Dealership Service Departments Are the Worst: An Example

It’s like the frog and the freaking scorpion.

Like all car people, I get asked for automotive advice all the time. Most recently, the call came from a friend I'll call Jane about a car belonging to her son, who I'll call John. His 2013 Subaru Crosstrek has a mere 22,000 miles on the clock. They took it to the dealership for a recall service, and while it was there, they asked the advisor to give it an overall inspection. (Shields up, Mr. Spock! Yellow alert!)

As you can imagine, a laundry list of "needed" fixes were found, but even by dealer standards, this one was a doozy. The rear brake pads were measured at 3mm, so they were told to replace them plus turn the rotors for $400. A transmission fluid change for the CVT was also said to be needed for $400. A front and rear differential fluid change for $300. A brake fluid change for $160. An engine air filter, $40. A cabin air filter, $80. Fuel-injector cleaning, $200. Throttle-body cleaning, $160. And—the icing on the cake—cylinder-top decarbonization for $200.

That's nearly $2,000 of work for a low-mileage Subaru that runs well, passes smog tests with flying colors, and isn't making any noises from the back brakes. My friends are not car people, but Jane is a shrewd businesswoman and she smelled a rat. John, meanwhile, was worried that the car would implode if he looked at it wrong.

I advised my friends to check the Crosstrek's maintenance schedule in the owner's manual, and I did the same. Turns out that Subaru doesn't recommend changing the CVT's fluid at all. Same for the differentials. And decarbonization? On a 22,000-mile engine? Give me a motherlovin' break. ($200 seemed cheap to pull the heads; turns out it's a chemical process, with gunk sprayed into the intake manifold. Makes me think the injector and throttle-body cleanings are chemical jobs, too, rather than proper mechanical procedures.)

Oh, and those brakes? Minimum rear pad thickness, according to Subaru, is 1.6mm.

The brake fluid change might be legit; Subaru recommends it at 30 months or 30,000 miles, and the car is 70 months old and hadn't had it done yet. Same for the air and cabin filters (60 months and 15 months, respectively), but did they actually check them or see if they'd been replaced before?

Maybe the worst part is that the dealer missed work the car actually needs. Subaru recommends new spark plugs at 60 months, and they should have been suggested by the dealer already as the recall was to replace the valve springs. And the fuel filter is due for replacement at 75 months.

What makes me mad—not just for my friends, but for the car-dealership business in general—is that the service department could have made plenty of money by telling the truth. Imagine if the service advisor called and said something like this:

"John, Jane, the car's in good shape. Subaru recommends spark plugs at 60 months, and since we have to remove them for the recall, why not replace them? The parts are only 40 bucks. We'll check the cabin and air filters and replace them if they're dirty. Subaru recommends a brake-fluid change every 30 months, which means you're overdue, so let's do that.

"The rear brake pads aren't worn out, but they are getting a little thin, and the car will need a fuel filter in about six months. Since the car's already here, why don't we do those now? It'll save you another trip to visit us.

"Oh, and I know you don't put a lot of miles on the car, so I have a suggestion: We have got a package of fuel-injection, throttle-body, and cylinder-top cleaning, all for $300. I don't see a desperate need, but since the car sits a lot, it can't hurt to give it a good cleaning."

I'm pretty sure that had the conversation gone that way, my friends would have said yes to everything. Instead, the dealer literally tried to sell them a bill of goods as necessary, but John and Jane weren't buying. "I prepaid the maintenance on my Mercedes," Jane told me. "Funny how it never needs anything but the basics, while the Subaru, which is supposed to be this super-reliable car, needs all this work. I don't know much about cars, but I know a lot about bullshit."

What annoys me is the way dishonesty seems to be so deeply ingrained in so many dealership service departments. It really pains me to say that, because I'm the son of a car salesman and I think the dealerships get a lot of undeserved crap. (Does anyone walk into Target and say "Forget the price tag—I know exactly how much you paid for this toaster, and I'm going to tell you exactly how much profit I'm willing to give you, and if you won't sell me your toaster at my price, there are 10 other Targets that will sell it to me for even less!")

On the other hand, they also get a lot of deserved crap. Even my own stepfather viewed the service departments at some of the dealerships where he worked with a mistrustful eye. The problem is that dishonesty doesn't work. This dealer and their $1,900-plus list set off my friends' BS detectors. A good, honest sales pitch could have netted them $1,200 worth of business and a customer who would continue to return for high-profit routine maintenance.

I imagine some of you might be thinking, "This never happens to me at my dealership." I handle most of the maintenance for our fleet of long-term Four Seasons cars, and you know what? It rarely happens to me, either. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I'm a Caucasian male in my forties. It seems that when I hear stories of dealer service rip-offs, the target is usually a woman, a minority, or a young person who doesn't know much about cars.

And what's so troubling about this is that we trust—or should be able to trust—dealer service departments. These are the places with factory-trained technicians and OEM parts. And when a dealer delivers a decree, we listen. Jane, a very intelligent person who knows a load of bull when she sees it, had to think twice, and took the time to call me to verify what she suspected.

Even car people are susceptible. I once had a Honda dealer tell me I'd have to pay for the seatbelt recall on my then-15-year-old CRX because the car was so old. I knew this was baloney, but I still felt compelled to call Honda customer service to be sure the dealer really was full of crap. And don't get me started on induced brake-pad panic. Worn—versus worn-out—brake pads work just fine, but a lot of people think or are led to believe that "low brakes" means "no brakes."

Back to my friends and their Subaru: We've devised a plan. John and I will replace the rear brakes. He's interested in learning more about how his car works, and I want him to see how much dealers charge for relatively simple jobs. We'll change the air and cabin filters, too, and perhaps when the Crosstrek comes due for its next oil change, we'll do that as well. As for the brake fluid and the hard-to-reach spark plugs, I'm sending my friends to my mechanic, an honest guy who would love to have—and keep—their business.

That's a shame for the dealer, because my friends aren't tapped for funds. They like their cars in good working order and there's a given amount of money that will be spent on that Subaru. The only question is, who gets it? Had the dealer been less greedy, that money could have been theirs.

So why didn't the dealership do the right thing? I guess it's like that old fable about the scorpion and the frog: They just can't help themselves. They're scorpions.

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