Monday, March 25, 2013

The local advantage

One of the features Brian and I like best on our new (well, two-year-old) Honda Fit is the little Maintenance Minder on the dash. It notifies you when it's time for an oil change or any other regular service, so you don't have to keep track of it all yourself. However, when the Maintenance Minder popped up a message a week or so ago that the car was due for service, it posed a bit of a dilemma for us.

You see, with our old car, we always went to a local garage, Schwartz and Nagle, for service. The biggest advantage of this was that it's only a few blocks from our house, so it was easy for me to drop the car off in the morning, walk home, and go back to pick it up whenever it was ready. (Brian could ride his bike to work, or I could drop him off at work before taking the car in.) And we'd always found the mechanics at Schwartz and Nagle to be both competent and honest. To take one example, we once brought in the old Accord because it was having trouble starting. After trying repeatedly, however, they couldn't reproduce the problem—that is, the car never failed to start for them. They could suggest a couple of things that might have been causing the problem, and a couple of ways we might deal with it if it happened again, but they couldn't actually fix it...so they didn't charge us anything. On other occasions, too, they've told us not to worry about minor problems, rather than pushing us into doing expensive repairs.

The problem, though, is that the first time I took our new Fit to Schwartz and Nagle for an oil change, they told me when I picked it up that it turns out this car needs synthetic oil—the more expensive kind. And that sounded a bit odd to me, because it didn't seem to jive with what our owner's manual said. In the section on oil changes, the manual said that 0W20 engine oil was recommended, but a synthetic oil could be used "as an alternative." In other words, it implied that the pricier synthetic oil was not actually required. Moreover, the first time we'd changed the oil on the fit, we took it to the dealer, and they used 5W20—regular oil, not synthetic. So I wondered: was it possible that our long-trusted mechanics at Schwartz and Nagle didn't actually know what they were doing with this particular car? If they were wrong about the oil, might there be other things they didn't know as well?

So when the Maintenance Minder told us it was time for the "A12" service (change the oil, rotate the tires, replace a couple of filters, inspect the drive belt, and check the brake), we dithered a bit over whether to take it to the dealer or to the local guys. The trouble with the dealership is that, although it's only about a mile from us as the crow flies, to get there the crow has to fly directly over Route 1, a major thoroughfare. There is an on-ramp from a nearby residential neighborhood that deposits you right in front of the dealership, so theoretically it would be possible to walk home along that route, but it doesn't look terribly safe.

After a bit of debate, we decided to call up the dealership and see whether they could fit us in on Saturday, and whether we would need an appointment for the service. I called and talked to a nice lady called Zenya, who said that it would be best to have an appointment, but she could indeed fit us in on a Saturday. However, when I asked her how long it would take, she said that if we wanted to wait there rather than drop it off, it would be best to bring the car in early—between 7 and 8 am. That way, we'd only have to wait about two hours. If we couldn't come in until later in the day, then the wait would be longer. So, given a choice between (a) getting up at early on Saturday and waiting two hours at the dealership, (b) getting up at a normal time and waiting three or more hours at the dealership, or (c) attempting to walk home from the dealership, and then walk back to get the car, by way of a highway on-ramp, it became clear that the only reasonable option was (d) take it to the local guys after all.

Fortunately, this turned out to be the right move in more ways than one. First of all, they were able to fit us in that very day. They got the job done in less than the two hours the dealer would have taken if we'd brought it in at 7 am on a Saturday, and I didn't have to sit there waiting for it. Second, they charged us only $96 rather than the $225 quoted to us by the dealership. Since they'd been the last ones to service the car, they knew that the air and cabin filters had actually been replaced at that time and weren't likely to need replacing again—so they just checked them and found that, sure enough, they were fine. (And even if they had done the filter replacement, the cost would still have been about $75 below the dealer's price). Moreover, our local guys also helpfully steered us toward a rebate from Mobil 1 (maker of the synthetic motor oil they use) that could save us an extra $15. They even printed out a duplicate receipt that we could mail in for the rebate, so we'd still have an original copy to keep.

And, talking of that synthetic motor oil: when I asked them about it, they explained that the reason they said our car needs a synthetic oil is that the 0W20 formulation the manual calls for is actually available only in a synthetic version. So it was actually the dealer, not our local mechanics, who was going against Honda's own recommendations by giving us a petroleum-based oil in a different weight. So, in short, this turned out to be a case in which the local business, as opposed to the big chain, had literally everything going for it. The location was much more convenient, and the service was better, and so was the price. My takeaway from this experience: always try the local business first. You may discover that there's no reason to consider the chain at all.
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