Car servicing centres guide

Think you'll get a better service from the dealer's service centre? Think again.
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  • Updated:30 Apr 2008

01 .Introduction

Car mechanic

When you hand your car over for a service, you’d hope for — and it’s certainly not unreasonable to expect — honest and expert advice about the condition of your car and any repairs needed.

Unfortunately, though, 89% of service centres missed at least one of the faults CHOICE had planted when our female shadow shopper took popular makes of car for a minor service and safety check at their makers’ service centres. Clearly something is going wrong.

She took the cars (early to mid-2000s samples of a Ford Laser LXi, Holden TS Astra Classic, Subaru Liberty and Toyota Echo) to dealer service centres in various suburbs of Sydney for each of those four popular car makes.

To ensure each car was being judged on an equal footing, an independent mechanic with 20 years' experience, hired by CHOICE for the project, planted the following faults in each car:

  • The left reverse light globe was blown.
  • The right rear tyre pressure was reduced to 20% below the manufacturer’s recommended pressure.
  • The spare tyre pressure was reduced to 10 psi.
  • The brake fluid was reduced to the minimum level.

Our driver went to each service centre and asked for a minor service and safety check before driving interstate. Our independent mechanic then determined whether the faults had been noted and rectified. We wanted to know if dealer service centres would:

  • Detect and fix the minor faults.
  • Detect and mention any pre-existing conditions that needed repair.
  • Recommend that any unnecessary work be performed.

We also compared the prices charged for a minor service and safety check for each make.

CHOICE Verdict

  •  All car owners should be able to expect and receive a high-quality service from a dealer service centre. Indeed, car companies reinforce this customer expectation in their own literature. However, as our investigation shows, the industry didn’t stand up to the rigour of our shadow shop.
  • Only three out of 28 service centres picked up all four basic faults we planted. This is not good enough. For more details, see our scorecards for each service centre: Ford, Holden, Subaru and Toyota.
  • Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when it comes to car servicing. For every dealer that delivers a competent repair and service, there’s another that will take your money, give second-rate advice and miss vital and obvious faults that need to be fixed for safety and roadworthiness.
  • Get a better service gives some advice to help you avoid being ripped off — no matter where you take your car.
  • Please note: this information was current as of April 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


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Detecting faults

Car with bonnet upIdeally, if each of the 28 service centres we visited conducted a thorough service and safety check as requested, all the faults we’d placed in the cars would have been identified and addressed. Instead, we found that 25 of the 28 service centres (89%) missed at least one fault:

  • 23 of 28 (82%) didn’t increase the spare tyre pressure.
  • 12 of 28 (43%) didn’t notice the blown reverse light.
  • Six of 28 (21%) didn’t increase the right rear tyre pressure.
  • Three of 28 (11%) didn’t fill up the brake fluid in the reservoir.

So, most of the service centres we visited didn’t conduct a thorough service. The underinflated spare tyre was the most commonly missed problem, which could have turned into a disaster on our driver’s impending interstate trip. The better news was that most discovered the low brake fluid level in the reservoir.

The following pages show our scorecards for each service centre: Ford, HoldenSubaru and Toyota. Overall, the Toyota service centres performed best, missing only eight out of 28 faults.

Are faults invented?

It’s bad enough to charge for a necessary service not provided — but what about providing and charging for work and repairs that aren’t necessary? It’s the stuff of hidden cameras and current affairs TV shows. Happily, this wasn’t the norm in our shadow shop, involving just six of the 28 centres.

Some of the recommended work — and this is giving the mechanics the benefit of the doubt — could have been considered overly cautious rather than an attempt to squeeze extra money out of our shopper.

That said, it’s interesting that one centre was apparently so busy noting $306 worth of non-existent faults and unnecessary repairs, it didn’t find any of the faults we planted.

Existing faults

Our mechanic noted all the cars except the Holden had pre-existing conditions, mainly tyre and brake wear. They were all issues that should have been addressed before a long driving trip, though again, most service centres didn’t give any warning about or advice on these problems.

  • Six of the seven Subaru service centres correctly pointed out that the brake pads needed replacing, but only three out of seven noted both back tyres did too.
  • None of the Ford centres picked that four of the five tyres needed replacing. Three said two tyres did, though they weren’t consistent as to which ones, and one simply mentioned they were "getting low".
  • Four out of seven centres noted the Toyota’s front brake wear, though only two correctly suggested they should be replaced soon (after 5000km driving).

Who’s responsible?

For the companies we looked at, the parent company rarely has direct control over the service centres. Almost all centres are independently owned, operating similarly to a franchise. However, they’re supposed to meet certain obligations to the parent company, including some form of agreement to adhere to a code of standards.

Mechanics and technicians receive initial training and information on model updates from the company, as well as ongoing training. Ford, Holden and Subaru said they’d address the problems we raised with their service centres.



"Only Ford Dealer service technicians are trained by Ford to be experts in the technical and mechanical components of all Ford vehicles. They have access to the latest engineering information ... to make certain your vehicle is serviced to the highest standards".

Highest standards? Let’s see:

  • Ford service centres collectively missed 12 of the 28 faults in the car they serviced — two missed one fault out of four, the rest missed two.
  • On the plus side, all the garages supplied an itemised invoice detailing the cost of the service and the work performed on the car, and all except one gave a verbal overview of the service. However, a couple ticked off things as 'done' when they weren’t.
  • The average price charged was $236.61 for our Ford Laser and typical prices ranged from $226.25 to $248.30 (excluding 'specials'). The variation in price between the cheapest and most expensive service was mainly due to the difference in the cost of the consumables (oil and lubricants).
Ford results table



"All Holden Dealers subscribe to a standard of excellence. We are committed to making sure all Holden vehicles are correctly diagnosed, repaired and serviced, resulting in consistent 'right first time' performance".

That’s "all Holden vehicles" except ours, apparently:

  • Collectively, the seven Holden service centres we visited failed to detect almost half the faults in our car (13 of the 28), with the worst garage missing all four faults and the best missing none.
  • All the garages visited provided an itemised invoice detailing the work done to the car and the cost of the service, though two failed to give our shadow shopper a verbal overview of the service. One told us they’d checked the tyres, but missed the underinfl ated rear and spare tyres.
  • The average cost of a service was $201.98 for our Holden Astra, though prices varied quite dramatically, ranging from $140.00 to $310.00 (excluding 'specials'). The variation in price between the cheapest and most expensive service was mainly due to the difference in the cost of the labour.
Holden results table


"Keep your vehicle performing to exacting standards by taking it to a Subaru service centre".

While Subaru — perhaps wisely — avoids the superlatives used by other companies in extolling the virtues of their service centres, we’re not convinced our car would perform to "exacting standards" if we suffered a puncture on a long driving trip and had to use the spare (six of the seven centres failed to fix it).

  • Overall, Subaru service centres missed 11 of the 28 faults in the car they serviced, with the worst garages failing to detect three of the four faults and the best missing none of them. Four reported doing things they’d in fact missed.
  • All the garages gave our shadow shopper an itemised invoice detailing the cost of the service and the work done to the car. A verbal overview of the service was also given by the counter staff at each service centre visited.
  • The average price was $254, with prices ranging from $219.55 to $271.95 for our Subaru Liberty. The price variation was mainly due to the difference in the cost of consumables and their disposal and miscellaneous costs.
Subaru results table



"[Our specialist technicians] work on Toyotas day in and day out so they understand what makes your Toyota 'tick' and can spot any potential problems or worn parts before they become a safety concern. Better still, their superior knowledge on all things Toyota makes for a quick, accurate diagnosis of the state of your vehicle’s health".

That may sometimes be true, but not always.

  • Out of the four chains visited in the shadow shop, Toyota service centres came out best, missing a total of eight of the 28 faults they were given to fix. The best picked up all the faults, the worst missed two of the four.
  • All the garages we visited supplied an itemised invoice detailing the cost of the service and the work performed on the car, as well as a verbal overview. Three dealers told us they’d checked tyres, yet the spare tyre wasn’t reinflated.
  • Toyota service centre prices averaged $193.25, ranging from $168.25 to $221.15 for our Toyota Echo. The price variation was mainly due to the difference in the cost of the labour.
Toyota results table

There are steps you can take to help avoid being ripped off or getting an unpleasant surprise. Before taking your car to be serviced, make sure you do the following:

  • Do some basic checks yourself. For example, tyres usually have tread wear indicators showing the minimum legal tread. If you know where the dipstick is you can check the level and condition of your oil. And anyone (with the help of a friend) can check whether the lights are working.
  • When you’re looking for a mechanic, ask friends for recommendations.
  • When getting a routine service, make sure the mechanic will ask for your OK if the car requires repair that’s above the normal requirements and exceeds the quote by more than, say, 10 percent.
  • Ask for an explanation of the pros and cons of different brands of spare parts, especially if they’re not from the original brand of the car.
  • If you’re expecting major repairs, or if you’re not convinced a quoted item really needs attention, get several quotes.
  • Ask for an itemised bill that gives details of hours, hourly rates, parts required, part prices, etc.
  • Check all the repairs you’re being billed for have been carried out. For example, if an engine oil change was done, check the new oil is translucent and honey-coloured. If parts have been replaced, ask to see the old ones (which admittedly may not be very helpful if you don’t know your starter motor from your distributor ... ) and, if feasible, check where new parts have been installed.
  • If you’re unhappy with any part of the service you’ve received, discuss it with the workshop manager or owner. If you can’t resolve the problem, put your complaint to the management in writing. If there’s still no agreement, you can write to your state’s or territory’s fair trading or consumer affairs department.
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