The results are in! We surveyed dealers and mechanics throughout the country and discovered some interesting things about pricing.
RAY: We picked two fairly average cars, a '96 Honda Civic and a '96 Dodge Intrepid, and picked four common repairs. The repairs we chose are ones you're likely to need done on a 3-to-4-year-old car.
TOM: Then we called 158 different shops -- both dealerships and independent shops -- and got estimates for these repairs.
RAY: We then compared the repair costs at the dealers with the repair costs at the independents. And we found that dealer prices were higher, on average -- by 15 percent for the Honda and by 10 percent for the Dodge.
TOM: But we also discovered some interesting regional differences. For instance, we looked at the data by time zone. And guess which dealers charged the highest prices? The ones on the coasts. The dealer prices all tended to be higher in the Eastern and Pacific time zones than they were in the Central and Mountain zones.
RAY: We also learned that in every case, the Mountain time zone had the smallest price spread between the dealers and the independent shops -- they charged almost the same amounts there. So in the Mountain time zone, it almost doesn't matter if you go to the dealer or an independent. Almost! Remember, these are averages.
TOM: So what's the moral of our survey? Well, if you live on the East or West Coast, you can often save real money by going to an independent (some of which you should deposit directly into our secret bank account in the Cayman Islands).
RAY: And you'll save even more money if you drive your car across the Continental Divide before getting that brake job!
TOM: But does all this mean that you should never go to a dealer? Absolutely not. After all, money isn't everything. Would you want your open-heart surgery to be done by the guy who had the lowest prices?
RAY: We think it means that for the normal, everyday stuff that needs to be done to your car (timing belt, brakes, shocks; like the repairs we researched), you can probably save a few bucks -- hundreds of bucks, in some cases -- by going to a good independent shop.
TOM: But dealerships do offer some advantages. For one thing, they will know more about your car than the average independent shop. That could mean that they might not have to spend a lot of time diagnosing a problem that's unique to your car. So, if you've got a weird problem, the dealer is still probably your best bet.
RAY: If you want to see all of the results of our survey, complete with very pretty bar graphs and charts, go to our Web site, the Car Talk section of www.cars.com.