Watchdog: Why dealers aren’t fixing your car

Watchdog: Why dealers aren’t fixing your car
24 Oct, 2012 9:30am Jon Morgan

Our industry insider explains why hi-tech cars are making it harder than ever for garages to diagnose faults

Dealers failing to diagnose faults was the single biggest gripe of our 2012 Driver Power satisfaction survey. It’s easy to see why this would annoy drivers – no one wants to make multiple visits to their local workshop to get a problem resolved.

But what’s got us concerned is how widespread this issue is – it was the main complaint for an incredible 28 per cent of those who were unhappy with their dealers.

We got in touch with an anonymous insider who works as a service manager in a dealer for a major manufacturer to find out why this issue is so common.

It won’t surprise many to know that part of the problem is with how complex modern cars are. “In the old days it was simple,” our insider explains. “If you had an engine misfire, it was probably down to the spark plugs. These days, you plug in the diagnostic equipment and you could get 10 fault codes – how do you know which one to fix?”

Cars are so technologically complex that they are moving beyond the ability of technicians to fix them. And that has created a convoluted system, where the maker watches over every repair job like Big Brother.

“As soon as you connect the laptop diagnostic equipment, it automatically logs a session with the manufacturer and they monitor and record everything,” our insider tells us. If the laptop shows no fault codes – as it will do with intermittent faults – then the technicians can’t do anything.

If it shows a complex fault code, or lots of codes, then experts at the car maker’s HQ will get involved and start suggesting fixes remotely.

“The engineering whizz kids look through the diagnostics and suggest remedies,” says our insider. It’s a complex process, and there’s usually a middleman passing messages between the dealer technicians and the experts. “We try the suggested repairs and see if they work, and if they don’t we have to start the process all over again.”

Our insider tells us dealers are losing their independence. “In the old days, you could authorise most warranty work in-house. Now, you need the manufacturer to specifically authorise all warranty repairs,” he explains.

And with warranty repairs, there’s pressure to do the job cheaply rather than well. “With a warranty, you are dealing with a manufacturer’s money and it’ll go for the most cost-effective fix,” our insider says. This explains why so many cars have faults that recur shortly after leaving a dealer.

“We don’t get it right all the time, but you can’t criticise the dealer or the technicians for that,” our insider says. “The cars have moved so far beyond what you can expect us to fix first time.”

The problem, according to our insider, lies with the manufacturer. “We need much better access to technical support,” he says. He adds that manufacturers – and sales staff – should also manage customer expectations better.

“Cars are more reliable than ever, but if something goes wrong it’s harder to diagnose. It can take a few attempts to get to the bottom of a problem. Customers easily forget all the times we actually fix things on the first attempt.”

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This is happening with my car. Had it 4 1/2 months from new and the dealer has failed to fix it. There is no fault showing up so they say there isnt a problem. It keeps misfiring and the bluetooth and radio doesnt work properly. Currently trying to get a replacement vehicle as it isn't fit for purpose and at an unsatisfactory quality and damaged by dealer

There is another issue, todays technician is still seen as a dirty mechanic, where as they now need to be an electronics engineer. Schools and careers people still try to push the less academic people to this route when in fact the best should apply. This links to the dealers still paying some staff on a time saved bonus which in effect rewards quick but poor work in the short term. The technical word evolves almost monthly but the "black hand gang" don't recieve the correct recognition. The skills to sell a car haven't changed but the fixing of a car is now unrecogniseable to 10 years ago.

Problem is that the customer pays for repairs that are unnessessary both on parts and labour. How is this fair as I could take quite a few attempts before a fix is correct.

This all makes for interesting reading but the 'insider'
cited shouldn't be considered impartial, and this article hinges on their

It's easy to criticise the manufacturers - It panders to a
certain kind of politics. My opinion is
the dealers don't care how much owners are mucked about so long as they get
their cut - generally by packing in high-margin add-on extras during dealer
visits for everything from valet services to suspect time based service
recommendations e.g. air conditioning services.

Our cars may be very complicated, but the diagnostic kit is
equally sophisticated. Confusion reigns
because dealers use customer service standards as an excuse to distance the technician
from the customer, making it virtually impossible for the lay person to take a
view on whether particular repair is necessary or not. The mechanics get the rough end of the stick
when they’re doing all they can to keep up with the pace of change - the
satisfaction of a job well done is rarely enjoyed in a main dealer
environment where daily targets pressure people
into recommending high margin work, irrespective of its benefit to the

It's very difficult to find a bad review of an independent
specialist. Without the manufacturers to
blame these unsung heroes have to be genuinely good to survive...

What is needed may be as simple as a service person taking enough time to discuss an item with the owner - or even drive the vehicle with him/her - to clearly identify the owner's problem

Speaking as an independent specialist garage owner, cars are so complicated that they are difficult to repair. We see far too many vehicles which have had parts fitted (because the computer showed a fault code) that weren't required.

Dealer and independents are equally responsible for poor processes. Many struggle to follow wiring diagrams and to effectively use a multimeter. Far fewer still can operate and interpret an oscilloscope, which is critical to understanding the root cause of many faults.

Customers, for their part, seem naïve to the complex nature of their chosen mode of transport. We must educate them at every opporunity, they seem receptive, but many of the contact opportunities are under duress (a breakdown or failure).

We invest multiple thousands of pounds on dealer level diagnostics equipment, support and training to enable us to keep pace.

An example fault I had yesterday. A BMW E90 with an indicator fault (fast flashing) and errant bulb failure warnings required a software update to a body computer.

Many faults are diagnosed using a combination of old mechanical skills and newer computer skills.


I was a technical trainer for a manufacturer for 6 years. Technicians are largely treated like second class individuals, who are expected to fix vehicles that are now on a par with the aviation industry in some ways. For instance a well known brand released an exceptionally popular model in the past 2 years that has over 46 control modules (ecm's) and about 5 levels of electronic communication networks and architecture. Dealers will not pay technicians what they deserve but would rather pay inept salesmen who know as much about how a modern car works as I do the start up procedure for the Large Hadron Collider.
Until the industry changes and turns everything on its head and pay the right people the right salaries in the right departments, then you can expect more and more customer dissatisfaction, and less and less loyalty.
After training I became a roving european diagnostic technician for a motor manufacturer and my feet have never touched the ground, so much so that me and a colleauge of mine are now running a diagnostic business and making money hand over fist. If the industry won't change, then i'll gladly reap the rewards of their indifference - thanks.

Sadly they can't even get the basics right. Our local Mazda dealer tried to convince me that I had a buckled wheel because the couldn't get it to balance. Cost £285. They had just replaced a shock for the MOT.

Took it to a local independent tyre specialist who showed me the state the tyre was in and told me that it was common that if a shock failed the tyre got damaged. Tyre changed, balanced perfectly. Cost £120 - and remember, I would have needed the tyre anyway with the Mazda solution.

The suspicion is that main dealers either don't know what they are doing or that they are trying to rip us off. That error means that I can no longer trust them and will take the car to a local independent in future.

The problem is that most so-called engineers don't know basic fault finding procedures. A recent experience with a main dealer trying to find a fault with a computer resulted in four attempts to locate, then an admission of failure. When I got my daughters car home, it was evident that what was required was new injectors. My only equipment was my ears! An hour later and the fault was fixed. Garage bill for not fixing - £185.

Had a Merc C32 AMG. 4 garages (including merc main dealer) couldn't find the fault using diagnostics, resulting with eventual engine failure. Sold for parts or repair. Purchaser took 2 years and 8 months to fix it! A labour of love I think. I'll get a bullet proof warranty next time.

I can identify with this problem, had a BMW diesel convertible which If someone sat in the front passengers seat -you had a 1 in 5 chance that the air bag warning light came on OR the car wouldn't start.My local west wales BMW dealer was very happy changing the air bags every month and being recompensed by BMW, they wouldn't investigate the real issue or the non-starting as BMW Bracknell wouldn't pay them to try and find the real problem as the cars computer never showed an error code other than "change the air bags" I guess

I feel for these guys, as a laptop tech for a Major manufacture we are in the same boat, the laptops are getting more complex more so with the higher end stuff. They have more parts in them, the technology is constantly changing, the complexity of the boards is incomprehensible from even 5years ago. Yet our diagnostic tools haven't changed one bit in the last 10years or so. Trying to get a diagnostics correct the first time for an intermittent problem is a case of roll the dice and hope for the best.

Sadly customers only care about getting their laptop back the next day fully working without comprehending whats involved. Add to this targets and things slide quickly.

Do you have any jobs going for a diagnostic tech in Fife?

It seems to me that it is the manufacturers who are hiding behind the dealers. I wonder how many major recalls (and the associated bad publicity) are deliberately avoided by shifting the blame on the dealerships.

Like the big breweries with pub landlords, manufacturers force dealers and their technicians to bite the hand that feeds them, through targets that create a conflict of interest, and a lack of trust that has contaminated the whole car industry.
The recession, the internet, car supermarkets, and independent service centres will eventually kill-off the dealership networks, and some manufacturers too.

Hi Dave, Sorry we are West Midlands based only. Go for it yourself though my friend, there is plenty of work for everyone out there. All the best to you.