Illustration by Mark Matcho
They didn’t fix it!” That’s the simple reason Northbrook resident Kathy Johnson gave for ditching a north sub-urban auto shop that flubbed a recent repair to her 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. For Johnson, the last straw was paying for a shop-recommended replacement of a tie rod, then finding that her steering problem-the reason she had sought help in the first place-had gone unrepaired.
The most common source of frustration with auto shops is an unsuccessful repair, reports Chicago Consumers’ Checkbook, a nonprofit magazine that collected 15,000 ratings from area automobile owners over a five-year period from 2000 to 2005. But those surveyed also reported plenty of other kinds of problems: “tried to sell services that weren’t necessary using scare tactics”; “incredibly over-priced”; “treated me rudely and like I am an idiot”; “misdiagnosed the problem”; “low-balled quote and raised costs several times after work started”; “doesn’t seem to care.”
In the six other major metro areas where Checkbook rates auto repair shops, complaints were similar. Surveyors found, however, that Chicago-area drivers experienced an additional jab when it came to getting their vehicles fixed: the price of repairs. Shops in the Chicago metro area reported prices 2 to 11 percent higher than those reported in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco. Only prices in the Washington, D.C., area were higher, by nearly 5 percent.
Although the list of complaints runs long, many Chicago-area auto repair shops boast a customer base that is loyal to the point of adoration. The list on page 111 includes 44 of the shops that rated highest for overall quality of service among the 538 shops evaluated. All 44 received positive ratings from at least 92 percent of their surveyed customers. And, in the past three years, none had a single complaint on file with the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois-in stark contrast with the area shops rated lowest by surveyed customers, some of which also had 20 or more complaints on file at the BBB.
Another factor for making the list: all the shops listed on page 111 reported prices that averaged substantially below the all-shop average of $100, with a few beating the all-shop average by $20 or more. In fact, shop-to-shop price differences are striking. For example, to replace the water pump, timing belt, and balance shaft belt on a 1997 Honda Accord LX, shops’ prices ranged from $325 (Golf Mill Auto Center, in Niles) to $912 (Fletcher Jones Imports, in Chicago).
Which raises a final, resounding point: in the auto repair business, there is no relationship between quality and price. That’s good news, since choosing the right shop can mean top-quality work at below-average prices.