Undercover investigation of repair shops

November 30, 2004
The Automobile Protection Association released the results of its latest undercover investigation of repair shops today. APA mystery shoppers tested 23 auto repair shops in Greater Montreal for the correction of a simple problem and a general check up. The probe was undertaken with special research funding from Quebec’s Office de la protection du consommateur. According to Yvan Turcotte, President of the Office, automobile related inquiries and complaints account for 20% of the OPC’s volume. A report on the investigation airs on La Facture, the Radio-Canada current affairs program Tuesday night at 7:30.

The APA’s test car was a 2000 Chrysler Neon with about 55,000 km on the odometer. Prior to the investigation the Neon received a new brake master cylinder, rear shocks, suspension bushings, spark plugs and ignition wires. The brakes were almost new and all fluids and filters were replaced.

The results
Only 11 or half of the repair shops were able to correct one of the APA’s simple problems and perform a general inspection without performing unnecessary repairs. According to APA president, George Iny, this year’s results are not as bad as the numbers make them appear. “Compared to APA probes in other major Canadian cities, the repair shops visited this year replaced fewer parts unnecessarily. Over the course of the investigation, APA’s test car received a set of four new tires, a flexible pipe for the exhaust system, and unnecessary brake and fuel injector cleaning. The APA says this is an improvement compared to previous probes.

General inspections all over the map
Several general inspections were incomplete. Centre de Service Onil Tessier performed the fastest underhood examination of the investigation – the underhood camera revealed the hood was opened a mere three minutes. According to the APA, payment systems in some shops that reward mechanics for doing work in less time than the customer is billed can contribute to this sort of abuse.

Unnecessary extra maintenance
Two shops sold an unnecessary fuel injector cleaning. The price for this service generally runs from $70 to $130, and for that kind of money most people would think they’re receiving about an hour’s work. Think again – the underhood camera timed fuel injector service at 15-20 minutes, equivalent to a labour rate of $200-$300/hr. According to the APA, service personnel in some shops receive a bonus for selling this sort of service.

The APA mystery car visited two Chrysler dealerships. Both were expensive, and one of them pushed unnecessary work in the form of a fuel injector service and rear brake cleaning (the brakes were brand new). This was the first time in four years that a dealer failed one of the APA’s simple tests.

The defects
The APA set the car up with one of three possible defects for each visit. The easiest one was a disconnected wire to a computer sensor installed on the air intake. Everybody corrected the problem. Although the test was simple, this sort of test routinely confounded repair shops in the 1990’s said APA’s Iny. This year everybody corrected the problem, and all six Canadian Tire stores visited were equipped with the diagnostic tools and training to use it, a first for an APA investigation.

The most challenging problem to correct proved to be the air conditioning system leak. Only two shops out of five could locate and correct a large leak at the fill valve. The APA learned that -- more often than not -- an air conditioning leak doesn’t get fixed on the first visit. If that’s the case, the Consumer Protection Act requires the repair facility to fill the system at no charge on the second visit if it’s within the 3 month/5,000 km repair warranty. Only one shop did.

Faulty wheel alignment
APA experts threw off the wheel alignment on one front wheel and one rear wheel, causing the car to pull sharply to one side. Only two out of ten repair shops managed to correctly align the wheels and not charge for any unnecessary repairs. At three shops that failed, the APA learned that only the front wheels are aligned unless the customer specifically asks for a four-wheel alignment. That’s out of date for the majority of cars on the road with independent suspension, like the Neon. Canadian Tire Guy l’Heureux claimed the tires had to be replaced before putting the car on an alignment machine, and presented a bill of $552.53. At ProShop on boul. Laurentien in Laval, the mechanic replaced a piece of the exhaust system that was still in satisfactory condition. At three shops, wheel alignments were unsatisfactory because machines were out of whack or staff failed to do a meticulous job.

Some good news and not so good news
Every repair shop except one has offered to refund any overcharge for unsatisfactory or unnecessary work – that’s a first for an APA auto repair investigation. Several shops implemented new procedures to make sure the same thing won’t happen again. ProShop’s head office decided to offer advanced wheel alignment courses to personnel across the entire chain, and in future every ProShop store will have its wheel alignment machine calibrated more frequently.

The black sheep of the investigation is Canadian Tire Guy l’Heureux. The APA says this repair facility performed dismally in the last two APA undercover visits, replacing a perfectly good alternator in 2003 and four tires in 2004 at a combined cost over a thousand dollars. The APA says Canadian Tire still has a lot of difficulty policing its less honest or competent franchisees. The APA recommends Canadian Tire implement standards that allow the head office to name an interim administrator or put delinquent shops under trusteeship until they have improved. In the meantime, consumers should look at a different shop for their auto repairs.


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