Cowboys had their horses, pioneers had wagons. But in modern America, your car is probably your ride of choice, the transport option that takes you here, there, and everywhere—from work to that upcoming family road trip to, heck, a film festival of old Westerns. When your car breaks down or acts up, it’s a major inconvenience—and can be a major expense. That’s why finding a good mechanic or repair shop is so important. A good outfit will perform top-quality work quickly and at a good price, getting you back on the road. Still, many repair shops disappoint their customers with lousy work, long delays, and inaccurate estimates.

We’ve evaluated hundreds of Boston area shops, based on more than 13,500 ratings we collected by surveying area consumers, a review of consumer-agency complaint records, more than 1,100 price checks, and other sources.

What Do the Shop's Customers Say About It?

When they need car repairs, most consumers ask their friends for suggestions. The ratings from our surveys of consumers, reported on our Ratings Tables, let you check the experiences thousands of customers have had with area auto repair shops.

The ratings on shops’ service quality come from our surveys of area consumers, who were primarily Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, but also other randomly selected consumers we invited to participate. Our survey asked consumers to rate shops they had used “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” “advice on service options and costs,” and “overall quality.”

Our Ratings Tables report results for all shops that received at least 10 ratings on these surveys. We show the percent of each shop’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” on each question (as opposed to “inferior” or “adequate”), plus the percent of each shop’s customers who rated it “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for overall quality. Click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.

Clearly, many shops make a lot of their customers miserable. Dozens of the businesses listed in our Ratings Tables were rated “superior” for “overall quality” by fewer than 60 percent of their surveyed customers. But there are also many great shops out there: Many other shops were rated “superior” for overall quality by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers.

Does It Have a History of Complaints?

While customers might have given shops less-than-rave reviews based on fairly minor issues, filing a formal complaint with a consumer agency usually reflects serious dissatisfaction.

Our Ratings Tables show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do.

Although the BBB categorizes complaints it receives into broad categories, these categories don’t separate out complaints relating to auto repair work. For all of the shops on our Ratings Tables, we have included those complaints that fell into the problems with the BBB’s “product/service” category, which accounted for the most complaints filed against independent repair shops. We did not count complaints that were categorized as relating to advertising/sales, billing/collection, delivery, or guarantee/warranty issues. Click here for more information on reported complaint counts and rates.

Consumer complaint information can be a meaningful indicator of quality: There is a correlation between the number of complaints and scores on our customer survey. Shops with no complaints on file were rated “superior” for “overall quality” by 89 percent of their surveyed customers, on average; shops with five or more complaints were rated “superior” for “overall quality” by only 64 percent of their surveyed customers.

Are Dealers Better Than Non-Dealers?

In our Ratings Tables, you can filter listings to view only companies that perform warranty work for car manufacturers, which indicates which shops belong to new-car dealerships.

As you can see from the figure below, when we compare dealers to non-dealers on results from our surveys of consumers and on price, non-dealers scored better on all measures.

Our advice: Unless the work you need is covered by a new-car warranty or manufacturer recall, use an independent shop, not a dealership.

Except for getting free in-warranty repairs, there’s little reason to use a dealer’s repair shop. Many consumers believe dealers have access to proprietary knowledge, sophisticated diagnostic software, and better tools than independent garages. That’s not true. Both kinds of shops subscribe to the same databases—for example, Identifix and ShopKey—that detail repair instructions, diagrams, and news from manufacturers. Although many car dealerships feature spacious, nifty-looking workstations, independents have access to the same tools and equipment. Despite what dealerships would have you believe, local garages can access the same information, software, and equipment.

Dealers’ quality scores may suffer somewhat because they tackle harder jobs. They argue that they get blamed for manufacturing defects, tend to work on new cars (which owners are pickier about), and get jobs too difficult for independents to handle. But after analyzing actual success rates on emissions-related repairs (as evaluated by state inspectors), we find independents perform substantially better than dealerships.

Should I Insist on a Certified Mechanic?

Another way to gauge shop quality is to check on mechanic training. To become certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), a mechanic must have worked in the automotive service field for at least two years and pass at least one of the tests offered by ASE. A technician can become certified in any or all of nine automotive service categories. Certification is not easy—about one-third of the tests taken are failed—but nearly 200,000 automobile repair technicians nationwide are currently certified. Technicians who become certified in eight of the nine categories receive Master Technician certification, which nearly 70,000 mechanics across the country have. To remain certified, technicians must pass recertification exams every five years.

Because the ASE program seems well-conceived and well-managed, we advise you to use a certified mechanic. But keep in mind that while ASE certification establishes that mechanics are competent, it doesn’t tell you anything about their diligence and honesty. And even if all of a shop’s mechanics are ASE-certified, that doesn’t ensure they’re great at communicating with customers.

Should I Look for AAA Approval?

The American Automobile Association (AAA) approves shops by checking for a range of equipment and customer conveniences, staffing qualifications, quality control and environmental procedures, and complaint records at local consumer agencies. AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities must guarantee work they do for AAA members for a minimum of 24 months or 24,000 miles (whichever comes first) and agree to AAA-led arbitration of any complaints.

Although the AAA program appears to be well-conceived, AAA Approved shops were rated slightly lower than non-approved shops on our customer surveys. And AAA Approved shops may charge more than non-approved ones: Approved shops had slightly higher price comparison scores (described below), on average, than non-approved shops.

Does the Shop Have Customer-Friendly Business Practices?

The best shops have procedures to foster good communication with customers and avoid disagreements.

One important policy is letting you speak directly with the technician who will be working on your car. Service write-up personnel at dealerships and large shops often know little about repairs, and may not be able to describe your car’s symptoms to a mechanic as well as you can. If you can’t easily explain a weird noise or problem, take the technician for a ride to point it out. A nationwide auto repair shop study found that vehicle return rates (to fix improper repairs) were about one-third lower if a customer had dealt with the repair technician rather than a service writer.

Also ask if the shop will let you test drive your car before you pay. This can help you avoid hassles if you find a problem later.

Finally, be sure the shop lets you follow basic good business practices—getting an estimate in advance, inspecting replaced parts, and receiving a detailed invoice. Local laws and regulations for the most part give consumers the right to demand these practices.

How Can I Check on Prices?

Because you often don’t know exactly what needs to be done until your car is at the shop, it’s difficult to determine whether the shop charges fair prices.

To help you find shops with low prices, our Ratings Tables report our price comparison score for each shop. To calculate these scores, our undercover shoppers called shops to get their prices for specific repairs (for example, replace the water pump for a 2014 Ford Escape Titanium AWD using OEM parts). The scores show how each shop compared to the average price quoted for the same repairs. We set the average at $100. If two shops quoted on the same repairs, and one shop has a price comparison score of $120 while a second shop has a score of $100, it means the first shop’s quotes were 20 percent higher than the second shop’s. For many of the repairs we checked, some shops charged twice as much as nearby competitors.

A striking observation about the data we collected: Choosing a low-priced shop doesn’t mean you’ll get lousy work. In fact, low-priced shops were more likely to receive high marks from their surveyed customers than high-priced shops. As the figure below shows, shops with price comparison scores of less than $87 were rated “superior” for “doing work properly on the first try” by 88 percent of their surveyed customers, on average, while shops with price comparison scores above $113 received such favorable ratings from only 70 percent of their surveyed customers.

For more information on shop's prices, read our article on how to avoid getting taken for a ride.