Chicago Auto Repair

December 9th, 2008

Last week my 1997 Jetta VR6 turned on her check engine light.  Doh.  So I embarked on that adventure that every car owner does in a new city – find a good auto mechanic.  Since I have a Volkswagen, I’m limited to shops that deal with European cars, making it tougher to find a good yet affordable mechanic.   Luckily yelp, my favorite review system, has auto repair reviews.  I took the best ones where people mentioned VW, Volkswagen, or Volkswagon (many misspell it), and cross referenced them with what I found on cartalk mechanic reviews.  I came up with 3 I wanted to try.

The first shop I called, Accurate Imports, was able to inspect my car that day, spending about 2 hours and coming up with an exhaustive list totaling about $2k in repairs.  Ouch.  However, they only charged my $10 for pulling a nail out of the tire and patching it – diagnostics and estimate were free.  At this point I decided I should get one or two more estimates before dropping that kind of cash.  The second place I visited, European American Motors, did a brief inspection, charging me $56 for check engine light diagnostic and listing similar items (although not as complete as the first, but they acknowledged they need to hoist up for a thorough check and did not have time that day).  The third shop, Chicago Import Service, did not have time to see me till the following Tuesday.  I was there for almost 2 hours and they didn’t find much wrong at all, charging me $95 for one hour’s worth of labor.

All three shops reported the engine light turned on because of a lean fuel condition, with AI and CIS saying they weren’t sure exactly what caused it but thought replacing the fuel filter might solve it.  EAM indicated the Mass Air Flow Sensor needed to be replaced.

Here is a breakdown of cost estimates, with the forth column being my San Francisco shop, Advanced Audi – VW.

Labor Rate $90/hr $80/hr $95/hr $100/hr
Check Engine Light (actual cost) $0 $56 $95
Replace Fuel Filter & clean Fuel Injection System $126
Replace Fuel Filter $61 $67
Fuel Injection System Test and Clean $112
2 front tires bald, replace all 4 with all-season $420 noticed noticed
Serpentine Belt Dryrodding $154 $144
Replace inner tie rods in front $368 noticed noticed
Fix Oil Pan Leaking $268 noticed
Oil Cooler O-Ring Leaking $95
Thermostat Housing Leaking Coolant $240 noticed
Water Outlet (same as above?) $132
Rear Brakes Down 10-15%, replace rotors $290
Oil Cooler O-Ring Leaking $95
Mass Air Flow (MAF) Sensor $258 replaced 9/2007

First, I want to point out all 3 shops are good – they all gave written estimates and communicated clearly, answering questions intelligently when I probed a bit deeper.  Joe and Oscar at AI were the best at explaining, Rudy at EAM gave the most detailed written estimate, and Alex at CIS was above average compared to mechanics in general.

Which is better?  Not an easy question to answer.  However, both AI and EAM found problems with the Serpentine Belt and emphasized that it should be the first thing to be fixed.  CIS did not mention this, plus charged the most for labor including an initial hour fee, so I would not recommend them.  I liked EAM because Rudy seemed the most knowledgeable mechanic, plus they were a bit cheaper.  At the same time, I don’t entirely trust Rudy when he told me I needed to spend $260 to replace my MAF sensor, which i did about a year earlier (There are lots of reports of MAF sensors being replaced unnecessarily).  I went with AI because they were the most thorough, which is most important.  They are not the cheapest, but they listed items my SF mechanic mentioned when I had my VW checked in July, 2008.  Plus they were great communicators, seemed experienced, were knowledgeable, and appeared quite trustworthy.

12/12 Update – AI did the job as expected, about $2,000 (half in labor, half for parts).  I mentioned the Mass Air Flow Sensor, and their response was that the engine light code was for lean-fuel, MAF has a different code.  They also pointed out that the MAF has little wires that are sensitive and can get dirty, causing it to appear broken but often it just needs a little cleaning.