Staff Car Report: Leaving the Dealer, Loving the Freedom of Truly Independent Servicing

Love them or loathe them, dealers are part of the car ownership experience for most of us — unless you happen to own a Tesla Model S, of course. And when it comes to regular maintenance, most of us with newish cars end up taking them back to the dealership which we purchased it from. When the car is a specialist vehicle –either by its rarity or some specifics of its powertrain or design — we find ourselves heading for specialist ‘official’ dealers who proudly proclaim their affiliation with the brand they’re franchised with.

Getting a car serviced at an approved dealership is something many of us do.

Getting a car serviced at an approved dealership is something many of us do.

The 1989 Volvo 340 that once adorned our driveway for example, was a princess of the Volvo dealer network. Its arcane variomatic transmission required a plethora of specialist tools that were largely only available at dealers. It was the first time I’d experienced the bountiful greetings that comes with a dealer service. Generally, although the Volvo dealers varied in ability, the car came out better than it went in (even if that improvement sometimes needed an electron microscope to see it) and the process was at least pleasant.

Coffee on hand, a clean, spacious, air conditioned environment, comfy sofas, polite and efficient service. Although sometimes it required a cornucopia of patience and repetition of “No, thanks. No new car today” before they’d accept that we actually rather liked our 340 GL. When we finally stopped using dealers having found a really good local specialist we were somewhat sad, and actually missed the relationship we’d built up with the one in Slough.

Previously I’d had a succession of vehicles who’s dealers had either gone the way of the dodo (for example, a fine Yugo 45a – for definitions of ‘fine’ that include ‘unutterably lousy’) or which were just too cheap and tatty to make the dealer expense worthwhile. Instead I’d taken these cars to a variety of small independent garages (I realise with the Yugo the term ‘car’ may be considered over-generous).

But as with dealers, not all independent garages are born equal.

Sometimes the experience was one of efficient service with a smaller price-tag. At others, the experience was one of turning up and finding a person less competent than me was attempting to bill me for things that were clearly not faulty. Indeed, one notorious experience was a garage failing the Minor’s brake efficiency at the yearly roadworthyness test, it being ‘repaired’, and then magically passing the MOT but actually being vastly, vastly, worse. As the saying goes, ‘Your Milage May Vary’.

At 149800 miles our Prius was ready for a service

At 149800 miles our Prius was ready for a service

Contrary to our earlier vehicular experiences, our Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car has remained inside the walled garden of the Mitsubishi Dealer; it being a slightly quirky pre-UK-import model we’ve largely opted to remain with the people who might at least have a small clue, if not a fully fledged knowledge. And so we pull up in the spacious forecourt, wander in, and if we stay are waited on with offers of drinks in that main-dealer environment. Occasional perks are provided free, and each time they attempt to persuade us that what we really want is a new car.

But it was with some slight trepidation that I took our 2005 Toyota Prius hybrid outside the dealer network. Whilst I have been continuously impressed with the Prius’s durability, at 10 years old and with 150,000 miles on the clock I can’t really justify the delights of plush comfy sofas. I’d been hoping to take her to my pet local garage – who months ago said they’d be getting a mechanic accredited to work on hybrids. But when I rang them, the mechanic is still not trained. So after some more research I located a non-main-dealer accredited to work on Prii, and booked our Prius in.

It took a few drives around the local streets, it being in a tiny Victorian square I’d never seen, tucked behind a local high street, but eventually I found the garage and squeezed the car in to the jam-packed space outside. I say ‘space’, but in this case I more ‘abandoned the car across the entrance’ as there were no street parking spaces available. Inside, the staff were helpful and polite – and happy to lend me a car that I’ll be pleased if I never have to drive again. Stained seats, a peeling steering wheel, and a diesel engine that was truck-like. But that’s where my complaints end.

The service went without a hitch. Despite my car’s lack of service history they were quite happy to just do the items they felt were required. They rang me a few hours later and even asked before changing the air filter. They then offered up a list of faults that they considered were advisory – some of which were cheap to fix, some of which I’ll fix myself, some of which are more expensive and they recommended leaving to see if they were picked up on the MOT (the UK’s mandatory road worthiness test for all cars aged over 3 years old but made after 1960) – and some issues that they felt needed rectification. I was happy with their distinction between the groups and let them get on with all the required stuff, leaving me some entertaining small jobs to do at home, and some jobs that I’ll hope the car doesn’t need until well after MOT time.

2005 Toyota Prius Wing Mirror

The broken mirror that came with the car was soon fixed with a new one bought online

Another couple of hours later, the car was back on our street. I won’t say it sounded or felt any better, nor was it nicely valet’d or washed, both of which seem to be mainstays of our dealer experience, but there was evidence – distinct evidence – of a service. Fresh oil, neatly up to the max line on the dip-stick; a clean air filter…

Given the minimal requirements of the Prius service, and the relatively high milage of our example I wasn’t expecting a miracle. And I have to say I didn’t get one. I got a standard service for a price around 2/3rds of what Toyota asked. I didn’t get the love that I used to get at Volvo for my 340, but then the 340 was a bit of a rarity; the Prius doesn’t conjure the affection in people that the 340 did. And y’know what? I don’t need it to. A competently executed service where they check the parts required is more than sufficient.

So I think our Prius will be staying outside that walled garden, and our service book’ll be stamped with a little bit of independence.


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