A Washington consumer group that surveyed the customers of nearly 300 car repair shops said yesterday it found 65 garages good enough to recommend and another 16 small shops that look like "good bets."
The survey was done by the Washington Center for the Study of Services, whose president, Robert Krughoff told a congressional subcommittee yesterday the program could be expanded to serve half the people in the country for $5 million.
Krughoff told the House Consumer Protection Subcommittee that government-financed surveys showing how consumers rate repair shops would be the cheapest way to improve the qualitiy of car repairs.
The committee is studying a range of auto-repair proposals that include government certification of repair shops and federal seed money to set up indepedent auto diagnostic centers to evaluate repair needs and work.
With a budget of $260,000, Krughoff's non-profit group publishes reports evaluating auto repairs, home maintenance services, banks and other consumer needs. About 80 percent of the center's budget comes from subscriptions to Washington Consumers Checkbook, the group's quarterly magazine.
For less than $100,000 a year, Krughoff claimed, "broader and even more detailed ratings than we have published" could be made for garages serving most of the three million people in the greater Washington area.
Krughoff's $5 million estimate of the cost of expanding the program to serve half the country contrasts with a $50 million price tag on other programs under study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The latest report by Krughoff's group is an update of one done two years ago. He said it cost the group about $12,000 to compile 7,000 questionnairs - from subscribers to Consumers' Checkbook and Consumer's Report Magazine - and publish the report.
The study singles out 65 auto dealers and independent repair shops that were rated as "adequate or superior" by at least 80 percent of their customers who were surveyed and found several garages that got good marks from 100 percent on the customers surveyed.
At the other end of the scale were a handful or repair shops that satisfied less than one customer in five. For example, the report claimed the service department at Wheaton Dodge City was rated "adequate or superior" by only 13 percent of the customers surveyed. Sport Chevrolet in Silver Spring by 17 percent of the customers surveyed and Manhattan Auto in Fairfax by 18 percent.
The survey covered all new car dealers in the metropolitan area except for 15 whose name, location or ownership have changed recently.
The survey includes independent garages that were rated by at least 10 customers and a group of 16 small shops that were not rated by 10 customers, but got "adequate or superior" by all these participating in the survey.
In addition to conducting its own survey of auto repair customers, the Center for the Study of Services checked local consumer offices for complaints against all the shops surveyed.
There was a direct correlation between the number of complaints on file and the way consumers rated shops, Krughoff pointed out.
The 17 shops that had no complaints against them were rated highly by 82 percent of their customers, but the 71 shops with nine or more complaints got good ratings from only 50 percent of their customers.
"The number of auto repair complaints on file at local consumer affairs offices far exceed the number of complaints in any other service field," Krughoff said. Several garages are the subjects of 50 formal complaints in the past two and a half years.
He said the survey found little correlation between the prices charged relation between the prices charged for repair work and the quality of services, and nothed that labor rates at the garages surveyed ranged from $12 an hour to $28 an hour.
Auto dealers "were about twive as likely as independent to be rated 'inferior' by their customers," the study found, but it pointed out that the best auto dealers scored as well as the independent garages.
In his testimony to the House subcommittee Krughoff said a follow-up survey to the previous garage ratings found 41 percent of the people who got the report had changed or planned to change repair shops.
Finding a better shop could prove difficult for some car owners, since none of the dealers for several makes of cars earned the groups "check rating." A check rating means that 30 percent of the customers surveyed considered their service "adequate or superior."
None of the local Pontiac, Lincoln-Mercury, Datsun, Volkswagen or Mercedes dealers qualified for that rating, although several came close.
The full report on auto repair services is available for $1.50 from the Washington Center for the Study of Services, 1518 K St. NW.
Fifteen auto dealers were not rated in the study because the dealerships have changed owners, names or locations recently. Not rated were: Martens Chevrolet, Silver Spring; Plaza Chevrolet, Washington; Steven Chevrolet, Wheaton; Rosenthal-hayman Pontiac, Alexandria; suburban Pontiac, College Park; Chris Hanburger Ford, College Park; Silver Spring Ford; Brown Lincoln-Mercury & Rolls Royce, Arlington; Monroe Chrysler-Plymouth, Washington; Sheeby Chrysler-Plymouth, Fairfax; Silver Spring Chrysler-Plymouth; Brown's Rysons Corner Dodge; Ourisman Dodge, Alexandria; College Park Volkswagen and Rosenthal British Imports.
Dealers which were "check rated by Washington Consumer Checkbook because at least 10 customers rated them, and at least 80 percent considered the service "adequate or superior" were:[LIST OMITTED]