Auto Repair: Survey Names Best and Worst Service Departments

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 12:51 PM EST

It's less painful than a visit to the dentist, but taking your car in for repairs can be nearly as unpleasant -- and a lot more expensive. So before buying a new car, consider a survey released today that ranks auto makers by their service departments. Lexus tops luxury brands and Mini leads mass market nameplates in the 2011 J.D. Power and Associates Customer Service Index. General Motors does well in both categories, with its Cadillac, GMC, Buick and Chevrolet dealers all among the top four finishers in their divisions.

The one thing that really seems to tick off car owners is when the service department puts pressure on them to pay up for additional, possibly unnecessary, repairs or service, the Power study says. But -- surprisingly to me -- only 7% of the 97,300 respondents said they felt such pressure. That number increased to 9% among those with four-year old cars. On a scale of satisfaction where 1,000 is best, those who said they felt sales pressure gave overall rankings of 640, while those who didn't gave their service department an average ranking of 780.

The Power researchers ranked brands based on car owners' and lease holders' views of the overall quality of the service, how they liked the facility, the service advisor who dealt with them, and their experience picking up the car. Mini (the Clubman model is pictured at left) improved 19 points from last year's survey and ranked particularly well in overall service and vehicle pickup to score 805 and top what J.D. Power calls the "mass market" category. GM brands GMC, Buick, and Chevrolet held the next three spots, followed by Korean corporate stable mates Kia and Hyundai. Volkswagen, Ford and Honda finished just above the mass market average. Chrysler Group brands Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep all were below average, along with Toyota and Subaru. (See the full rankings).

Lexus, the luxury brand of Toyota Motor (the ES 350 is pictured below) scored 846 and finished atop the luxury list for the second year in a row. Jaguar, now owned by India's Tata Motors, was next, Cadillac third and Acura -- the Honda luxury brand -- fourth. Lincoln, BMW, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz all scored below the luxury average.

How should you view these rankings if you are shopping for a new car or considering changing repair shops for one your already own? Consider these issues:

Service is only one factor in your decision. While knowing about service quality is important, of course you'll probably also be weighing price, mileage and reliability. (See: Who Topped Consumer Reports Rankings?) Another consideration: Some brands, including Toyota and many luxury makers, offer a few years of free maintenance.
You can shop around for dealers. If you love your car but can't stand the guys in the maintenance department, stick to the brand and dump the dealer. Head to the nearest dealer of the same brand; you'll find that shop only too happy to service your car.

You don't have to go to a dealer. You can go to independent repair shops for maintenance and your warranty will remain in force so long as you keep careful records, and you'll probably save money. The Power survey found that about 74% of service visits last year were to dealerships. But a study by auto repair web site AutoMD showed that the average car owner can save $300 a year by going to an independent shop instead of a dealer. Of course, for a repair covered by your warranty, you need to go to a dealer and get a free fix.

In deciding where to take your car for service, you are looking for the best balance of quality and cost. The Power rankings will help a little in that decision.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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