it to find a small operator who still wields a wrench, experts say, you might want to become a regular.

"The thing I like about independent mechanics is that you can build a relationship with them, so they know what you want," says John Paul, a repair expert with AAA Southern New England.

For the past 30 years, Charlie Kappotis has been taking his cars to Beverly Foreign Car Service in Beverly, Mass. He now drives a 1988 Nissan with 243,000 miles on it. "They keep my car alive," he says.

Once, after he took his car to another garage for tires, his regular mechanic found some expensive rubber steering boots had been damaged. "Nobody else had been under my car [since]," Mr. Kappotis says.

But consumers have an increasingly tough time finding small mechanics willing to slide under newer cars for major fixes.

"Growing technical sophistication has been a big problem for independent mechanics," says Rik Paul, auto editor for Consumer Reports magazine. They find themselves limited to basic upkeep: "Brakes, fluids, and filters. That's the place consumers can save money by going to an independent," he says.

He recommends finding an independent shop that has access to manufacturers' Technical Service Bulletins – problem notices and solutions for specific cars.

Another suggestion: Ask a dealer for a diagnosis and an estimate. If the repair is too expensive, you may be able to live with the problem until you save enough money to fix it. If the problem is simple to fix, an independent may do the work for less. (Dealers may charge for the diagnosis.)

Whichever way you go, get a written estimate of the repair cost. Tell the mechanics your budget – and to call you before proceeding on work that exceeds the estimate. If they balk at calling, go someplace else.

Behind the decline of the small-time mechanic

When John Paul started out as a mechanic 25 years ago, all he needed was one 350-page manual. "Now the same manual for a single car line is over a million pages, and there's still stuff missing," says Mr. Paul, an auto-repair expert at AAA Southern New England in Providence, R.I.

Today's cars are so complex, he says, no one can know everything. So mechanics specialize. Some repair only specific makes. Others work on all cars, but only make certain repairs.

The shift has made it difficult for independent shops to stay afloat. Many car owners don't want to drive to three different mechanics to get a car in shape, choosing to go to more-expensive dealers instead. Independents also must compete with chains like Midas and Sears as well as "mega-dealers," says auto-repair expert Howie Ferris.

"There are some real sharp independents out there, but they're getting fewer and fewer," says Mr. Ferris, whose department at Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, Mass. certifies mechanics to work at local dealerships.

Another problem independents face: affording the high cost of parts and diagnostic equipment. Many car parts, such as the 18 computer modules in today's average car, are so expensive that mechanics no longer can afford to surmise which car part is bad and try replacing it, says Ferris. To avoid buying unnecessary parts, independents buy general-use diagnostic tools to pinpoint problems. But when this equipment falls short, more-specific machines used only by specialists and dealers are needed. These can cost $15,000 per vehicle make.

Automakers consider their troubleshooting information proprietary and often make it difficult for independent mechanics to obtain, says Paul. A bill in Congress would force automakers to share computer-programming data with independent mechanics and car owners. Even if the measure passes, people in the repair business say the cost of repairs is likely to keep rising, with too few people studying to become mechanics, and higher labor costs on the horizon.

The only good news may be that today's complicated cars are more reliable than ever, and need repairs less often.

Fixes and future cars

Think today's cars are hard to work on? New fuel-saving technologies will make tomorrow's cars even more challenging.

Not only will onboard computer-processing technology continue to expand, but new mechanical systems – such as continuously variable transmissions – will look like alien spacecraft to those without training.

And most complex of all will be the waves of hybrid vehicles slowly emerging now, and poised to rule the roads in the next 10 years – probably until the eventual arrival of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, which will have their own special set of maintainence needs.

Unlike most cars, hybrids have two complete drivetrains: one powered by gasoline, the other by electricity.

In addition, hybrids – such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight – add a complex computer-control system that tells the car when to run on gas or on batteries.

"These hybrids are a whole new proposition. The whole car requires special training [to repair]," says Howie Ferris, director of applied technology at Massachusetts Bay Community College, Wellesley, Mass.

A hybrid's high-voltage power systems alone demand extra safety precautions. The 300-volt battery packs distribute more power than a home electrical circuit. Mechanics need special gloves and safety gear to handle them. (Do not try such repairs at home – or expect the corner garage to be equipped to handle the task.)

Two other areas of concern: the cost and the environmental impact of battery replacement and disposal.

The battery packs could cost between $6,000 and $7,000 to replace, though John Paul, a maintenance expert with AAA Southern New England in Providence, R.I., estimates they will last 10 years.

Toyota's warranty covers the battery in its hybrid Prius for 10 years or 100,000 miles. These vehicles have been on the road for only the past two years. It's unlikely any have been driven that far, Mr. Ferris notes.

Disposal remains a concern, though Toyota reportedly has a plan in place, and a Honda spokesman says that manufacturer will be shipping depleted batteries back to Japan to be refurbished and reused.

One bright side to hybrid-car care: The gasoline engine doesn't have to work as hard, so oil changes and other tune-up needs are required less often.

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