Prices are more than twice as high as some Washington area auto repair shops than at nearby competitors, according to the newest issue of Washington Consumers' Checkbook, a local nonprofit magazine.
But price alone is no guarantee of quality, the magazine said after surveying 331 auto repair shops in the area over a three-year period. For example, the lowest priced shops were rated adequate or suprior by 71 percent of customers surveyed; the highest-priced by 69 percent.
"In short, it is possible to get top-quality repairs and save money," said Robert Krughoff, the magazine's president.
The magazine features an index of all the shops surveyed so that readers can compare them on the basis of price, number of complaints on file at consumer offices, customer satisfaction with overall performance, whether the work was done properly on the first try and whether the work was started and completed promptly.
Based on its survey, the magazine also reports:
Customer satisfaction varied widely, with 35 shops rated as adequate or superior by all customers surveyed while 10 were rated inferior by more than 60 percent of the customers surveyed who used those shops. Results weren't reported for firms for which Checkbook had fewer than 10 survey responses.
Some auto repair shops -- not necessarily those rated inferior -- have significantly more consumer complaints against them than others. In reviewing local government consumer agency files over a two-year period, Checkbook found that 61 of the 331 shops had no complaints at all. But 14 shops had more than 25 complaints apiece.
Shops in the suburbs score neither better nor worse on customer satisfaction or price than shops in the city.
Shops with large proportions of certified mechanics are no more likely to have satisfied customers than shops with few or no certified mechanics. And dealers with more than the average percentage of certified mechanics were on the average about 6 percent more expensive than other dealers.
Quality of repairs doesn't appear to be related to the amount of diagnostic equipment in the shop. "In fact, shops with only the basic equipment tend to have the most highly satisfied customers," Checkbook said.
As an example of how prices can differ, the magazine said replacing the muffler and tailpipe of a 1978 Chevrolet Malibu ranged from a low of $54.63 at Montgomery Ward & Co. at Springfield Mall to a high of $181.57 at Larry Buick-Opel, Arlington.
Larry Peacock, treasurer of the Buick dealership, said the $181.57 is for a full exhaust system, including front pipes. He said the price for a routine muffler and tailpipe replacement normally would be "in the neighborhood of $126." Peacock also said the magazine survey was inadequate because shops responding could list a price that was less than they typically charged for the repair job.
The magazine also said it cost a high of $91.35 to provide front end suspension service -- aligning and checking steering gear assembly and balancing front wheels -- for a 1978 Plymouth Volare at one auto shop and a low of $26.60 at another, with the area average $50.68.
Checkbook also offers tips on how to avoid repair shops by maintaining the car properly. Suggestions include what to do each time the car is used -- check tires, gauges and warning lights -- and what to do when buying gasoline -- check tire pressure, engine oil, battery, coolant level and belts.
The magazine advises readers that the chance of getting the car fixed properly "depends heavily on your ability to communicate." Making a list of each problem before going to the shop for repairs is one way to improve communications, the report said.
Checkbook concluded that shops that let the customer talk directly to the mechanic averaged one-third lower return rates to fix improperly executed repairs than those that require the customer to deal with a service writer.
The magazine said that customers at nondealers are about one-third more likely to be satisfied than customers at dealers. Moreover, average prices at nondealers are about 15 percent lower, Checkbook said.
Dealers approved by the American Autombile Association scored an average 6 percent higher on customer satisfaction than nonapproved dealers in the survey. But the AAA dealers also averaged 7 percent higher costs.
Managers of shops rated as inferior generally questioned the survey.
"I need to see the replies and the complaints and the basis for their dissatisfaction," said Richard Mills, general manager of Manhattan Porche-Audi-Subaru, Rockville, the shop with the poorest customer rating among the 331 surveyed.
Mills said he was "surprised and horrified that these are the results." He also said that his shop does outstanding work, that company follow-up surveys of customers indicate they are "very satisfied" and that repair work sales are booming. "If customers were that dissatisfied, they wouldn't keep coming back," he said.
Karl Kaufman, general manager of Sellers Sales & Service in Lanham, said he took over the operation in February and instituted a quality control program aimed at providing top service. Under the new program, Kaufman said, the company calls all repair customers to make sure they are satisified with the work that was done.
Wheaton Dodge City general manager Harry Simpson said he had had two complaints since he took over two months ago. "One complaint was unfounded and the other was a clerical error which I corrected. . . . I don't believe we have a service problem here," Simpson said.
John Jaffe, general manager of Manhattan Auto Inc., Rockville, also took issue with the survey.
Checkbook based it customer satisfaction rating for Manhattan on survey responses from 13 customers in 1980 -- a year in which the shop serviced 12,000 automobiles, Jaffe said. Due to the small sampling, he said, it would be "ridiculous and unfair to put any credence in what that man [Krughoff] has published."
Jaffe said Manhattan's surveys of its customers show they are "very satisfied." He said anyone with questions about quality and performance are dealt with on an individual basis.
"No one claims perfection; we don't," he said. "When we see things that need to be changed, we deal with them."
Following are the 35 shops rated as adequate or superior by all customers surveyed by Washington Checkbook magazine:
Lake Forest Chrysler-Plymouth, Gaithersburg; Toyota Village Inc., Clarksville; AAMCO Auto Transmissions, Falls Church; Alward's Garage, Baileys Crossroads; Autoectronics Inc., Rockville; Carburetors Unlimited Inc., Fairfax; Central Brake & Alignment Inc., Silver Spring, Citgo, 5471 Westbard Ave., Bethesda; Continental Auto, Alexandria; Craftsman Automotive, Falls Church; Distad's American Service, D.C.; Dunham's Automotive Inc., Potomac; Executive Amoco, Rockville; Flying Dutchman Automatic Transmission, Arlington; Glenmont Exxon Inc., Silver Spring; Greenbelt Coop, Greenbelt; Kensington Simca Service, Kensington; Mack's Auto Repair, Arlington; Malcolm's Automotive, Arlington; Mary & Mike Transmissions, Rockville; Midas Muffler, Vienna; Nicholls Imported Car Service Inc., Baileys Crossroads; Paul's Auto Service, Falls Church; Petrovich Auto Repair, D.C.; Pugh's Garage, College Park; Rinehart's Garage, Arlington; Rolling Road Mobil, Springfield; Sport Performance Inc., Germantown; Thomas Garage Laurel; Tollington Auto Service, Bowie; Tysons Corner Transmission Center, Vienna; Wheaton Manor Shell, Wheaton; Wheaton Service Center Ltd., Wheaton; Wiygul Automative, Alexandria, and Wrenchwoman Inc., D.C.
Shops rated as inferior by more than 60 percent of customers surveyed, according to the magazine, were:
Manhattan Porsche-Audi-Subaru, Rockville; BMW Fiat, Fairfax; Banning & Sons, Hyattsville; Montgomery County Cars Inc., Rockville; Wheaton Dodge City, Wheaton; Manhattan Auto Inc., Rockville; Sellers & Services, Lenham; Glenmont Chrysler-Plymouth, Wheaton; Lee Volkswagan, Springfield, and Suburban Pontiac Inc., College Park.