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How much do you trust your auto mechanic?


Judging by surveys, few people have faith in the men and women who fix cars. When a Gallup Poll asked Americans what they thought about the ethics and honesty of various professions, car mechanics did about as well as local politicians and only slightly better than lawyers-which is to say, not very well at all.


In fact, you might have perfectly good reasons to mistrust mechanics. Year after year, the Consumer Federation of America ranks auto repair among its top five consumer gripes, right alongside home repair scams and shady used-car dealers. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that Americans spend billions of dollars a year on unnecessary or fraudulent auto repairs.


Given this prevailing suspicion, whom can you trust to fix your car? Experts such as the FTC and National Association of Attorneys General suggest asking friends and family for recommendations.


But AAA New Mexico takes that idea one step further. Its Approved Auto Repair program works like a reference from a trusted friend--except that it's more thorough and more empirical. By setting strict standards, regularly inspecting shops, and carefully monitoring customer feedback, AAA separates the best repair facilities from the rest.


And it doesn't cost you a dime. "You're taking AAA's word that the shop has a good reputation," says Mark Aguirre, owner of Aguirre Auto Service, an AAR facility in Las Cruces. "AAA picks only the shops with the best equipment, the best training, and the best records with their customers."


Here's how the program works. AAA asks the questions you'd ask about a repair shop, then checks and rechecks the answers it gets. Namely, AAA asks the following:


Does the shop have the right equipment to do the work?


At the very least, shops must show that they can work on basic mechanical and engine repairs, engine performance (such as tune-ups), brakes, and electrical systems. That means that they must have digital scanners, a four-gas analyzer, and other up-to-date electronic scan tools to do the jobs right.


Shops that offer service for automatic or manual transmissions, suspension and steering work, and air conditioning repairs must have the tools for that kind of work, too--or must work with a facility that does. "A shop can subcontract specialty work, such as transmissions, "says AAA's Dave Skaien, who provides management support for the AAR program. "But the approved shop has to assume first-party accountability for the diagnosis and the work. Most good repair facilities know the best specialty shops in their area, so they're pretty careful about which ones they choose for contract work. They know it's their own reputation that's on the line."


In addition to all this hardware, shops need the right software. To qualify for AAA approval, they must have access to electronic databases to provide up-to-the-minute info on manufacturers' service bulletins, government recalls, repair and maintenance requirements, and recommended practices. All that hardware and software amounts to a hefty investment, which sets the bar pretty high for an AAR shop.

Do the technicians know what they're doing?


Equipment doesn't mean much unless the techs have the training to use it properly. AAA demands that every AAR shop have auto-motive technicians certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, an independent organization that sets standards for the industry and administers tests to individuals. Specifically, each shop is required to have at least one ASE certified technician in each of the areas in which it offers service-for example, engine repair, heating and air conditioning, brakes, or transmissions. The certified techs must stay current in their areas of expertise, which means taking regular continuing-education courses.


You'd be surprised at how many shops don't measure up to AAA's training standards. And if you think the government has guidelines for auto repair workers, think again. As AAA's Skaien points out, most states require hundreds of hours of training before licensing someone to do manicures in a salon, but absolutely anybody can claim to fix an engine, an air bag, or an anti-lock braking system. At an AAR shop, you know that you're getting a well-trained, certified technician, not just anybody.


Does the shop treat you honestly and courteously?


Here's where AAA gets down to serious business. Before a shop can enter the AAR program, AAA experts randomly select a stack of invoices from the shop's recent files and survey the customers. The battery of questions includes, "Were the personnel courteous and professional in their approach to your problem? Was the car ready when promised? Were you satisfied with the repair work? If not, how did the shop resolve the problem?" And perhaps most important, "Would you return to this facility in the future?" In all, the questions cover eight specific areas, and a customer must respond positively in all eight to qualify as "satisfied." The shop must earn a satisfaction rating of 90 percent or better on all questions to get AAA approval.


Once in the program, the shop must submit to surprise inspections every couple of months and to a complete reevaluation every year. AAA service specialists-all of whom are ASE-certified Master Automotive Technicians themselves show up unannounced and check everything from the condition of the equipment to the cleanliness of the restrooms. And they also dip into the files once again to pull more invoices at random; they survey those customers, too, just to make sure the shop hasn't slacked off. Again, the shop has to satisfy more than 90 percent of its customers on all questions to maintain AAA approval.


Does the shop guarantee its work?


All AAR shops guarantee their work for 12 months/12,000 miles under normal circumstances. But the real clincher comes if you have a problem with the shop's service or repairs. AAA pledges to mediate any dispute that you can't resolve with an AAR shop, and the shop agrees in writing to abide by AAA!s decision. "Upon entering the program, the shop signs an absolutely binding contract, agreeing to accept our decision in any dispute mediation," says Patrick O'Reilly, AAA New Mexico AAR manager. "Because of that contract, we have teeth that no one else in the country has."


Not that a lot of disputes ever reach mediation. Last year, for example, AAR shops in New Mexico wrote nearly 158,000 invoices for service work. Of those, only two customer complaints were generated, and AAA investigated and resolved both of them. In the average year, only a few disputes ever rise to the level requiring mediation. O'Reilly attributes this outstanding customer satisfaction record to the diligence with which AAA service specialists investigate shops in the first place, the quality of the participating shops, and the tough warranty provisions and absolute accountability that AAA demands.


By now you're probably thinking, All this equipment, training, and accountability must mean that AAR shops are pretty expensive. Not necessarily. Most experts will tell you that the right equipment and the right training eliminate misdiagnoses and unnecessary repairs-which saves money in the long run.


"Besides, AAA members who show their card at my shop get discounts," Aguirre says. Look for the logo. You'll find AAR shops in every segment of the repair industry-from service departments at new-car dealerships to Independent repair shops to service stations doing repair work. At every one, a white sign with the characteristic red-and-blue AAA logo identifies the facility as "Approved Auto Repair." Or, you can simply go to care to find a shop near you. You can also pick up an AAR directory in AAA New Mexico offices, or call (1-800) 713-0003 to request one.


The AAR program can't restore the reputation of an entire industry. But it can point you toward a repair shop with a proven record of honesty, competence, and courtesy. When you need your car fixed, what more can you ask?


JOSEPH D. YOUNGER, a frequent contributor to NEW MEXICO JOURNEY, has covered automotive topics for more than 20 years.



*Certified Auto Repair isn't a shop name, a chain of stores or even a franchise. Certified Auto Repair embodies a standard of quality held by a nationwide network of the most respected auto repair facilities in the industry. Our members are asked to join based on reputation, integrity, qualifications and expertise. Certified Auto Repair members will not only take care of all your vehicle needs, but do it with professionalism and a level of customer satisfaction second to none.


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