For Kim Dorrian, getting an oil change is never a simple task. The working mom often takes her 2001 Toyota Corolla to two Jiffy Lubes near her Columbus, Ohio, home. But no sooner have the technicians pulled the plug, she says, than they usually attempt to sell her extra services, ranging from a $12 air filter to far pricier procedures. "It makes me feel uncomfortable," admits Dorrian, who never knows if her car needs what the mechanics are peddling. "It's confusing to the average person."
Like countless Americans, Dorrian has fallen prey to a common practice in the automotive industry known as upselling. Many car experts insist there's nothing wrong with it, as long as the services being suggested are necessary. In fact, they argue that an overly conscientious technician is better than one who misses something critical and jeopardizes safety. But that's where things get gray: How do you know if the person working under your hood is suggesting only needed repairs or simply out to make a quick buck?
To explore this issue, Angie's List decided to hit the road, sending two reporters - Gary Wollenhaupt and myself - to randomly selected quick lubes, independent garages and dealerships in three cities. Before getting started, we asked a highly rated, highly certified auto technician, Tony Tyler of Tyler Automotive in Indianapolis, to scrutinize and run tests on my '97 Honda CR-V and Wollenhaupt's similarly aged Dodge Caravan. Tyler provided us with detailed reports of his assessments, giving us an idea of what might make for legitimate upselling.
A total of 37 stops in Chicago, Indianapolis and Columbus yielded plenty of interesting results. First of all, we encountered a number of refresh-ingly frank service reps who accurately described our oil as clean and didn't attempt to propose other services. They include technicians at Wayne's Marathon on Bethel Road in Columbus, the Valvoline on 116th Street in Indianapolis and Auto Repair with Steve on Waukegan Road in Glenview, Ill. Mechanics at other garages, how-ever, changed our pristine oil without batting an eyelash, including those at Jiffy Lube on West Touhy Avenue in Lincolnwood, Ill., the Firestone on Keystone in Indianapolis and the Valvoline on Bethel Road in Columbus. These three garages and at least two others, moreover, recommended additional services that appear to us to be highly questionable.
While in the waiting room at the Valvoline on Bethel Road, for example, I was approached by a technician carrying a white cloth with black smudges. According to the technician, the smudges came from my car's dirty throttle body, which she offered to clean for $69. When I asked how badly the service was needed, shop manager Sherry Sorrell told me it would help improve gas mileage. "It's all about fuel economy," she insisted. Jim Vitak, a spokesman for Valvoline Instant Oil Change, later explained that Sorrell's suggestion was based on various auto manufacturers' recommendations as well as on advice provided by such organizations as the Auto Main-tenance and Repair Association.
Tyler, however, argues that a clean throttle body doesn't affect actual fuel efficiency. "It's about good drivability," he says, adding that technicians should closely inspect the throttle body during a tune-up because a dirty one can cause a vehicle to idle or stall. However, my CR-V wasn't experiencing such symptoms, and Honda's maintenance schedule doesn't mention or require throttle body cleanings. Joshua Ceaser, a technician at the Jiffy Lube on West Touhy Avenue in Lincolnwood, Ill., found a set of completely different items on my Honda that needed attention, recommending a tire rotation, new fuel filter, fuel system cleaning, a radiator and transmission flush and rear differential fluid replacement. His $315 estimate for the proposed work, he says, was based on the CR-V's 83,000 miles.
Sal Jamente, manager of this Jiffy Lube, then told us his technicians generally base their recommendations on auto manufacturers' service schedules. If employees have no prior service record for the vehicle, he noted, they might suggest items that appear on the schedules at earlier mileage intervals in case they haven't yet been performed. Tyler, however, believes Ceaser should have asked when my tires had last been rotated before making the suggestion. He also says he found no need for the radiator and transmission flushes or the rear differential fluid replacement. The same was true for the remaining two items - the fuel filter and the fuel system cleaning - which don't appear anywhere in Honda's maintenance schedule. The customer service department at American Honda confirmed that this was because those items don't need to be serviced.
Along with an oil change at the Firestone on Keystone Avenue in Indianapolis, a technician handed me a printout of his recommendations and said the items might need servicing during my next visit. Tyler had just deemed unnecessary two of the items - a new fuel filter and fuel system cleaning. He also said there were no problems with the third: wiper blades. Later asked about the discrepancies, manager Jeff Clark said his report noted the three recommendations were marked 'PM' for 'preventative maintenance.' He went on to say that Firestone uses this system for all recommendations, and that an item marked 'RI' stands for 'ride improvement,' while 'SF' refers to the much more serious 'system failure.' However, no one during my visit to this Firestone bothered to explain these distinctions to me.
Wollenhaupt had a similar experience at the Firestone on East Golf Road in Schaumburg, Ill., though in his case the suggested work totaled a whopping $841. The service rep, Noel Thomas, gave him a printout of recommendations that included new tires and alignment, a new fuel filter and new shocks. When we checked in with Tyler, he acknowledged that he had found enough wear and tear on the tires to warrant replacing them, and said a new fuel filter wasn't out of the question given the vehicle's 126,000 miles. But when it came to the shocks, which would've cost $156, Tyler disagreed with Firestone's findings. "[The Caravan's shocks] are neither leaking oil, bouncy nor worn out," he says. "New shocks would bring an improvement in the way the car drives, but they shouldn't be pushing it. James Hochbert, manager of this Firestone, said his shop printout merely showed that the rear shocks could use replacement for 'preventative maintenance' and 'ride improvement,' as indicated by the 'PM' and 'RI' codes by each item. No one, however, pointed this out to Wollenhaupt during his garage visit.
At the Jiffy Lube on Golf Road in Skokie, Ill., technician Greg Stepnowski recommended that Wollenhaupt purchase some different services, including a radiator power purge for $69.99 and an automatic transmission service for $99.99. Stepnowski said he was basing his recommendations on mileage and did not ask when these services had last been performed. Tyler said his inspection found the transmission fluid could use servicing. On the other hand, Tyler's pH test of the radiator fluid indicated it was fine. No power purge was necessary. In addition to these five shops, several Jiffy Lubes attempted another form of upselling. For an extra $13 to $15, they offered oil upgrades, including one designed for SUVs, one for stop-and-go driving and one for high-mileage cars. Jiffy Lube's corporate headquarters in Houston sent us a statement about these products, saying they stock them in response to customer demand. Conventional oils still contain impurities, it notes, and their specialty and synthetic oils are engineered for optimal performance in certain vehicles. Tyler, however, doesn't have a favorable opinion of these products and says most drivers only need the oil recommended by the car's maker. "If
the [car] manufacturer says it ought to have 10W30, then so be it," he says, adding that sticking with a quality brand is important.
One of the reasons Angie's List wanted to send two reporters - both a male and a female - to various quick-lube joints and garages was to see if they would be treated differently. "Women have a fear of being taken advantage of, and they have a fear of what could happen to their car if they don't get something fixed," explains Courtney Caldwell, author of the syndicated newspaper column "In Motion" and founder of Road & Travel Magazine. "I think shops do play on that feeling." And while we didn't encounter any distinctions in our reporting, attorney Leslie Dunn says she is certain her gender played a role in a recent upselling incident at the Meineke Discount Muffler on 82nd Street in Indianapolis. Last October, Dunn says she took her Mazda 626 to the shop for rear brake pads shortly after the front pads had been replaced. But according to Dunn, they advised she purchase not only rear pads but also calipers and front pads - $1,200 in work. Instantly suspicious, Dunn called her car dealer, who told her to leave the shop. "They said, 'There's no way your car needs that much work,'" she recalls, adding that her dealer later said the front pads were only 25 percent worn and Mazdas rarely require new calipers. He then proceeded to replace her rear pads for $200.
David Jines, manager of the Meineke in question, said his facility has no record of performing an inspection on Dunn's vehicle and suggested she might have mistaken his shop for the Midas next door. However, Dunn says she is certain she visited Meineke and even communicated with its district manager about the incident. "I'm small, blonde and I look fru-fru," she says, "but I'm an attorney. They don't realize I'm intelligent." Women aren't the only ones who feel vulnerable when it comes to auto shops. Austin Trentham, a 17-year-old from Kansas City, says he felt like he'd been conned last year after he took his newly purchased Nissan in for an oil change at the 4th Street Jiffy Lube in Leavenworth, Kan., which has failed to return repeated calls seeking comment. Trentham says an employee told him his car wouldn't run without a new air filter, so he let them replace the existing one - even though he knew it was a mere month old. He also says he approved an A/C recharge at their suggestion and a repair to an interior panel on his car door. "They had the keys and told me I couldn't leave unless I had these things fixed," he says. "I didn't know what else to do. I feel like they took advantage of me because I was young and didn't know much about cars."
Several experts believe these kinds of cases are few and far between. "Ninety-nine percent of the repair shops out there are ethical - it's always the 1 percent that get the 5 o'clock news treatment," says Tony Molla, vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence in Leesburg, Va., a certification organization for auto service professionals.
However, Bob Cerullo, author of "What's Wrong With My Car?" and a nationally renowned auto expert, estimates that at least half of the shops make bogus recommendations. But he adds that upselling per se isn't the problem. Rather, he notes, incentive-based selling is what gives technicians a reason to push worthless services. "I don't believe in commission sales," says Cerullo, a 35-year veteran of the industry. "It always leads to trouble."
To sidestep unethical technicians, auto experts emphasize the importance of reading your manufacturer's recommended service schedule. This tool, which is usually part of the owner's manual, tells you how often your car should receive an oil change, air filter, tire rotation, transmission flush, radiator service - you name it. "It's my view that no one knows more about an automobile, as far as routine maintenance, than the people who designed and built that car," Tyler says.
Becoming familiar with your service schedule can also help you recognize discrepancies between what your car needs and a technician recommends. Even when it comes to a simple oil change, for example, auto manufacturers and service facilities often have different opinions. "Professionals recommend every 3,000 miles, manufacturers recommend every 7,500 miles," says Molla. "My recommendation is somewhere in the middle."
You should also get a second opinion. For starters, it could eliminate having to fork over a bundle of money for unneeded repairs. "Second opinions are grossly inconvenient to me," Dunn says, "but this one saved me $1,000." Second opinions can also confirm legitimate upselling. For example, the Firestone in Schaumburg, Ill., suggested replacing the tires on Wollenhaupt's Caravan, which Tyler says showed excessive wear. Also, a Penske Chevrolet-Honda dealership in Indianapolis noted my CR-V's battery was on its last leg, which his tests had already discovered.
Above all, be sure to find a mechanic you can trust. Shirley Seigle, who lives in the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village, had been frequenting the Firestone service center on Nall Avenue in Overland Park for oil changes since 1957. But when she took her '89 Toyota Corolla there in April, she thought their $1,400 price tag to fix a new leak was too high. She went to Richard Heart of Heart Service Center for a second opinion, who charged her $125 to locate the problem, which he said was minor and didn't need attention, as Seigle doesn't drive her Toyota very often. "He said the car will probably outlive both of us," says Seigle, who now frequents Heart's garage. "I was a stranger when I went to Richard, but when I left, I felt like I had a friend."