Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
So a few weeks ago Winnie needed an annual safety inspection on her 2013 Nissan Versa. Considering that the car is in excellent condition, this should have been a routine process of taking the car in, getting it inspected, stickered, and out the door.
Instead, the dealer service center broke bad and tried to extort Winnie for an expensive and unnecessary repair job. They made a really bad choice.
On Trusting Auto Mechanics
I used to do almost all my own auto mechanic work back in the last millennium, when I was young and frequently bored and normally broke. I’m not a natural mechanic, much preferring working with wires instead of moving machinery. So learning, and relearning, auto mechanics was often painful and required frequent “rework.” Once I purchased my 1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup I vowed to not do any more auto mechanic work. A vow that I’ve mostly kept ever since.
However, my mechanic’s experience gave me enough background knowledge/confidence to deal with auto mechanics. I’ve also been fortunate enough to earn enough to afford professional auto repair work. I’ve tended to trust dealer service centers on basis that they have a reason to stay honest and do quality work. Plus, dealership mechanics have solid factory training and certifications that independent service mechanics don’t necessarily have.
So it was a real shock when I was recently forced to accept that a local auto dealership service center tried to game Winnie.
Winnie owns a 2013 Nissan Versa 1.6L. We bought it new and she takes good care of it. She also doesn’t drive much anymore; in fact for the past year and a half she’s driven it on average twice per month. Last month Winnie needed to get an annual state safety inspection, along with an oil change. So, she made arrangements to take it into Cowles Nissan of Woodbridge service center, a service center local to us. This is also part of the dealership where we’ve bought two cars over the years we’ve lived here.
It just so happened that the day she took it in for service was a day I actually had to be up in my Washington, D.C., office. About 9:30 Winnie called me, highly agitated. She explained that the Cowles Nissan service manager just handed her a repair estimate of $1,111.32, plus tax. She asked me to talk with the service manager.
The service manager claimed Winnie’s car needed the steering control rod bushings replaced, and that the car was unsafe to drive as it was. I expressed my surprise, telling him the car had low mileage for it’s age and hadn’t even been driven much the past two years. He explained that the bushings were like rubber shock mounts on the engine and had “dry-rotted.” In their condition, he told me, they could fail causing a loss of steering control.
My background in auto mechanics never included working on a front-wheel drive vehicle like this car. So, armed with a surfeit of ignorance I chose to believe what he told me, although “dry-rotted steering arm bushings” just didn’t sound right. I had him put Winnie back on the phone, and told Winnie that if the work was needed, it needed to get done.
Winnie wasn’t having any of this “just do it” stuff. She was fired up and not happy about needing to spend $1,111 to get her safety sticker. She said she’d call me back.
Sure enough, ten minutes later she did call me back. She told me she wanted to take her car to another service center, one near our house that we frequently use for safety and emissions inspections. But, the service manager would not allow her to drive the car out of the service center on basis that it was not safe to drive. He was even going to scrape off her safety sticker.
I explained to Winnie that she couldn’t drive her car without a safety sticker. If she drove off without a sticker, and a cop stopped her, she could get arrested and her car towed away. Trying to lighten her up, I commented “if you go to jail, I’ll visit and bring food.” This turned out to not be the right thing to say – she hung up.
A few minutes later she called me back, again. This time she explained she had told the service manager she didn’t have $1,111 to pay that day. The service manager then agreed to give her a fifteen day “temporary” safety sticker, and instructed her to make an appointment to get the work done. Winnie told me she was leaving Cowles Nissan to go to our neighborhood service center for a second opinion.
I went back to work. About two hours later Winnie called me again. This time, she triumphantly announced that our neighborhood service center gave her a safety sticker. There was nothing wrong with her car.
Winnie explained she had given the mechanics the Cowles Nissan estimate. They put her car up on a lift, and spent more time than “normal” (previous safety inspections) on her car. Once done, they told her there was nothing wrong with her steering control rods and issued her a regular safety sticker.
Now I was pissed, realizing Cowles Nissan tried ripping off Winnie. But I was also concerned at a “he said – she said” of two different service centers giving completely opposite diagnosis. So I suggested that we take her car to another service center I used to take my 2004 Isuzu Rodeo for servicing. Just to be sure.
Winnie got her car to this third service center first thing next morning. The mechanics were only too happy to help, and once again put the car up on a lift and did an extended inspection. Once again, they gave Winnie’s Nissan a clean bill of health – nothing wrong with the steering control rods.
So now I was seriously pissed. I was also embarrassed, thinking I had backed the Nissan Cowles service center when they were trying to rip off Winnie (us) to the tune of $1,111. I knew this needed a response.
I did what I do best. I wrote letters. One to our State Attorney General’s Office, another to Cowles Nissan with a copy of the Attorney General’s letter included. I’ve included copies of both letters here, just because.
A few days later I did get a phone call form the Virginia Attorney General’s office. I explained I just wanted them to have this information on file, no actions requested. It was a pleasant chat, and I was impressed with how quickly they responded.
More interesting was the call I received several more days later from Cowles Nissan. The call was from their “Customer Relations” manager. He really didn’t sound contrite, pretty business-like and almost brusque. He asked what they could do to gain our business back. My response was “nothing. You violated our trust and destroyed your credibility. There’s nothing you can do to earn that back, and we will be taking our future business elsewhere.”
This customer relations manager didn’t seem to like this answer. He responded “I’m prepared to inspect your car, this time with a state trooper present. We’ll fix all problems we find for free.” I was rather surprised, and amused, thinking that they would get a state trooper into their service bay to watch an auto inspection (“Insurance rules forbid customers from entering the service area.“). I also wondered if a typical state trooper would even know what bad steering control rod bushings looked like? Was this meant to intimidate us, or somehow prove Cowles Nissan was making an honest diagnosis?
My response was “two other service centers, whom I’ve done business with in the past and trust, inspected this car and found nothing wrong. So, there’s nothing for you folks to fix.” The customer relations manager repeated his “offer” a couple more times, and I repeated my response a couple more times. He finished with “please let me now when you want to bring your car back in” and we ended our discussion.
So there it ends. Not only will we not go back to Cowles Nissan for servicing Winnie’s car, when it’s time to replace it we’ll go elsewhere for our purchase.